Diversity and Inclusion at the Bar: What has been the impact of COVID19?

Each panellist had 10 minutes to capture the attention of an audience of over forty participants with insights about the impacts of COVID.

Last night, I had the privilege of listening to the panel discussion of three panellists talk frankly about their individual experiences. Each panellist had 10 minutes to capture the attention of an audience of over forty participants with insights about what it is they believed to be the impacts of COVID19 in relation to diversity and inclusion.

 Professor Suzanne Rab, of Serle Court, first spoke of her journey through law from modest beginnings in state schools, and covered the history of her father’s inspiration to her to become a barrister, motivated by goals of social justice and from his childhood experience with roots in  India’s partition in 1947. This formed the backdrop of her talk in which she talked of the impact of COVID-19, particularly on the junior end of the bar and the need to nourish the talent that is there today and to attract new talent. She cited statistics from the Bar Council which showed that as of 2019, the junior end of the bar (under 5 years call) made the greatest contribution to diversity and inclusion in terms of representation by gender or ethnicity.  She reflected that now more than ever there is a need to sustain a future where there will be diversity at the bar, as this group will tend to be less able to bear the economic shocks of the pandemic.  She also highlighted the issue of intersectionality where certain groups are most likely to do legally aided work which has been particularly affected in, for example, crime with trials on hold.  

Commenting on what we can learn from COVID-19 for diversity, Professor Rab  identified the increase in the use of remote technology to allow for remote hearings and online mediations, of which she had experience.  She reflected that online webinars and conferences such as this event allow us to reach people across diverse locations to overcome barriers which may have prevented people attending physical events in the past. She urged for wider offering of mini-pupillages and mentoring online, again reflecting on her experience of these being offered by some Chambers.  She emphasised the importance of managing both the immediate and longer term impacts where the shock event of the pandemic can and should be a catalyst for strategic review, monitoring and training.  She concluded by noting that while we may be emerging from the more stringent restrictions, COVID-19 has destabilised the normal equilibrium. Those who are well placed to ride it out will survive, but others who are exposed will not.  She ended with a clarion call to action.  If we take action now to learn from this we can build on improvements that were emerging towards a more diverse and representative Bar that so many have worked so hard to open up.

The second panelist, Mr. Tahir Khan, gave his perspective on the impact of the pandemic on his own practice with Clerksroom chambers which operates a virtual Chambers model but has some regional offices including in Manchester. Mr Khan reflected how working through in practice was thriving in the face of the pandemic Furthermore recently Clerksroom have opened new offices. He would like to see a more adaptive approach where he is encouraging the younger end of the bar to be bold in approach as these times demand. Echoing comments from Professor Rab he reflected on the use of information technology to serve the bar and clients better.  As to the areas of practice most hit by the pandemic he said that the impacts varied. He made references to the back log of the justice system, for instance, in legally aided areas, the use of technology might have made some inroads by allowing some remote hearings to take place but there was still the issue of backlogs meaning long delays in the justice system for those awaiting their day in court. To end, he encouraged the listeners to think about how to approach the harsh reality of being self-employed at the Bar and hoped for an appetite for change within the bar moving forward. 

The third panelist was Mr. Simren Singh, a future pupil Barrister at 3 Temple Gardens.  He shared his experiences of getting pupillage interviews and the usual costs of getting to interview for a job one might not get. The average law student will get into a lot of debt before they ever secure pupillage so the upfront cost was a serious issue. He shared the positives that have come out of this pandemic, that though some of his interviews for pupillage were cancelled, he was able to do interviews virtually and this had saved him a lot of money. There is hope that chambers would consider more virtual interviews in the future as this seems to be more cost effective and opens up opportunities to a wider pool of candidates. 

  The event was organised in the hope that it would inform and inspire aspiring Barristers from all backgrounds about the realities  faced as we move forward from this pandemic. I wish to thank the panellists for sharing their time with us and also to Gareth Jones and Laurie-Elizabeth Ketley who helped organise the event and most important to all the participants who came to the event, thank you for attending. 

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