A rounded advocate: Sally Penni MBE

Recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for her services to diversity in the workplace, social mobility and law, Sally Penni MBE talks about her projects outside the courtroom and her driving forces

For many of us, COVID-19 and the associated practice lull presented the opportunity to reflect upon life and practice. I couldn’t quite believe that this October was the 20th anniversary of my call to the Bar. I was also amazed, and flattered, to be considered by Counsel magazine as a Legal Personality. I really do not consider myself as such. Perhaps that is my imposter syndrome kicking in; in my head, I am a short Black woman with three children juggling many balls to maintain a practice. I do not have a stay at home husband, a housekeeper or a long list of help! I am a woman in her 40s who cares about access to justice, doing a job I love, the retention of women and men at the Bar, and the wellbeing of the profession.

Helena Kennedy QChas been a role model to me ever since I read Eve Was Framed. Her ability to raise three children and have a practice while pursuing impactful projects outside the courtroom is something I have always greatly admired.

So, on to my own projects that I run alongside my criminal practice and what I hope to achieve. The short answer is to make a small difference. My extra-curricular activities are born out of personal circumstances; namely cancer, and not mine but that of my child. Childbirth is traumatic enough without another huge health issue. My podcast interviews (see below) with Miriam Gonzalez and Helena are poignant reminders for me of being a rounded advocate.

Women in the Law UK started as an annual dinner with an inspiring guest speaker to an audience of women and men in Manchester. The aim was to create some headspace in the law, and to inspire. The annual dinners grew and grew and in 2019 we had almost 500 people in attendance, celebrating 100 years since women were allowed to practise law. I am so pleased our history has been wonderfully recorded by Dana Denis-Smith who started First 100 Years; a truly brilliant project.

At the beginning of that anniversary year, I started a podcast series called Talking Law. I didn’t want to talk about significant legal cases but rather the human stories behind the law. I have interviewed a vast range of people, from the Secret Barrister to Gina Miller. We now have over 25K listeners and downloads. The aim, as for Women in the Law UK, is to provide inspiration and headspace. Our listeners range from students to High Court judges.

The podcast spawned a book, Talking Law. It is right to celebrate 100 years and that things are so much better for women, but it is also right to highlight the many challenges still present; not least for Black women practising law. The book contains interviews with people in the legal profession now – ‘ordinary’ people from different sectors and non-traditional backgrounds. Some have left the law but remained linked to it in other ways, as lecturers or in marketing or alternative business models.

Talking Law volume two will be The Podcast Diaries, out this Christmas; a transcript of all the podcasts with extra chapters on wellbeing at the Bar, resilience and financial wellbeing, and what we can learn from Black Lives Matter, in the legal profession.

The podcasts have even led to a spot on Times Radio. I may not be Lord Sumption QC, Radio 4’s regular legal commentator, but you can listen to me every three weeks on Times Radio. It is a bit of fun; something I enjoy before court and a progression from BBC Radio Manchester.

Lockdown was a challenge for us all. Many barristers, men and women, in addition to working remotely and being shouted at by judges frustrated at the technology, became teachers, full-time cooks, and cleaners. I think a lot of us longed for a return to court, not least to escape the domestic duties. Perhaps that was just our family shielding. If I could have grown a beard like my male colleagues to break the monotony I would have, but even I know my limitations!

As home schooling got more testing, my daughter and I decided to write a children’s book, Rosie and the Unicorn. Well, it was her idea. It shows heroines can be from anywhere, they can have brown skin, and that women of colour can hold their own in court. All profits from the book go to three brilliant charities: NHS Charities, Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital and mental health charity Young Minds. We even had a letter from Her Majesty the Queen who enjoyed reading the book and we were featured on various national news channels.

How do I keep going? In essence, I believe in giving back. I have judged moots for my Inn, taught advocacy for many years now and am constantly inspired and encouraged by those on our Circuit which has some of the best advocates in the country. Other work has included, for over 10 years now, organising Bar mock trials for Manchester by Citizenship Foundation. It is so important for young people to see socially mobile, BAME and women advocates and judges. A balanced view is always important in life.

I got each of my projects off the ground through sheer hard work and a desire to build a network that was not a clique; supportive and inclusive, and friendly not exclusive. Somewhere everybody knows your name, if you forgive the cliché. For me, men and women are welcome. I have long said men and women are like left and right hands. We need both to drive change and this means male as well as female mentors. So I built a platform where we can all have a voice and talk about issues relevant to women in law, as well as encourage professional development and wellbeing. In truth, the demand was there. People just came and were attracted to these values. I hope the organisation and our work continues to grow.

How do all these projects interlink? Well, they fall under diversity, retention and wellness. If we can encourage more talented women and men, especially at the publicly funded Bar, then we are all winning. If we help the profession look more balanced and equal and attractive to our daughters and sons to enter, then we should all be pleased. If through training and development we help women and ethnic minorities stay in the law, advance to the senior leadership roles in the judiciary, the Inns, as Treasury Counsel, as Category 4 Prosecutors, then that would be a good start. It is already happening with this generation of young people and the BLM movement has illustrated the greater need for us to have these conversations.

I have not given much thought to the impact of my work before. My dear friend the late John Broadley, JB, who died in August this year and I miss dearly used to say, ‘Dear girl, love the job and the Circuit and the rest will follow.’ The truth is I care about our profession. I care about people. If anything that I am doing as a Black woman practising in the North of England inspires boys and girls and encourages others then I will be delighted with that.

Much work has been done in the profession on diversity, women and social mobility but it is not enough. I fear the COVID-19 pandemic will make a huge impact on diversity at the Bar and Bench as well as on access to justice. However, I am hopeful. If I can make a difference between someone staying and leaving, then that is an achievement. A judge wrote to me recently, during a personally difficult time when imposter syndrome kicked in, to say, do not lose faith – you are having more impact than you think. It was a kind note from him.

As to the future, I have a few ambitions yet, but above all it’s health and family first. One thing is certain, I can’t wait to go back to doing trials. My first love was always the law, as an advocate, and though I care deeply about all of the above, nothing quite beats the intellectual stimulus of the job.

I hope my work does have, in a small way, some impact on people’s lives. If not, I am happy knowing that I am doing my best and that my three children at least, tell me they are really proud of me. That is sufficient impact for me.

Rosie and the Unicorn by Sally Penni and Maddie S-J is suitable for 3-11 year olds (£7.99) and available from Amazon

Proceeds from sales of Talking Law go to Lawcare, the Bar Benevolent Fund and the Inns Hardship Funds.
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Sally Penni

Sally Penni MBE is a practising barrister at Kenworthys Chambers, Manchester, on the Northern Circuit. She is also a member of the CBA’s Social Mobility Committee. She is the Founder of Women in the Law UK, an author, public speaker and a radio broadcaster. You can follow her on Twitter at @sallypenni1.