‘It is harder today than when I came to the Bar for someone without financials to break through,’ says Cherie Blair CBE QC. We are chatting over Zoom in late June and Cherie is clearly still grateful for the grant she obtained from her local council to enable her to qualify as a barrister. ‘When I visit state schools to talk to students, they cannot believe that I grew up in a one-parent working-class family. “How is that possible?” they ask. “You were married to the Prime Minister.”’

Cherie feels lucky that she joined the Bar at a time when opportunities for a Liverpudlian working-class gal like her allowed her to enter the profession and thrive. ‘There was no specialisation at the Bar at that time,’ she tells me, ‘so one could turn one’s hand to employment or family or civil or crime. In essence, the common law set flourished.’ It was also a time of development for discrimination law and judicial review and ‘judicial review in turn led to a great deal of progress in so many areas of law such as immigration, mental health, education, and many, many more’.

She studied law at the London School of Economics and graduated with a first class degree. Called to the Bar in 1976, Cherie started her career at a chambers which was an amalgam of Northern silks. She went on to establish her first set of chambers along with George Carmen QC, Freddie Reynolds QC and Alastair Hill QC. In 1992 she joined 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square Chambers, took silk in 1995 and in 1999, was appointed a Recorder.

In 2000, Cherie left 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square to co-found the ground-breaking Matrix Chambers. She explains that she particularly wanted to experiment with the organisational and management structure of a chambers’ set-up, to run chambers in a more business-like, and less hierarchical, way. The Human Rights Act 1998 was being enacted and she also spotted an ‘opportunity to knock down some of the traditional barriers between criminal and civil work; to look at areas where the two disciplines crossed’. Regulatory changes at the time were also allowing for alternative business structures. ‘Different structures allowing for flexibility in how the Bar can [operate] are certainly to be welcomed, and constantly pursued, if we are to remain competitive – particularly in the arena of international commercial litigation,’ she says.

In 2015 she left Matrix in order to join Omnia Strategy LLP full-time, a law firm she co-founded in 2012. She is now Chair of Omnia, which her website describes as a ‘pioneering international law firm that provides strategic counsel to governments, corporates and private clients’ and from here she practises as a barrister, arbitrator and mediator.

I put to Cherie the suggestion that she accepts instructions from ‘dubious foreign governments’. (After our interview, I clock a piece in The Telegraph saying that she is working with the Serbian government.) Cherie makes the point that if one believes in the equality of arms at trial, and is prepared to represent murderers and rapists, then people living in countries who happen to have a bad government should equally not be disadvantaged, and have access to legal representation.

She references the cab rank rule. ‘It is a protection for barristers and certainly assisted me during my time in Number 10 [Downing Street].’ After all, clients choose their barristers, and the fact that she was representing someone did not mean that she endorsed their views, she says. ‘I am simply carrying out my professional obligation, in the areas in which I have expertise, to give advice without fear or favour. Your obligation is to the court and not anything else.’

While on the topic of Number 10, I want to ask Cherie whether, like Michelle Obama mentions in one of her podcasts, she too found support in a sisterhood of women during her Downing Street years (1997-2007). She enthusiastically agrees: ‘My experience is that women do support each other, and that it is one of our strengths. It is important that we acknowledge that strength.’ She points to the friendships shown her by Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush when her husband was Prime Minister. She is appreciative of the many men throughout her career who were also very helpful. And there is another support network for women that some might overlook, but not Cherie – her cleaner and nanny, who took on many of the roles that male barristers’ wives were doing.

Through the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, set up in 2008, she brings her passion for supporting women to another sphere of her multi-faceted life. She tells me how the foundation works with women entrepreneurs from low and middle income countries, providing them with access to networks, mentors and knowledge to enable them to grow their businesses and become financially independent.

Next, I want to explore Cherie’s views on three key areas for change and she is quick off the mark: equal pay; flexible working; and a reduction in violence against women. Cherie believes that equal pay is something that we, at the Bar, must address too. In terms of the court system, recent events have demonstrated that there is room for the use of technology in some types of court hearings, which will invariably introduce cost, flexibility and time benefits. She makes the point, however, that it is difficult to take away someone’s liberty, or their children, without giving them an opportunity to actually look the judge in the face. Many at the Bar will agree with this view. Violence against women became worse during COVID and she wants us, as a society, to re-examine the nature of the power relationship between men and women.

On the morning we meet, The Times runs a piece about the need to clarify workplace harassment. What of harassment at the Bar? Did Cherie experience any in her early years? Cherie is clear – physical assault: no. A culture of assumptions about women: yes. Women often not taken on because it was assumed that they would go off, have babies and not return; no maternity leave, or paternity leave for that matter. Cherie recalls that after having her children, ‘I pushed myself well beyond what was sensible in order to return to work as soon as possible.’ She welcomes the changes that the profession has embraced since then.

‘In reality, it is only when you get to a stage in your career that you have some power that you can do something about challenging unacceptable behaviour. It is all about the imbalance of power between victim and perpetrator. If you add to this the stress inherent in the nature of the profession, along with the huge egos, it makes for a toxic cocktail.’

I want to get Cherie’s views on the debate surrounding imposter syndrome – whether it is time to move on and start saying that we, as women, are more than good enough – and her response is very insightful. ‘I don’t think the onus of defeating imposter syndrome should be on the victims, but on the perpetrator.’ This comment strikes me forcibly because it is what we, collectively as a society, tend to do with all sorts of issues surrounding the ‘isms’. Should we now reframe the context? Does responsibility for the perpetuation of imposter syndrome actually lie with those who continue to believe, and show by their behaviour, that women are not ‘good enough’? Cherie agrees: ‘One of the many reasons that women [experience] imposter syndrome is because the system reinforces it.’

Gone are the days when chambers said ‘we don’t take women here’ but I am keen to discuss how we move on to the next phase. How do we ensure that the profession is a comfortable place for diversity? What should we be doing to ensure that women can flourish in positions of power? How do we hold the media to account for focusing on our female leaders’ choice of shoes, hairstyle, clothing? What should we be doing to support women across all their various roles in society, and at all stages of life and career?

A strong believer in role models, Cherie agrees with me that we have no shortage of inspirational women figures, starting with Lady Brenda Hale. Cherie does not believe that young women at the Bar today feel a sense of imposter syndrome in the same way that women did when she started at the Bar, but makes the point that imposter syndrome is probably more felt by people from non-white ethnicities.

This takes us back to the imperative to widen access to the profession and Cherie tells me that what stands out to her when she talks to young state school children is the enormous lack of knowledge of what a barrister is and/or does. She sees little encouragement for them to aim for the Bar. Although structures in place today mitigate, to a certain extent, this lack of support, many working-class students, and those without independent means of support, never even get to the stage of opening the door, never mind walking through it.

Furthermore, the prohibitive cost of qualifying to be a barrister remains a ‘serious deterrent to those who want to do law, because they have to spend money that they do not have’. Students whose ‘parents are teachers, or nurses, do not qualify for full grants to enable their children to meet these rising costs of qualifying for a career at the Bar,’ she says.

In contrast, on the rare occasions that Cherie agrees to speak at a private school, ‘the children there already know what a barrister does, and are familiar with the different careers in the law. So, the questions are along the lines of “What do I need to do to get pupillage?”’ Funding is not an issue for these children.

‘It is difficult to talk about change, without first taking a long, hard look at the system and the way in which we produce lawyers,’ she says. We discuss whether one can fairly blame a set of chambers for selecting barristers from a similar background when the system, all the way through, narrows the options for those who don’t fit that background.

Where’s the economic diversity? ‘Pupillage awards and scholarships all help tremendously [but] I would like to see more cooperation with the universities to ensure the brightest students are not diverted to the solicitors’ profession rather than the Bar because of the real financial difficulties,’ she says.

Another issue Cherie identifies is whether chambers can actually fund pupillages, particularly where members are themselves suffering from the drastic cuts in legal aid and reduced workflows. ‘What we now have is a system where disadvantaged members of society no longer have access to legal aid and the number of barristers from disadvantaged backgrounds who are able to make a living from representing those people is seriously limited.’

Forty per cent of our young people may now be going to university, but it is still only a certain section of society, mainly privately educated people, that is coming to the Bar. The upshot is, I suggest, that we are in danger of replacing a generation of posh boys with a generation of posh girls. This is not enough diversity.

‘Apprenticeships may offer a real and tangible solution to widening access to the Bar from underrepresented groups,’ suggests Cherie. I take this as a reference to working-class white, Black and brown students.

She flags the availability of the apprenticeship route to qualify as a solicitor or chartered legal executive. In this way, the apprentice is provided with a means of self-support via a steady income while obtaining the necessary professional qualifications. For example CILEX, the professional body representing chartered legal executives, paralegals and legal secretaries, claims theirs is ‘a truly diverse profession’ – 73% of its members are women and ‘CILEX-trained professionals are demonstrably more diverse and representative of the UK population than their peers in other branches of the profession’. How? It opens up the profession to people from all backgrounds, including those who have not gone to university. The question, therefore, is why has the Bar not thought more about how we can make apprenticeships work?

Cherie feels strongly that the Bar has a role to play here. ‘When I came to the Bar, one could become a barrister without a law degree. Now, with the current limitations on going to university, exorbitant fees and the huge debt that graduates are being asked to carry, we seem to be back where we started.’

It may be that the apprenticeship system could kick in after university as opposed to after A Level. This, to my mind, would dovetail very neatly with the great diversity work already undertaken by Amanda Pinto QC during her year as Chair of the Bar, and the Bridging the Bar initiative. We talk about assimilation, and how for people of Black and brown ethnicities, this can only take one so far. We also talk about how the Bar is a profession of excellence but that within that are levels of expertise.

Cherie ends our interview with a powerful point (and we are not talking about any form of positive discrimination here): ‘The exceptional will make it through but it is only when the “good enough” working-class, white, Black and brown student can come to the Bar and be successful ­– just as the “good enough” white posh male can, and has been doing for years and years – can we at the Bar say that the system has really changed.’ 

© Nick Skinner/Daily Mail/Shutterstock
© PA Images/Alamy
© cherieblair.org

(Pictured top): Cherie takes silk in 1995 at the age of 40, only the 76th woman to be appointed Queen’s Counsel since her role model Rose Heilbron took silk in 1949; (middle) Cherie and Tony Blair are pictured after his Labour Party Conference speech in 1995; (bottom) Cherie is pictured with some of the entrepreneurs supported through her Foundation for Women.

See also the First 100 Years biography interview with Cherie at: bit.ly/2XwYHjv