Meet the Bar’s first reverse mentor and mentee

The pilot scheme’s first pairing, Elisha Lindsay and Paul Stanley QC, share their thoughts on the BSB’s reverse mentoring initiative and what they have learned from each other so far

In September 2020, the Bar Standards Board (BSB)’s Race Equality Taskforce launched a pilot of the Bar’s first reverse mentoring scheme in which Bar students and pupil barristers from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are mentoring senior barristers from white backgrounds.

The scheme, which is designed to provide an insight into people’s experiences of racism by pairing individuals who might not otherwise come together, aims to address barriers to race equality and foster a more inclusive culture at the Bar. So far eight pairings have been connected, including Mark Neale, Director General of the BSB, who has put himself forward to participate in the scheme.

Counsel asked the scheme’s first pairing, Elisha Lindsay and Paul Stanley QC, to share their thoughts on the scheme and what they have learned from each other so far by taking part.

Elisha Lindsay

Mentor

I’m incredibly lucky to have the mentee I have as I am sure many mentors in this initial pilot will be, because we have white mentees who are actively seeking to be critical about their behaviour and the behaviour of others in the profession.

In my experience, it’s rare to find white barristers (especially those quite senior in their field) who wish to be taught about discrimination at the Bar. In all fairness, it’s not a problem every white barrister has to face, at least not at a structural and institutional level. But it is a problem that is the responsibility of all of us, even more so white people, to fix.

This is what my experience and mentorship with Paul highlights. Racism at the Bar is not my responsibility to fix. It requires people like Paul to take a look at it and to correct it. How can this be done, though, if you have no idea of the problem? Well, you listen, learn and, importantly, you act.

The very first meeting, as most meetings are, was slightly awkward. As a mentor, you have to find your feet a little bit; it’s a change in dynamic that may be unfamiliar to some. For me, I chose to break the ice by asking a few questions that I felt were important in understanding Paul’s mindset in regards to racism at the Bar. It’s very easy for white people to say they are concerned about racism at the Bar and do a bit of performative activism and go to sleep thinking they’ve done their part. It’s important to establish that in 2020, in any time period, to just not be racist isn’t enough, you need to be actively anti racist. So, asking questions to understand what the mentee’s understanding of race and racism is, for me, was important because it then set the tone for the rest of our meetings.

From there, I felt confident in questioning Paul and I hope he feels the same in questioning me. We have built a relationship now that I think is open enough to be able to ask the difficult questions without feeling awkward about it. What I love most is hearing the ideas Paul has about things I have set. For example, I occasionally give him homework. I think this helps to open up conversations more. Of course, it’s difficult to make change when you don’t have the same views as the person you’re trying to change things for. I love that in this mentoring programme I can slowly see his change of mindset and the way in which he is able to see things from my perspective.

What especially strikes me is that this programme does what most people think young Black students can’t do, or don’t have the courage to do. And that is stand up for ourselves. This programme shows that actually we can and now we have a platform to do it through. It also has the additional benefit of being in the best interests of white senior barristers to actually listen.

I think this programme does more than it says on the tin. For me, beyond seeing the change in perspective for my mentee or the things he’s able to do/implement in chambers or at the Bar, I get a small bit of catharsis. I get to point out the issues in the Bar without worrying that it will limit my career prospects. It’s one of the reasons I encourage students to join, because so many interactions get swept under the rug during our journey at the Bar because of fear. This programme allows you to talk about it in a safe space and hear the views of your mentee and work on action plans for change.

I also have to say, this programme is not just focused on race. There are a lot of other issues at the Bar and by virtue of being a Black woman, I can speak to both sides of the coin. I imagine as the legal space evolves, we’ll highlight more and more of the issues we see at the Bar.

Paul Stanley QC

Mentee

Until about two years ago, I had never heard of reverse mentoring.

It first cropped up in discussion at a City firm, where we were sharing experiences about equality issues. I loved the idea. It sounded like those television programmes where the boss goes undercover, shattering illusions about what the workforce thinks about management.

So, when Amit Popat [BSB Head of Equality and Access to Justice] told me that the BSB was going to pilot a reverse mentoring scheme, focused on anti-racist change, I jumped at the chance to participate.

Like many colleagues, my understanding of racism is theoretical. (By racism, I don’t just mean conscious hatred: I mean the many ways Black people are unjustly disadvantaged.) But there’s nothing theoretical about racism itself. If you’re Black, it is lived everyday reality. And there’s nothing theoretical about how white people contribute to it. Barristers too. Wherever you look – pupillage statistics, chambers’ websites, the annual roster of those taking silk – you will see it: ours is not yet a profession which can see and foster talent unblurred by racism’s distorting lens.

Realising that is one thing. Doing something about it is something else. Do we know how our chambers’ website looks to a Black student? Or how it feels to be the only Black person in a room of white students? Or what a young Black barrister goes through when she feels that she is not being fairly treated during a training session? Or how she would want to see that situation handled?

We could, of course, guess. We often do. And we’re often wrong.

Or we can listen. We must listen to the (disappointingly few) Black barristers who have scaled the professional heights. But we can widen the pool. Reverse mentoring connects to other people who know, understand, and experience what it is to be Black at the Bar.

Elisha and I talk a lot, and about a lot of things. She tells me why my chambers doesn’t look like a place she would feel comfortable. She shares occasions when she has felt racism’s sting, and I share occasions when I fear I have contributed to it.

Sometimes we talk abstractly (what do I mean by racism?).

Sometimes we talk about big questions – about history and belonging, vulnerability and confidence. Sometimes we talk about practical details: what makes an environment comfortable or intimidating, what I might do to change that. I always look forward to our discussions, and I’ve never left them without feeling in some way challenged, or informed, or changed.

If that sounds like amateur psychotherapy, it isn’t. We’ve got a solid, and shared, practical aim. I have the privilege (in every sense) to be able to do something to make the Bar fairer, less racist, more genuinely open to all talent. Elisha has the knowledge and experience to show me ways to use that privilege effectively. By breaking some of the barriers (of race and professional seniority) in what may seem like small ways, we can hope to do something about others.

You can find out more about the BSB’s reverse mentoring scheme on www.barstandardsboard.org.uk. Short link: bit.ly/3fx3oPc

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