In May 2019, I received an offer of pupillage from Outer Temple Chambers, I was (and still am) elated, grateful and relieved. I fully expected to return to Bar school and celebrate the wins of others; the scholarship kids, the black British women, and the other warm-hearted and hard-working individuals I had come to know.
This was far from the reality. My one cycle, 6 application success seemed a rarity. Having attended countless pupillage events, completed access initiatives and sat in awkward waiting rooms (anyone for two helpings of nervous energy?), it became clear to me that candidates from diverse backgrounds were being left behind. The impetus to do something was strong and so I picked up BME Legal, a group formed to assist diverse candidates enter the legal profession, from where I left it upon graduating from the University of Hull, where the group first started.
One of our offerings; the Intensive Support Programme, provides monthly professional workshops, mentoring and mock interviews over six months to diverse candidates hoping to obtain scholarships and pupillage. With the help of mentors at the Bar, 20% of participants on the 2019/20 programme accepted offers of pupillage and 60% were awarded prestigious scholarships from their respective Inns of Court.
Here are some things I learned which I hope will help you and your chambers to recruit and retain diverse talent.
Mini-pupillages are helpful in providing an insight into the profession, but effective mentoring goes further; it really does make all the difference between obtaining pupillage or not. An effective mentor is invested, genuinely interested and willing to spend time building the professional relationship. Of course from a mentee’s perspective, displaying commitment, drive and being teachable are qualities which make the mentor’s role a more fulfilling one. The ISP selection process ensures that only the most committed candidates are chosen and we seek to match them with genuinely committed mentors.
Mentoring is a powerful tool of encouragement for mentees as it provides an opportunity for practitioners to encourage them with personal anecdotes about their own journey to the Bar and to give candid accounts of past failures overcome by perseverance. The background of mentors is largely immaterial. It is the openness and willingness to help those who, without such schemes, would struggle to access information and make contacts in the profession. We provide training and support to ensure that those practitioners who want to help feel empowered to do so.
It’s time to look inward. “They just don’t apply”, “we only choose the best” . If these are responses that you and/or colleagues in chambers use when asked why there is little to no diversity among members, or why all your pupils look the same, then quite frankly the issue starts with you. Research has shown that diverse organisations are more profitable. Does your chambers have a recruitment process which enables diverse candidates to excel? The feedback from candidates on the ISP about their pupillage recruitment experiences has been eye-opening.
If you want to get the best candidate, give everyone an equal opportunity to shine. Give everyone the same take-home written assessment over seven days. Provide a quiet space for each candidate to take the one hour written assessment prior to their interview. These are just a few examples of best practice. Signing your chambers up to diversity initiatives is the bare minimum you can do. It may be time for your management committee to take action following inward-looking, meaningful conversations about what diversity really looks like and how best to assign resources in pursuit of equality.
If you would like to join us in making a tangible difference, then please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adeola Fadipe is a pupil barrister at Outer Temple Chambers and the founder of BME Legal.