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30 July 2020

Bar aims to increase diversity through new mentoring scheme

Six of the biggest sets from London's commercial Bar team up to help mentor underrepresented groups

By Ben Rigby

Inner Temple Hall, London Shutterstock

Six leading London sets from the commercial Bar have joined a mentoring scheme that aims to encourage more applicants from underrepresented groups at the commercial end of the advocacy profession. 

Blackstone, Brick Court, Essex Court, One Essex Court, 3 Verulam Buildings, and Fountain Court have signed up to the diversity initiative, which is supported by COMBAR, the Commercial Barristers’ Association.

The new initiative aims to focus on diversity of gender, ethnic minorities, disabilities, sexual orientation (within the LGBT+ communities), and those who had either spent time in care, and/or were from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

Running from November through to June 2021, it will be open to all undergraduates or postgraduates qualifying from those groups, enabling them to work with a mentor from one of the sets. They will receive between three to five one-to-one sessions with their mentor, and training via a workshop on pupillage applications. The scheme is not open to those with existing pupillage offers. 

Bankim Thanki QC, head of the Fountain Court set, said: “Encouraging a wider group of people to consider a career at the Bar can only be a positive development, not least in enhancing the Bar’s pool of talent, and we are delighted to be part of the initiative.”

Rosalind Phelps QC, head of pupillage, added: “We hope this scheme will assist those from underrepresented groups—whether in terms of race, gender, sexuality, social background or other factors—to access experienced mentors who can help guide and advise them on their future careers, as well as giving practical advice around pupillage.”

From the junior side, Sarah Abram of Brick Court said the sets “all recognise we need to do more to improve diversity at the Bar,” adding “factors like your gender, social background, and ethnicity shouldn’t make any difference to your chance of becoming a barrister.”

She added: “We hope the mentoring scheme will help make a career at the Bar more accessible to people from a range of backgrounds.”

From the clerking side, Darren Burrows of One Essex Court said: “One Essex Court has long recognised the need for greater diversity in the profession, but despite some successes the pace of change has remained slow.”

That meant, he said, it was right that chambers was becoming more proactive in seeking to address the issue, adding that dedicated mentoring was one of a range of positive measures open for them.

The Bar initiative follows measures introduced by leading City law firms to improve diversity, with Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, and Baker McKenzie among those taking action. Diversity at the Bar presents a mixed picture, however. 

Figures for the commercial Bar are unavailable, but the Bar Standards Board found in its 2019 diversity report that 38% of barristers were women, as compared to 50% of the working age population. Meanwhile, 55% of pupils were women, compared to 45% of men, in line with previous years. 

While recording the largest ever rise in ethnicity data, the BSB report showed that 13.6% of barristers were from a black, Asian, or minority ethnic background, compared to 14.4% of the population, with 19% of pupils coming from an ethnic minority background.

Asians and minority ethnic barristers were slightly overrepresented as compared to the working age population, although not black barristers (3.2% compared to 3.7%). The numbers of disabled barristers was estimated at 6%, well below the UK working population of 13.4%. 

Those attending independent schools were considerably overrepresented within the BSB data, with 17% of Bar respondents saying they were privately educated, compared to 7% of school age children. The BSB response rate was 52%. 

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