updated on 20 October 2020
Earlier this month I hosted the first of a ‘Re-Writing History’ Black History Month Webinar series organised by Breaking Down Barriers. As I prepared for the webinar I reflected on Black history, specifically how Black History has shaped and informed my understanding of the world I am navigating through as a future barrister. After thinking more deeply about Black legal history in particular, I was inspired to draw together accounts of Black barristers who are creating Black history in real time by taking steps at the most junior stage of their careers to be leaders in their field and change the image of a barrister.
Still trying to crack the legal racial attainment glass ceiling
I wanted to draw together profiles of junior Black barristers after discovering that Black barristers are still becoming the ‘first’ to achieve at the highest professional heights of the legal profession. Iconic figures have yet to see their footsteps followed by other Black colleagues once they have cracked the legal profession’s racial attainment glass ceiling. There are still very disappointingly few Black barristers who have achieved at the most senior levels of the profession by taking Silk and becoming a Queens Counsel (QC) or being successfully appointed as judges of the Senior Courts. It is disheartening to think that when Dame Linda Dobbs QC became the first Black High Court Judge in 2004, 16 years later she would still be the first, and only.
What the total scarcity of Black QCs and judges in the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court makes strikingly clear is that the history of Black achievement at the most senior levels of the profession is in stark contrast to the major and ground-breaking professional strides that Black junior barristers are making before, during and immediately after completing their pupillages. Considering that in 2019 only 13 pupil barristers were Black, the achievements of young Black barristers should not be overlooked. In my view, these barristers are making Black legal history in real time and are worthy of our attention and celebration.
Representation matters: the Black barristers making Black history in real time
The Bar itself is an institution which is comparatively ancient and significantly less diverse than the more modern and innovative industries most of my friends and peers from university entered into after graduation. Barristers have been present in England from at least the 18th Century and it has been described as “Once the most easily recognizable status profession” in England.
We’ve heard many times how important it is to have representation, but I want to take a moment here to emphasise how powerful it can be to have people who you personally identify with taking up space within institutions or organisations that affect you but underrepresent you. For the remainder of this post I will explore a very small selection of people that, for different reasons have inspired, motivated and mentored me throughout my journey of becoming a barrister and are making Black history in real time. In the same way we acknowledge when Black barristers achieve at the most senior levels of the profession, it is also important to understand the waves made by Black barristers at its most junior levels.
I first learned about ‘Legally Ruthie’ on Instagram after I started Blessing at the Bar. She created an organisation called ‘Cake and Counsel’ not long after she had started pupillage and her events have brought together diverse candidates for pupillage together in the same room as inspirational Black barristers who are making moves in their career. Ruthie has been this kind and encouraging presence in my social media network and she is a great example of what I mean when I say making Black history made in real time. Cake and Counsel has to date hosted some of the best events for diverse entrants into the Bar profession and has encouraged an entire generation of future barristers following in her footsteps. Her Legally Ruthie Instagram offers motivation and tips for people who are trying to learn more about the bar and her blog shares guest feature posts that also help aspiring barristers. Ruthie’s experiences show just how early Black barristers find themselves stepping into positions of responsibility.
Nathan is another Black barrister that has pushed the image of what a barrister is and does to a new level. Through his innovative ‘The Witness Box-Court Room 60’ series (barrister4u on Instagram) he brings together legal professionals and students on Instagram livestreams. These are wonderful because you can see Nathan interact with his professional network in a way that barristers traditionally shy away from, further pushing and challenging perceptions of barristers for everyone that tunes in. Nathan is engaging and aware of the questions that students on their way to becoming lawyers have when asking questions of his guests. Seeing Black men in law (the name of an amazing organisation) is important to challenge the conception of Black men as only entrants into the justice system and not as professionals working within it. I have failed to encounter one Black barrister working within the Criminal Courts who has not been mistaken for a defendant at least once during their career.
Alexandra has shown herself to be proof of exactly why the profession needs to make room for people from a ‘non-traditional’ background with her new book ‘In Black and White’. Reflecting on her time during her pupillage and the interactions she had with the criminal justice system as a mixed-race Black woman. Alexandra started her career representing defendants who, if they came from a Black background, were navigating a justice system that disproportionately convicts them for the same offences of their white comparators. She has also shown the lighter side to her life as a typical Essex girl, enjoying fashion, getting her nails done and going out with her friends (essexbarrrister on Twitter and Instagram). Alexandra has shown multiple times that she intends to lead by example when showing what a modern barrister looks like and she released her first book just after finishing her pupillage, showing again how early in their careers Black barristers step out to become leaders in their fields.
I recently attended the launch of an intersectional women’s organisation called THEMIS and Alexandra was in conversation with Abimbola Johnson, another Black barrister who is challenging and redefining what it means to be a barrister and what they say and do. Throughout the most recent emanation of the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this year, Abimbola was speaking out about racial injustice in our justice system and it was the first time I saw a barrister in Elle Magazine, let alone a Black woman. When we see images of barristers in our popular media, they aren’t typically women who look like Abimbola and she has been bold and confident about who she is and how being a Black woman has allowed her to have a level of context to understand and represent the clients she represents as a defence barrister. Again, Abimbola is another example of how early in their careers Black barristers find themselves stepping out into leadership roles. Find her as barristerabi on Twitter.
I first connected with Mass through social media and he offered to provide me support and insight into his career progression working within the GLD (Government Legal Department). He has many wonderful achievements to his name within the law and outside of it, as Mass isn’t your typical barrister in any way shape or form. He’s directed music videos, supported and managed artists and managed all of this alongside his pupillage. He also created Bridging the Bar, a new charity which is supported by more than 45 partner chambers to create a diverse Bar profession, at all professional levels as a pupil barrister. What he has already achieved with the charity shows how much impact Mass has already had on the Bar – and he has only just finished his pupillage. I was honoured to be asked to be a trustee and work alongside him on the Bridging the Bar Committee. Mass is again proof of how early in their careers Black barristers find themselves stepping into leadership roles at the advent of their careers
The last person I am going to talk about is Lola (legally_lola on Twitter and Instagram). She impressed me straight away because before completing her pupillage she became a qualified chartered accountant. As someone with friends in that field, I knew that she had to be made of seriously tough stuff to endure that and then turn towards pupillage. Lola has never minced her words about the racism she has succeeded in spite of and about the racism faced by Black people in this country. She has appeared on major tv and news outlets, including the BBC News at prime time. Lola isn’t someone to pretend the Bar is more glamorous than it is, but by virtue of being someone who radiates good energy, seeing her at the Bar and having crossed the finish line brings a smile to my face. She got there being herself and she challenged the status quo at an extremely early point in her career. Again, another Black barrister stepping into the shoes of leadership in her most early days as a barrister.
Black aspiring barristers are looking for their face as they try to earn their space
Barristers like the ones I have featured are narrating their stories and creating a record of their lived experiences so that people who are following in their footsteps have them to refer to. It is vital that Black people, who are entering spaces wherein they are an ethnic, social and cultural minority, are able to be as loud and expressive as they want and need to be. This is no less true for the Bar. This is critical if we are to change the legal profession we work in and to communicate the standard to which we want to be treated.
A massive credit goes to those of us navigating the toughest of spaces as a minority who are able to rewrite our own history and centre the value and valuable contributions of the people who took control and changed the narrative. When it comes to re-writing history and creating new Black legal history, it is as much about documenting your every day and owning the power and truth in your own story and your own individuality. This is true even when you are at the most junior stages of the profession because attainment at the most senior levels could be decades away.
Blessing Mukosha Park is the digital creator and creator of Blessing at the Bar. Blessing was called to the Bar of England and Wales in December 2019.