Race equity is a moral imperative. Yet research shows that, at the current rate of progress, it will take at least 40 years for Black representation in finance and the professions to match UK population demographics. This is unacceptable. Black underrepresentation should also be a specific concern for the Bar, when the Black community feels increasingly disenfranchised in the justice system. Furthermore, race equity is a priority for the generation of potential future barristers, who will simply turn their backs on a profession that does not actively demonstrate its commitment to this agenda. And racial diversity matters in a plural society, where the experience of individual advocates and judges can significantly influence the development of the common law and the exercise of discretion in many important areas.

So the problem has to be tackled, and, to its credit, the Bar is trying to do so. In the last two years, reports and data have been published which shine a glaring light on the discrimination that Black barristers have endured for decades. It is difficult reading.

For example, Race at the Bar: A Snapshot Report (2021) provides powerful evidence that Black barristers, and especially Black women, face systemic obstacles to developing a successful career at the Bar. The report demonstrates that Black lawyers are often denied access to the most lucrative work, not because of lack of talent, but because of attitudes within the profession itself. Entrenched stereotypes seem to dictate who should be doing what kind of work: thus there is a preponderance of Black barristers in publicly funded work, but a mere handful in the most highly remunerated areas of practice, such as commercial and Chancery work.

Then there is the evidence of Black barristers themselves. The 2022 report, The Specialist Commercial Bar & Black Inclusion – First Steps, tells of the experiences by Black barristers in commercial practice; of the fear of speaking about being ‘Black at the Bar’; of a pervasive perception of being more harshly judged than white peers; of ‘being highly visible while being overlooked’. It concludes:

‘The evidence gathered… points to a culture experienced by Black barristers characterised by profound levels of isolation, dislocation and not belonging. The evidence also points to high levels of race and/or ethnicity related behaviours including banter, bullying and/or discrimination/bias. Surprisingly and disappointingly high proportions of those who responded to the survey (of all ethnicities) reported direct experience and/or witnessing and/or awareness of such behaviours. A lack of support particularly from senior barristers and clerks/practice managers was also reported.

‘These problems appear to be more pronounced at the Specialist Commercial Bar [ie commercial, Chancery and TCC work] than other areas of the Bar, such as the Criminal Bar and the Family Bar, where there is a higher representation of Black barristers.’

The report also confirms that ‘the outcomes for Black barristers are notably worse than for other ethnic minorities’. And other reports show that the problems are not confined to the ‘Specialist Commercial Bar’.

In Counsel’s January 2023 issue, Chair of the Bar Nick Vineall KC called for a ‘pure meritocracy, in which gender, race, sexuality, accent or background simply make no difference to whether you succeed, and the only things that matter are ability, and capacity for hard work’. However, unless there is a new approach, Black barristers will still struggle to establish a rewarding career at the Bar; and the higher they manage to rise, the lonelier they will be, and there will be few to follow them. Thus little will change, and this ‘pure’ meritocracy will be a chimera.

The Black Talent Charter

We have to think creatively and collaboratively, and the Black Talent Charter has done this. Conceived by Harry Matovu KC in 2019, its original aim was to achieve for race equity what the Women in Finance Charter had achieved for gender diversity in boardrooms, by requiring signatory firms to set targets (not quotas), for which senior leadership would be accountable. But race is a different and more uncomfortable topic than gender. Many organisations were (and still are) fearful of venturing across this difficult terrain alone, and Black professionals had little confidence that the challenges they faced would be fully understood. This led to further reflection and analysis.

The outcome is a project which goes far beyond the establishment of targets for individual businesses. The vision of the Charter is to transform the landscape of financial and professional services within 10 years by increasing the population of Black career professionals, and creating a vibrant market with genuine equality of opportunity and a workforce reflective of the UK working population. This will be achieved by a broad coalition of financial institutions, professional firms, barristers’ chambers, and regulatory bodies and trade associations working collaboratively.

The Charter supports signatories in three ways in return for an annual fee of £8k to cover costs. First, it will become a leading hub for information, data and initiatives relating to the recruitment, retention and promotion of Black talent.

Second, it will offer programmes for Black professionals in signatory organisations, with speaker events and opportunities to enable them to have greater visibility, strong professional and cross-sectoral networks, and leadership training to prepare them for promotion to senior positions. The Charter will also offer peer-to-peer forums and external speaker events for leadership within signatory organisations, through which ideas can be exchanged and best practice developed for the recruitment and retention of Black talent.

Finally, targets. The Charter team will assist signatories to develop action plans and ambitious but realistic targets, not as an end in themselves, but as a driver and measure of progress, with confidential reviews of progress against the benchmark of the relevant signatory cohort.

The Charter has been well received. Its structure has been devised by senior Black professionals with first-hand experience of the issues in question and many years’ experience of working with and within the organisations it supports. In addition to Harry Matovu, Laura Durrant, the CEO, was a partner in a global law firm and Head of Litigation, Regulatory and Investigations at the Royal Bank of Scotland between 2010 and 2018, working on many of the highest profile cases with the Bar and private practice lawyers.

Signatories to date include Magic Circle and other leading law firms; five of the ‘Big Six’ global accountancy giants; leading UK financial services institutions and asset management firms; top global management consultants; and private equity. The Charter also currently has 16 major supporters, including the Corporation of London, Business London, all four Inns of Court, the Bar Council, four Specialist Bar Associations, the FIA (the global trade association for the derivatives markets) and the Competition and Markets Authority.

The Charter and the Bar

The Charter presents a unique opportunity for the Bar to work with top financial and professional services firms and institutions as part of a wider programme for change in these sectors. It offers Black barristers the same chance as other Black professionals to benefit from its programmes, and individual chambers the opportunity to demonstrate that their commitment to race equity goes far beyond words.

Several leading chambers are supporters of the Charter: Brick Court Chambers, 4 Pump Court, 3 Verulam Buildings, Matrix Chambers, Henderson Chambers, South Square, Blackstone Chambers, 33 Bedford Row and The 36 Group. The next step is to enable chambers to become signatories, and we are actively engaged on this. We hope that many more chambers will sign up and help to create the ‘pure’ meritocracy in our profession to which we all aspire. If so, the Bar has a chance of giving a respectable answer to the challenge that George Floyd might have laid down.

For further information on the Black Talent Charter and to discuss joining, please visit: www.blacktalentcharter.com and email: info@blacktalentcharter.com

Laurie-Anne Power KC, Nneka Akudolu KC and Sarah Jones KC pictured at the Opening of the Legal Year 2022 © Paul Marriott/Shutterstock