October is always an eventful month for the Bar Council; this year even more so – and not just in light of recent political events, including the government stating its intention to breach international law ‘in a specific and limited way’ through the Internal Market Bill, and the Attorney General’s recent appearance at the last Bar Council meeting and AGM. By the time you read this we will have launched the inaugural Bar Council Leadership Programme which we have been working to set up all year. It is a scheme, I believe, that will herald a new dawn in what it really means to have an inclusive profession from bottom to top.

The Leadership Programme provides an eight-month personal and professional development opportunity for 36 barristers, between seven and 15 years of practice. We aim to focus on those barristers who have been established through the young Bar years and, with the benefit of that experience, now face the prospect of consolidating and growing their practice and position. The alumni of the programme will spread their new-found skills and outlook, providing role models for their colleagues, their chambers and their Circuits. 

Participants will learn to make the best of themselves, meet, learn from and influence a cohort of existing leaders, and gain the confidence and skills to shape the culture of the Bar and form a powerful network of new leaders, now and in the future. In this inaugural and extraordinary year, when challenges for the Bar have been rife, the Bar Council is introducing the programme entirely online. Although in one sense this was inevitable in the pandemic, a huge advantage is that geographic location is no deterrent for barristers taking part across all the Circuits. 

In short, we want to wave a long overdue goodbye to any perceptions of an ‘old boys’ club’ at the top of the Bar. It does not reflect the reality of a modern profession, nor the future we want to see. Barristers must reflect the society they serve and be trusted by the public, so we all have a key role to play – individually and collectively – in shaping, defining and strengthening a culture of inclusion. Creating such a culture requires leadership and a shared sense of purpose. If this sounds like something you want to be a part of, please apply. In recognition of the difficulties the pandemic has presented, it will also be free of charge in 2020. All the details and application form can be found here. (The deadline to submit your application is 17:00 on Friday 2 October 2020.) 

October is a particularly pertinent time to be thinking about the future leadership of our profession and the culture we want to foster going forward, as we celebrate Black History Month. In 2020 BHM encourages us to ‘dig deeper, look closer, think bigger’. It is essential that the conversations we have had on the realities of racism and discrimination do not fade into obscurity. We know that Black barristers typically work in practice areas which are less well remunerated and they are suffering more than their white colleagues from the impact of COVID-19. More generally, I have previously set out how underrepresented Black barristers are in our profession, particularly at the most senior levels: only 1.1% of QCs are from a Black/Black British background, according to BSB statistics, way below the percentage of the population. We must take positive steps to change that, starting with pupillages and right the way through to the top.

I hope our Leadership Programme provides just one opportunity to begin to change this disheartening reality in a tangible way, alongside sector-wide initiatives already in place such as PAJE. We set up the Bar Council’s Race Working Group in the summer and it has also been working at speed on various issues, including practical guidance to help chambers and those across the Bar to tackle head-on things like unconscious bias and microaggressions, and raise awareness of race equality issues. It is encouraging that so many are now reviewing what they can do to tackle the disadvantages faced by Black barristers. We are delighted to be working with the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks and Legal Practice Management Association, SBAs and Circuits. The Race Working Group includes barristers from all levels of call, areas of practice and parts of the country. It is a truly nationwide effort. With equal opportunity and sustained support for barristers regardless of race and background, the Bar will grow from strength to strength, become more attractive as a profession and feel more accessible to the public. That is all to the good.  

We are sharing more details of our race-related work throughout Black History Month. We will be giving our platform to the work of many excellent diversity groups across the Bar including local Circuit ones that you may not already be aware of. Do keep an eye on the Bar Council’s social media channels and fortnightly e-newsletter, BarTalk, to see what is planned. Visibility and awareness, combined with practical, ongoing support addressing the specific barriers holding Black barristers back, are essential to any chance of true diversity and inclusion in our profession.

So, as much as Black History Month acknowledges the struggles and challenges that those from a Black/Black British background have faced, and is a reminder of the work still to do, it is also a moment to look to the future with hope and, at the Bar, with a drive for change.