updated on 16 August 2018
An article published in February’s Counsel magazine began with the following headline: “White students twice as likely to get pupillage, report reveals”. According to the article: “The study ‘Exploring differential attainment at BPTC and pupillage’, which looked at data from BPTC students between 2011-2016, found that among graduates with a 2:1 degree, nearly 40% of white students secured a pupillage, more than double the 18% of ethnic minority students. For those with a first-class degree, the disparity was less, with almost 60% of white students getting pupillage, compared with 42% of those from an ethnic minority background.”
As the article indicated, the biggest issue right now for the body that produced the report, the Bar Standards Board (BSB), is determining why these disparities in pupillage attainment persist.
From my experience of applications, networking at chambers and conducting research into this field I will say that, for the most part, discrimination is avoided at all costs. Almost all applications are marked blindly and the majority of chambers bend over backwards to tell us how they assess and make choices to keep the process fair. Everyone apparently has a fair shot at the goal. Nonetheless, for some reason between applicants with the same qualifications there exists a racial disparity in who is making it through.
When I was growing up, my mother rarely referred to us as 'black'. We were African, but we weren't black. I would sometimes get frustrated and ask why. She'd tell me that she didn't want me to feel limited. As a black girl living in the UK, she knew that social and cultural stigma and prejudice meant that black people like me were stereotyped and this placed a limit on what the world thought we could be, and even what we ourselves thought we could be. I didn't understand what she meant until people started telling me that I spoke “like a white person”. That I wasn't “really black” because I went to a private school and lived in a “good” area of town. Because I did debating, musical theatre and played piano. It really hit me when people would be shocked that I wanted to become a barrister because they'd never seen or thought of a black woman in that kind of position.
What that says to me is that there is a problem with how black people are understood or expected to behave, or even the careers they are supposed to aspire to. What this leads to is a sense of alienation that not only deters BAME people from going for careers in law but also leads them to believe that, as a black person, they won't fit in or relate to other people in the field. To an extent, that is a legitimate concern. If I hadn't gone to the kinds of schools I was lucky to go to, I never would have heard of barristers, let alone have understood what I had to do to become one. It was through my friends’ parents that I was able to babysit for a barrister and his family and learn about his work that way. Even with the schools I went to I still had to go out and search for every crumb of information, every tip and heads up that I needed to learn about this career and advance myself towards my goal.
The point is that it's not as simple as BAME people sending in applications and getting denied. It's a deeper cultural problem where the culture at the Bar is removed from what many BAME people have been exposed to. Especially those who didn't go to the private schools that I did, or attend Russell Group universities. In my view, where BAME people do not have access to the kinds of schools, universities and networks where people are exposed to this culture, they are unable to develop the essential knowledge and skills to make it beyond the paper sift and interview.
Almost everyone I have interacted with at the Bar has told me that it is a game and that there is also an element of sheer, blind luck. But considering that the majority of BAME people in this country don't have easy access to this knowledge and information and that it has been statistically proven that we do not have the same kind of luck, can the process really be said to be fair?
The truth is, to become a barrister, it goes beyond a stellar academic record. It is as much about who you know and what you know that allows you to make it through. Frankly, applying for pupillage isn't like applying for any other kind of job. The amount that is expected of you and the skills that you are expected to demonstrate as well as the way you are expected to show those skills is still, for all intents and purposes, privileged information. Part of the reason I launched Blessing at the Bar was so I could do my part to share this information with other BAME people who also aspire to become barristers.
Chambers need to do more than host events that target applicants from selected top universities. The social utility of having a widely diverse community at the Bar goes without saying. We need to have strong advocates from all walks of life representing clients who also come from all walks of life. It can't be that only those who have privileged access make it through to pupillage. We need to think of how we can change the culture at the Bar so that people from all kinds of background can not only imagine themselves becoming a barrister, but actually be able to become one. There is no one set type of person that can be a successful barrister, but for some reason there is an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of people making it to the Bar from the same kind of social, cultural and economic background. That must change.
At a recent scholarship interview I was asked to deliver a piece of advocacy. I spoke about black women's hair in the workplace. At the end of the interview we spoke a bit about hair and I explained that my mum had been anxious about me attending the interview in braids, let alone with the clips that I had in at the time (they are commonly worn with braided hairstyles). After hearing this one of the barristers on the panel said, "Blessing, tell your Mum that if we had judged you for your hair or your clips, that says more about us than it does about you."
And that's the message I want to send out. If anyone judges you because of your race, cultural background, gender, the way you style your hair or anything else then that is on them and not on you. I've reached a point in my life that if you don't want to hear that I was born in Botswana, my family name is Mukosha, that I am dedicated to fighting against social injustice and racial discrimination and that I am black then that is really your problem and not mine. It has no bearing on the work I want to do and how well I can perform as a barrister. My blackness informs who I am but it doesn't define or limit me or what I can do.
The statistics are against us, it's true. But I truly believe that those who seek to overlook people like me and hold us back are fewer in number than ever before. A career at the Bar is difficult to attain for anyone. But for BAME people who wish to make it, we also have the added task of engaging with a culture within a field that has not only developed without us in the picture (in the entire history of the Bar, BAME barristers have been extremely few in number) but is also often so far from what we know or can relate to that it seems near impossible for us to make it. Work needs to be done to open up the Bar to everyone and ensure that those who are successful at pupillage don't have to fit the archetypal Oxbridge/Russell Group educated standard or have had privileged access to information.
I won't let anything hold me back from my goal. I will become a barrister. If that means I have to apply 47 times until I make it I will. But I've been lucky to have access to the privileged knowledge and information that will push me forward. I know the culture and can speak the language. But those in the BAME community who haven't been as lucky as me may never make it for that reason. And that needs to change if more ethnic minorities are going to be successful in gaining pupillage.