On 2 October 2023, the Inns of Court Women’s Alliance (ICAW) hosted an event that cast a spotlight on the obstacles to success for Black female barristers. Titled Black Women Barristers at the Bar: Challenges Faced and A Fairer Future, and expertly chaired by HHJ Sapnara, the event featured a distinguished panel of speakers, including Barbara Mills KC, Nneka Akudolu KC, Elaine Banton, Abimbola Johnson and Natasha Shotunde.

Barbara Mills KC, a family specialist and Vice Chair of the Bar, initiated the conversation with the unique ‘visibility paradox’ Black women face in law: often overlooked for career advancement yet conspicuously visible due to their minority status. She underscored this with compelling data, revealing stark disparities in income and workplace experiences. Black women, she noted, are among the least paid and most subjected to bullying and harassment in the legal profession.

Elaine Banton, an employment and human rights barrister, resonated with Mills’ observations. The underpayment and lack of advancement are interconnected issues, influenced by how Black female barristers are perceived and treated in the legal system. The biases Black women barristers encounter from clerks, judges and clients create a scenario where Black women must work doubly hard for recognition and success. While access to the Bar had improved, significant challenges in retention and progression remained.

Alarming statistics on Black silks and judicial appointments were presented by Natasha Shotunde, family barrister and Chair of the Black Barristers’ Network. Among the total of 2,052 silks in 2023, the disparity is glaring – only 7 Black female silks and 18 Black male silks; and 4 mixed Black and other ethnicity female silks, alongside 6 mixed Black and other ethnicity male silks. In stark contrast, there are 339 White female silks and 25 Asian female silks. The numbers speak volumes.

Moving on to judicial appointments, the situation was no brighter. Despite Black candidates being overrepresented in the pool of eligible candidates, their actual recommendation for appointment remains disproportionately low. Specifically, the likelihood of a Black candidate moving from the eligible pool to a recommendation was 58% lower compared to their White counterparts.

The personal narratives of criminal silk Nneka Akudolu KC and Shotunde were a reminder that the journey for Black women in the legal profession is often fraught with challenges from the outset. As the sole Black pupil in her cohort, Akudolu faced a unique set of challenges. She juggled the demands of being a single mother to a two-year-old while navigating a demanding pupillage. Her experience was punctuated by frequent mispronunciations of her name, and instances of being mistaken for other Black women, even when not present in the same courtroom. These seemingly small incidents, Akudolu noted, could have been avoided with a little more care and attention.

Shotunde shared her own struggles during pupillage, marked by feelings of loneliness, confusion, and a sense of not belonging. Describing her experience as traumatic, it was this backdrop that led to the establishment of the Black Barristers’ Network, an initiative aimed at bolstering support and increasing visibility for Black barristers.

In contrast, Abimbola Johnson’s experience presented a more positive outlook. Johnson is an award-winning human rights barrister and Chair of the Independent Scrutiny and Oversight Board. Reflecting on her journey, Johnson felt somewhat shielded from the adversities mentioned by Shotunde and Akudolu. She attributed this to the generational progress and the advantage of being in a chambers where Black female barristers were present at various levels – above, alongside, and below her. Mentors from various backgrounds played a crucial role in her career development.

The underrepresentation of Black barristers is stark, especially in certain legal areas. Johnson noted the absence of Black counsel in fraud courts, despite crime being viewed as a more diverse area of law. She shared experiences from her Bar school cohort, revealing that many of her colleagues in civil law encountered overt racism in court, contrasting this with her experience in criminal law. Mills shared her unique position in family law, often finding herself as the sole Black female silk in her field. Banton painted a stark picture of racial homogeneity persisting in parts of the civil and employment law. She highlighted the pronounced scarcity of Black barristers in civil areas, the lack of barristers being instructed by Magic Circle firms, and the fact that certain sets have never had a Black barrister.

The panel provided a multifaceted perspective on the role of solicitors. Akudolu agreed with observations regarding the reluctance of some solicitors to appoint Black barristers. Johnson shared varied experiences: witnessing Black solicitors actively choosing Black barristers, instances where Black solicitors expected Black barristers to provide specific advice based on their race, and even situations where Black solicitors refrained from instructing Black barristers. Mills emphasised the critical role of solicitors in educating their clients on the barrister’s professional merits and the unique value they can add.

When the conversation shifted to diversity in the clerks’ rooms, Akudolu pointed to the palpable lack of diversity in these spaces, noting the few instances of Black individuals in senior positions. This lack of diversity can lead to a lack of understanding, which is significant given the crucial role clerks play in work allocation and career management. Shotunde addressed the complexities of work allocation in chambers, calling for open dialogues between barristers and clerks.

The discussion at the event underscored the necessity of a comprehensive approach to address representation issues in the legal system. It goes beyond merely increasing the number of Black barristers; tackling the challenges of representation and diversity in the legal profession demands a concerted effort from judges, barristers, solicitors, clerks and clients alike. 

The panel did more than provide a detailed examination of the experiences of Black women at the Bar, backed by compelling data. They also imparted crucial advice and guidance for other Black women navigating the intricacies of the legal profession.
  • Believe in your place at the Bar. There’s a place for you here. You belong.
  • Build a diverse professional network of mentors who can offer different perspectives and insights, offer guidance, advocate for you, and help you navigate the profession effectively.
  • Don’t solely rely on your clerks. Network and proactively forge relationships to create opportunities for yourself. Consider direct access work and learn how to manage such arrangements.
  • Have candid discussions with your clerks about your career aspirations. Clear communication about your professional goals is key to ensuring you are not typecast into limited roles or specific case types.
  • Step outside your immediate legal environment by taking on secondments and external work. These opportunities can broaden your experience, skills, and exposure, contributing significantly to professional growth.
  • Strategically plan your career to gain exposure to high-profile and intellectually challenging areas of law. This approach can open doors to more lucrative opportunities and foster a more dynamic legal practice.
  • Diversify your practice area. Exploring and gaining experience in different legal fields can provide a broader base of skills and open up new opportunities.
  • Take care of your physical and mental health. Make time for yourself, your loved ones, and your hobbies. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling.
  • Recognise and celebrate your accomplishments, both big and small.

The video of Black Women Barristers at the Bar: Challenges Faced and A Fairer Future is available on the Middle Temple YouTube channel

A packed event: the panellists’ view. © Stephen Lue

With thanks to Stephen Lue for photographing the event.