There has been a push to improve diversity at the Bar for the last 20 years and this has led to a marked change in the diversity of the profession.

The proportion of women at the Bar has almost doubled since 1990, from 21.6% to 38.1% in 2020. Roughly equal numbers of men and women have taken pupillage for more than 20 years.

The proportion of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds increased by 5% between the 1990/91-1994/95 period and the 2015/16-2019/20 period (from 13.8% to 18.8% on average), but with varying trends for different ethnic groups. For example, the proportion of pupils from Asian/Asian British backgrounds has grown from 6.3% to 9.5%. But the proportion of pupils from Black/Black British backgrounds has remained the same (3.8%) for nearly 30 years (source: Bar Standards Board).

Ensuring recruitment processes are fair, and free from bias is essential in the drive to increase diversity at the Bar.

The principles of fair recruitment

Anyone embarking on a recruitment process should remind themselves of the key principles of fair selection:

  • Reliability – do you have consistency in your process and in the way assessors evaluate a candidate? Reliability after an interview would mean that a panel of assessors each individually came to the same rating against each criterion, for the same candidate.
  • Validity – does the assessment method measure what it is supposed to measure? If we’re assessing advocacy but the questions we ask in interview give us no indication of a candidate’s advocacy ability, it isn’t valid.
  • Objectivity/fairness – is the process inclusive for everyone and are the assessors aware of how to minimise bias?
  • Transparency do candidates know what you’re looking for? Letting candidates know what criteria they are being measured against and what to expect during the selection process means they are more likely to perform at their best.

Designing a fair process

Every part of the process needs to be considered including how it can be designed to make it as fair as possible, ensuring the process attracts and considers candidates which meet the relevant criteria and whether it enables those candidates to succeed on their merits. All of this may sound obvious, but too often processes result in the recruitment of candidates who ‘fit the mould’ or are very good at interviews, rather than the most qualified or appropriate person for the role.

Start with the recruitment panel. It’s important to make the panel as diverse as possible. That means including a mix of men and women, diverse ethnicities, sexualities and disabled people if at all possible. Also think about ensuring the panel includes other diversity – people with different levels of experience, backgrounds and perspectives will all provide a different perspective. A diverse panel helps guard against group think, demonstrates to candidates that diversity is taken seriously and increases the chances of bias being spotted and removed.

Once the panel is in place, move on to the role and how you’ll identify a successful candidate. Focus on the selection criteria and the key qualities, knowledge and experience needed to excel in the role. Resist the temptation to simply recycle the person specification and job description you’ve used before – take the opportunity to think about what you are (or should be) looking for in a future colleague.

Next, think about how you’re going to assess the criteria. For example, if intellectual ability is a key criteria, A-level and degree results might be relevant. However, setting high minimum criteria may disadvantage those who haven’t benefitted from an elite education, or who were grappling with other challenges while studying. Recruiters should bear in mind that academic results are only a proxy for intellectual ability.

Because it’s so hard to measure aptitude within the limited time and information available to recruiters, some chambers include an assessed mini-pupillage in their process. This can be a great way of getting to know candidates better, giving them the opportunity to show you what they’re made of, and find out if they want to work with you. But remember, all the fair recruitment rules still apply – and look out for confirmation or affinity bias when assessing mini pupils.

Effective interviews

Many chambers use a combination of assessment methods. But even though interviews are less reliable and more prone to bias than other ‘job simulation’ type of assessment methods, most chambers still use them as part of the selection process. There are ways to make interviews more valid and reliable:

  • Start with the end in mind – have structured criteria-based interviews. What criteria or competencies do chambers want to measure during the interview? Then work backwards to design a set of questions around that.
  • Make use of competency-based interview questions. These often start with ‘Please provide an example of when you…’ These questions are more reliable and valid than asking hypothetical questions such as ‘What would you do if…’, or non-competency-based questions such as ‘Tell us about yourself.’ However, if a candidate has no example, then revert to the hypothetical.
  • Avoid asking leading, closed or irrelevant questions. Stick to your criteria and to open, competency-based questions to encourage candidates to talk. Chambers should also be mindful of asking irrelevant questions such as ‘What type of biscuit would you be?’ While these questions are often intended to put a candidate at ease, feedback tells us that they to do just the opposite. Also, the answer a candidate provides cannot be assessed against objective criteria.
  • Probe to get the best out of the candidate. It’s crucial that an interviewer asks probing follow up questions to get the very best evidence from the candidate. Probing doesn’t mean leading – it’s simply a way of getting information from the candidate, particularly those who perhaps have not had any help, support or coaching from family/friends to prepare. Use the STAR methodology:
    • Clarify the Situation or the Task that the candidate was involved in. Ensure they don’t spend too much time on this and, where necessary, move them on.
    • Ask what Actions the candidate took. The majority of the allocated time should be spent on this as it will provide specific relevant evidence against the criterion that you are assessing.
    • Ask what Result or outcome was achieved and any reflection they have.

Avoid bias

Any part of the selection process can be prone to bias. Be mindful of the following biases that can occur unconsciously:

  • Affinity bias – being drawn to candidates like ourselves, with similar backgrounds/interests or those we can simply relate to better.
  • Halo/horns – for example when a candidate provides an excellent answer to an interview question, and then we perceive that everything is good about that candidate (halo effect). The horns effect is the opposite.
  • Contrast effect – when we compare candidates against each other rather than comparing each candidate against the selection criteria.

The best way to avoid bias is to be conscious that we are all biased, take consistent notes, take breaks to prevent tiredness, avoid evaluating the candidate until after the interview and base your evaluation/ratings of the candidate on evidence against the criteria.

Use work samples

Work samples are simply ‘job simulation’ exercises and include written exercises or advocacy exercises that replicate the actual role. Designed well, these can be highly reliable, valid and objective measures of assessing candidates.

Using a combination of both the interview and work sample(s) is recommended.

Whether you’re recruiting new staff, pupils or lateral hires, be mindful of the fair recruitment rules and ensure everyone involved in the process, from the first sift to the final decision, has completed their fair recruitment training and is committed to ensuring a fair and inclusive approach. 

References and further information

Trends in retention and demographics at the Bar: 1990-2020, Bar Standards Board, July 2021,

The Bar Council’s Fair Recruitment Guide details the principles of fair recruitment, designing a fair process and shortlisting, interviewing and selection. It also has templates and work sample ideas. See:

The Bar Council offers fair recruitment and recruitment refresher training for barristers and chambers. See:

The Bar Council Equality and Diversity team provides bespoke support and advice on recruitment processes and monitoring outcomes. Contact for more information.