‘Access to opportunity drives much of what I do,’ explains Barbara Mills KC. We meet online in June; me with feisty grandchildren, buckets and spades in Brittany, and with Barbara hard at work in London. It is just a few weeks since her historic election as Vice Chair-elect of the Bar. In addition, Barbara is joint Head of Chambers of 4PB, one of the leading family law sets in England and Wales, a Recorder approved to sit as a Deputy High Court Judge, Co-Chair of the Bar Council’s Race Working Group, Co-Editor of The International Family Law Journal and a Governing Bencher of Inner Temple.

How did it all begin? Barbara tells me that when she was a teenager, her mother successfully applied for assistance from a charitable foundation. ‘Its pledge to “educate and guide” enabled me to attend a private girls’ boarding school, then university and Bar School, and ended only when I obtained pupillage. The support was as focused as it was sustained, and never wavered.’

What did those formative years teach her? ‘My school opened my eyes to me – who I am and who I could be – providing endless possibilities, allowing me to explore new avenues and focus on what I was good at. The “can do” spirit of the place allowed me to believe that anything I dreamed of was possible, provided I worked hard. It taught me many things, in particular that talent on its own is not enough – it requires access to all available opportunities.’

I ask about her experience as a Black woman embarking on a career at the Bar 33 years ago and her answer is grounded in history: ‘In many ways, my experience was how it has always been and, to some extent, continues to be. Can we go back a step and set out the bigger picture before talking about me?’

There ensues a fascinating account of her search of the records, a few years ago, to find something of the history of access to the profession.

‘The first record of a Black barrister is of a man called Christian Frederick Cole,’ Barbara says. ‘He was born and raised in Sierre Leone, and moved to England in 1879 having secured a much-coveted place to study law at Oxford University. He was said to be so brilliant that he supported himself by providing tutoring for his peers. They passed their exams and went on to secure pupillage. Despite his obvious talent and famous success as a tutor, records suggest that he himself only just managed to receive a pass in his exams.’

Cole was called to the Bar in 1884. He struggled to find his feet. ‘He made news simply by attending court and he faced many obstacles and tremendous pressure. In the end, it seems those struggles drove him away from the Bar as he could not make ends meet.

‘This journey – a struggle to arrive, followed by impossible obstacles leading to exodus – continues to be the experience of many who come to the profession from underrepresented backgrounds. We must stop looking away from scrutiny of the structure itself as a reason for this.’

Barbara studied at the University of Hull, secured a place at the Inns of Court School of Law in London and then won a pupillage at her current set, based at that time in the Temple and known as 4 Paper Buildings. ‘So, despite many obstacles in securing pupillage, for me access was fairly straightforward, but the real challenge was in getting work and making a life for myself as a Black woman without the benefit of any prior connection with anyone in the profession.’

What encouraged her to stay and helped her thrive? ‘Three things: my ability to put on blinkers to shut out the harsh realities of a world that would otherwise have convinced me I did not belong; my capacity to work twice as hard as my peers; and a few amazing allies – from clerks to other barristers – who cheered me on and willed me to stay.’

I ask about attitudes to wellbeing at the Bar in those days, observing that the very nature of the profession is antipathetic towards wellbeing, because of its inherent stresses.

‘We didn’t have a clue about wellbeing then. If you had a bad day at court, someone was bound to offer a suggestion which involved having a drink and “moving on”. As young women, we were often cautioned against having children or if you did, to turn yourself around and come back to work as soon as possible after the baby. I remember how horrified I was as a pupil when a senior barrister gave me her “top tip”, which was that she had only taken six weeks off with each of her three children.

‘Happily, we are much more mindful now of the need to have a good work-life balance so we can build a sustainable career.’ She describes recent initiatives such as the leaders’ video on the importance of wellbeing as ‘very welcome’, but says further strides must be taken: ‘We need to arrive at a place where the provision of wellbeing is regarded as a necessary pillar of support for every barrister – as important and non-negotiable as having insurance or securing an accountant.’

We turn to the challenges the Bar faces and her priorities for 2024. ‘My attention as Vice Chair will be focused on two areas: first, to raise the profile of the publicly funded Family Bar and secondly, to continue the work on EDI [equality, diversity and inclusivity].

‘About 12.5% of the 17,000 practising barristers are family lawyers. The Family Bar, its publicly funded section in particular, continues to face serious challenge. Politicians and the media are now well versed in the issues facing criminal practitioners. Accordingly, without diluting or minimising those issues, it is now time to raise the voice of the Family Bar. The issues we face in terms of legal aid rates and the crumbling court estate affect us all and, as we stand together, if we get it right for one sector, we all thrive.’

These issues have not been ignored over the years but for Barbara there will be a different and particular emphasis as she is the first specialist family law barrister in the role since Robert Johnson QC who was Chair of the Bar in 1988 – 35 years ago, and two years before Barbara was called to the Bar.

On 5 January 2023, the government announced a Civil and Family Legal Aid Review which is due to report in 2024. ‘External calls for the profession to change that are sustainable, well-reasoned and fair are welcome, but change which is imposed, ill thought out, unfair or compromises the wellbeing of hard-working professionals requires a strong and sustained challenge from the Bar,’ she comments.

I suggest that a Chair who is a civil practitioner [Sam Townend KC] and a Vice Chair who is a family practitioner will form a formidable duo in this regard. ‘Yes, we are well-placed to scrutinise all proposals to ensure that they are efficient, effective, sustainable. [This means] remuneration at proper levels to prevent the exodus of talented barristers who refuse reasonably to do this difficult work for disrespectful and derisory fees; and a structure which includes provision for early advice to enable litigants to be informed of their rights and best forum for their dispute such as mediation or arbitration. This will save court time and money, and make space for those more challenging, complex and intractable of cases.’

On to EDI where the picture as far as progress is concerned is mixed: ‘The Bar must strive, dynamically, to resemble the public it serves,’ she says. ‘This will instil confidence in the public and assist them to recognise the vital role of barristers.

‘There is much to celebrate. For example, this year’s election for Vice Chair was – for the first time in Bar Council history – between two women. To stand on the election platform with the brilliant and highly respected Kirsty Brimelow KC was an absolute privilege. Dame Sue Carr DBE is to be the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales from 1 October 2023. This will be the first time a woman has held a post which dates back to the 13th Century. What is also fabulous is that only two people – both women – applied for the job.’

She is clear that we cannot be complacent: ‘Female barristers continue to leave the profession indefinitely and in higher numbers than our male counterparts. We must do more to find out who is leaving and why, and formulate clear and workable proposals to encourage them back. There are still real struggles for many – from access to retention to belonging – all of which require our continued focus.’

What can be done about barristers who have lost confidence in the Bar Council? Her response is convincing: ‘We must first accept that, despite Bar Council’s best efforts, there is a disconnect. We should not, for example, have to convince members to pay the Bar Representation Fee. It is now accepted that some of the resistance is due to a lack of understanding about what it is used for, so we improve the messaging. We also need to shine more light on what the Bar Council does, who we are, how we represent the interests of our members, and how barristers can get involved.’

She suggests that the social media interest generated during these elections needs to be capitalised upon. ‘I cannot tell you how many people outside of Bar Council asked me what the Chair does, how to get involved, who had voting rights and why they had them.’

The other piece of the jigsaw is busting the myth that Bar Council is only interested in London-based self-employed barristers. ‘Since I have been on the Bar Council, and when in touch with colleagues nationally, I discovered many on Circuit and at the Employed Bar who feel completely disconnected.

‘There is an impression that the Bar Council, although doing the best it can, still doesn’t really represent all barristers it serves. There is something about our profession which makes people, and not just those from underrepresented backgrounds, feel as though somehow they don’t belong. The key for me is close dialogue with Circuit Leaders and the Chair and Vice Chairs of the Employed Barristers’ Committee and its members to ensure creative and meaningful changes are implemented.’

Should we have more of a career judiciary such as exists in continental countries? Her response is wise: ‘The overall makeup of the judiciary continues to concern many of us and ways to improve its diversity have been discussed as long as I can remember. It is now clear, and accepted, that in order to have the greatest participation within society, all institutions must reflect far better the society they serve. I am all for innovative ways to improve the makeup of the current pool of judges... the continental approach may bear fruit, but we must be careful we don’t misstep. And we will misstep if we don’t question the current system and why it has failed so far to deliver.’

Barbara refers to the latest Diversity of the Judiciary Statistics. ‘The statistician notes that women are well represented at various stages of the judiciary but tend to be underrepresented in the more senior roles. Also, while there is no evidence of disparity in the appointments process from eligible pool to recommendation between ethnic minorities overall, individuals from an Asian/Asian British or Black/Black British background are less likely to be recommended for appointment relative to White candidates. We have to accept and understand what these observations tell us about our current system and how it works. Without that and immediate action we will remain where we are, whatever seemingly innovative and creative solutions we come up with.’

I ask what advice she would give to a woman of colour who wanted to come to the Bar. She answers with alacrity: ‘First, put your blinkers on and ear plugs in to drown out those who will tell you that it is, “too hard” or “not for you”. If you want it, there is no reason why it is not a profession for you. You must take your CV seriously. Be as highly qualified as you can be. Quality in terms of qualifications and expertise is irrefutable. Be strategic from the very beginning, and aim to secure internships, mini pupillages and funding. There is much help these days: 10K Black Interns and Bridging the Bar for work experience, together with scholarships and awards in particular from the Inns, Circuits and specialist Bar associations for financial assistance.

‘It can be a lonely and very opaque journey. So, find your tribe which includes a “mentor plus”, someone willing to be with you and sponsor you throughout the long walk of your career. Be prepared to work hard, and know what hard work looks like. It doesn’t mean working until three o’clock in the morning every day, but working efficiently and well.

‘Finally, tough as it may be, you must work to eliminate any feelings that you are an imposter. Get involved – active participation in all aspects of life at the Bar has helped many to combat feelings of being “on the outside”.’

Circling back to wellbeing and the all-important work-life balance, I ask Barbara what she does to relax. ‘I love walking. I am not a fair-weather walker, so get out most days either before or after work. I am most content on the rare days when I get a walk in at both the start and the end of the day. Generally, I walk at least five kilometres, sometimes with music, sometimes with an audio book or podcast and sometimes with no noise at all; when the day is expected to be or has been hectic what I need is to just stay with my breath and allow the rhythm of walking to bring calm and serenity. Bliss!’

How did she feel when she heard the news she had been elected 2024 Vice Chair of the Bar? ‘Malcolm [Cree, Bar Council Chief Executive] called to let me know just a little after midday on 19 May 2023. It was a big day for me as I had just stepped off the stage after delivering the keynote speech alongside the President of the Family Division at Resolution’s National Conference. The news brought with it a mix of emotions. Ever since Baroness Hallett took the Chair in 1998 when I was a junior barrister, I had dreamt of occupying that seat. So first and foremost, it was a dream realised (almost!) and I was elated.

‘The glass ceiling maybe invisible but it is real, it is hard, and it is felt. Within an hour or so, what had happened began to sink in – fully and properly – a little crack in that ceiling perhaps that will let in the light of possibility and hope for so many. As such, being the “first” is always challenging and carries with it a huge responsibility which I find deeply humbling. So, alongside the elation and euphoria was a healthy dollop of reality. By that evening, the weight of responsibility had joined the other emotions.’

How is she feeling now? ‘I am excited and energised to continue to be of service. It is a complete privilege and I intend to work as hard as I possibly can to represent the profession as well as I can.’

Barbara’s reactions are understandable. I was called to the Bar in 1975 – a time when many sets made no secret of their rigid refusal to accept pupils or tenants from ethnic minorities. Indeed, some 15 years earlier, it was quite common for some chambers to refuse Jewish barristers as tenants. If 48 years ago, I had asked any member of the Bar Council what they thought of the idea of a Black woman becoming Vice Chair, there may have been bewildered incomprehension and even gales of laughter. We have come a long way since then, but of course we all know that there is far further to travel. 

© Wikipedia/CC/Owen Massey McKnight
Plaque commemorating Christian Cole, the first Black barrister called to the Bar of England and Wales, in Logic Lane, University College, Oxford.