We have a problem with bullying at the Bar. An ugly fact, but one which all barristers will have to acknowledge if we, as a community, are going to do anything about it.

As recently as October 2020, a qualitative YouGov study (carried out for the Bar Standards Board) concluded that bullying and discrimination at the Bar appeared ‘widespread’. In some places it was ‘endemic’. That is despite the introduction of the BSB’s Equality Rules almost a decade ago and the best efforts of the BSB and the Bar Council since.

Worse still, the researchers found that this behaviour is ‘perceived to be tolerated to a certain extent due to the adversarial, male dominated culture’ of the Bar.

No surprise, then, that data from the Bar Council’s most recent Working Lives survey (2017) indicates that the most common form of bullying and harassment reported was based on gender (53%). An equally depressing (and equally predictable) statistic is that barristers who are female, from an ethnic minority background, LGBTQI+ or have declared a disability are most likely to suffer from workplace bullying, discrimination, and harassment.

I had no idea of the scale of the problem the Bar faces until recently. I have been at the Bar for 15 years without ever being the subject of abuse or assault from another barrister. However, that may be because I am a white, straight, non-disabled man and so statistically less likely to experience it.

In those 15 years, I do not believe I have ever witnessed workplace harassment or discrimination, although there is every chance that is because I was not paying enough attention. From my sheltered and privileged position, I would read with disgust the stories that sometimes appeared in the legal press of barristers being disciplined for misconduct relating to (often sexual) harassment.

I never thought to join the dots until, in Autumn 2020, I joined the inaugural Bar Council Leadership Programme (BCLP), a new initiative from the Bar Council intended to shape the future culture of the Bar. Everything was done remotely because of the pandemic and, for the most part, I was working in a small group with nine other barristers spanning a range of different backgrounds, practice areas and geographical locations.

We would never have met had it not been for the BCLP. In fact, we have still not ‘met’ because of COVID-19 restrictions (although we hope to put that right soon). Over successive weekends, we spent hours and hours discussing the culture of the Bar and the prospect of culture change. In the absence of regular in-person contact we developed a very active WhatsApp group, and one (locked down) Saturday afternoon in January 2021 someone posted a link to an article on the latest decision of the Bar Disciplinary Tribunal.

It was a sadly familiar story. Yet another male barrister guilty of ‘sexually touching’ two, more junior, female barristers at a workplace social event. The details subsequently published by the BTAS revealed a disturbing and sustained assault. The male barrister in question was suspended for just three months.

The leniency of that sanction sparked an outcry on social media. Barristers criticised the lack of a deterrent message and female barristers in particular raised concerns about their safety at work. The BSB, which was already conducting a review into sanctions guidance for professional misconduct, announced a public consultation on the appropriate range of sanctions for specific types of misconduct, including sexual misconduct.*

Back in our WhatsApp chat, we spent the afternoon lamenting (a) the report of the conduct in that case; (b) the sanction applied; and (c) the similar cases which had preceded it. The thread linking all three topics was the culture of tolerance of these types of behaviours at the Bar.

I was especially troubled by a particular detail of the case: one of the junior female barristers had told the tribunal that, despite repeatedly trying to remove this man’s hands from inside her dress, she felt unable to say anything because senior members of the Bar were present at the event and she did not want to ‘make a scene’.

That is a cultural problem. The perception of junior members of the Bar should not be that it is better to suffer in silence than speak out and ask for help. Beyond that, barristers in positions of relative power (because of their seniority or position) should be a beacon of support to their colleagues in need. Our group had spent the last four months learning about concepts of culture change and allyship and here, being discussed in the WhatsApp chat, was a culture in desperate need of a change and a community in need of some (more visible) allies.

We decided to take action and started to put to use some of what we had learned on the BCLP. In recent years, there has been a challenge to traditional ideas that 51% of a group is needed to initiate a change in the entire population. Social scientists now think that there is a ‘tipping point’ in the social norms of a group when change is accepted by 25% of the population. We had also spent time discussing how the smallest of supportive actions by an ally can make a huge difference to a person in need of help.

We came up with a very simple idea: a pin badge that members of the profession can wear in chambers, at their place of work and at court as a symbol of allyship. The pin would be a sign to others that the wearer will use whatever power they have in a given situation to stand against unacceptable behaviour (in all forms, not just sexual harassment) and act in support of those in need. If we can get those pin badges worn by about 4,000 barristers (roughly 25% of registered barristers in England and Wales) we will start to turn the tide on the culture of tolerance.

Four of us took on the project and, a few months (and many more WhatsApp messages) later, we launched the ‘All Rise’ pin – a small, wooden, black and white lapel pin delivered on a (recycled cardboard) bookmark. Our mission is to create more ‘active bystanders’ at the Bar: barristers who will wear the pin to demonstrate their personal stand against bullying, abusive and belittling behaviours in the workplace. Barristers who will be vigilant and notice harassment and discrimination even when that conduct is not aimed towards them. Barristers who will use whatever power they have in a given situation to call out and disrupt abusive behaviours and support those in need of help.

We have been amazed by the response we have received. Barristers (at all levels of seniority) have bought and are wearing the pin. Judges and solicitors too. Chambers, Circuits and Specialist Bar Associations have come on board as sponsors of the project and we have partnered with Wellness For Law (a network of professionals providing support for wellbeing in the legal profession). We have shipped about 1,000 pins so far.

It is not beyond us, as a community, to overhaul the ‘culture of tolerance’ which has allowed and enabled bullying, harassment and discrimination to remain ‘widespread’ at the Bar. We recognise that wearing a pin badge is a small step, but it is a step in the right direction. 

The team behind ‘All Rise’ is: Chris Gutteridge, a barrister at Exchange Chambers; Bo Kay Fung, a legal adviser at the Financial Conduct Authority; Lydia Pemberton, a barrister at 3 Paper Buildings; and Morayo Fagborun-Bennett, a barrister at Gatehouse Chambers. You can contribute to All Rise and purchase a pin here. Find out more hereJoin the All Rise network here.