Karen Safo

Black History Month is a time to celebrate the achievements and zeal of black men and women. Often through numerous events and, daily social media posts with inspirational quotes and pictures of those who paved the way. We hear about the many Black men and women who were "the first" to hold positions and or to achieve an award, which typically generates endless discussions on  the unequal social and economic status of black men and women in the UK and what can be done to improve it. 

With campaigns such as "I am the Bar" and various other initiatives from the Inn's there has been a shift in relation to diversity that will continue after Black History Month. The question is are these initiatives alone enough. 

In 2017, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) report revealed that white candidates were twice as likely to achieve pupillage. It also revealed that white candidates who achieved the same degree as Black and Minority Ethnic candidates scored 3% to 5% higher on the BPTC. Among graduates with a 2.1 degree, the success rate for white candidates going on to achieve pupillage (39.3%) is more than double that of BME candidates (18%). 

A report by the BSB in 2018 further illustrates the racial disparity at the Bar, where out of 417 pupil barristers, only 16 were black (13 from Black British category and 3 from the Mixed/Multiple Ethnic Groups White and Black category). These figures are alarming and not at all representative of the community that barristers serve. 

Regardless of the steady increases of black pupil barristers and QC's, the real question is one of inclusion and belonging. It is imperative that with the quantitative increases of black men and women at the Bar, there needs to be cultural shifts to ensure that black barristers and those aspiring to enter the profession can proudly represent themselves without feeling out of place. 

After attending many events over the past couple of weeks, the discussions of Black Lawyers have been predominantly around inclusion. The questions were: 

  • "Will I fit in?"

  • "Do I have to change my accent?"

  • "How do I ensure I do not perpetuate the "angry Black woman" stereotype whilst standing firm in my truth and needs?"

  • "Will I always have to work twice as hard?" 

These questions speak to a desire of belonging and acceptance within these predominantly white spaces at the Bar. It relates to the need of Black and Minority Ethic barristers as well as prospective barristers to simply express themselves as they are without needing to change drastically in order to be accepted. My concern is that with the predominant focus on diversity, we pay less attention to inclusivity and struggle to improve the current situation. 

Today, The Black Solicitors Network under their "Big Conversation theme" are discussing the issues relating to the progression of the BAME community to the legal profession and accountability for the leaky pipeline. I will shed light into how the profession as a whole can collectively implement inclusive strategies and initiatives to ensure current and aspiring Black and Minority Ethnic barristers can feel a sense of belonging and acceptance at the Bar. It is only then that real and sustainable change can manifest and permeate all sections of the Bar. 

Karen Safo is a Barrister at Law and human rights activist with several years in the international development sector. Her main interest is in Commercial Law, Public International Law and International Human Rights Law.