Sometimes I find myself skulking into the corner of a robing room. It is not necessarily a strange or foreign robing room and often is one local to me, that I have traversed a multitude of times. Yet still I skulk. I move through the room quietly, trying not to make eye contact with the “real” barristers and take myself off to the furthest back corner, silently removing my items from my case, fervently ensuring that I make the littlest noise possible; draw the least attention I can. It was not until quite recently, speaking to a few other members of the Bar at a similar level to myself, that I realised these were not actions uniquely attributable to my own sense of misfitting. Many, it would appear, have walked not only into robing rooms, but even into their own chambers and been met with the loud, rambunctious sounds of the “classic” Barristers, the Old Boys (OB) if you will, whose existence fills those of us who are not card-wielding members of the society with the need to turn into total wallflowers.
The interesting common thread I discovered of those who seemed to experience this odd, wall-flower phenomenon was that they were either female, identified as BAME and/or LGBTQ+ and were almost inevitably under 5 years of practice. It seems to me that this behaviour is a very literal example of the impostor syndrome that has become a prevalent topic of conversation among those of us practising at the Bar. Social mobility has become a buzz term at the Bar and rightly so. Much of our action focuses on the necessity to diversify and welcome different backgrounds, perspectives, lifestyles and personalities into a profession that has often appeared shut-off, opaque and unyielding. But what about those of us already trapped within the matrix?
Life at the Junior end is not easy, that is probably something all Barristers, regardless of practice area can agree upon. The hours are demanding, the work ever-increasingly difficult and in many areas, the remuneration simply insufficient. Most of us are very content to take that in our stride; after all, no one is forcing us to remain at the Bar. However, the social anxiety induced by walking into robing rooms that are dominated by a certain group at the Bar is something else entirely. That feeling of exclusion and that one’s opinion, view or even existence is not valued in that environment might well be the straw that breaks many a young barrister’s back.
There have been numerous occasions where myself or a fellow non-OB have voiced a remark or thought in response to what is clearly a robing room wide conversation only to be met with confused, somewhat condemning stares from the almost always all white, all over 40, all public school educated brethren. The OB’s are certainly not restricted to being “boys” either, but rather an archaic remnant of an old guard who range from the well-meaningly oblivious right through to the intentional bullies. It is hard to say what the solution is to this predicament faced by the young Bar, who often find themselves paralysed in these situations and unable to raise their discomfort or intimidation for fear of repercussion. One hopes that the influx of diverse, modern individuals into the junior end will eventually result in an overturn of the status quo. One prays that the recognition of impostor syndrome and attempts to combat it might serve to off-set these feelings of exclusion. One wishes that eventually those creating these insular groups, sometimes without malice or intent, will become alive to the very real impact of their exclusion. The activism and awareness we are seeing in more recent times will hopefully be the catalyst that will change the lives of both future and current young barristers. Not just for the benefit of those from non-traditional backgrounds, but for the benefit of us all.