Narrow minds and own goals

Social exclusion at the bar is as old-fashioned and damaging to lawyers as racism is to football

Susan Belgrave, barrister,  9 Gough Square
Susan Belgrave, barrister, 9 Gough Square

Allegations of racial abuse in football are such a hot topic that even a football agnostic such as myself has ­become aware of them. Last month I was bemused to see footage of Porto fans allegedly shouting racist ­epithets and making monkey noises aimed at Manchester City’s black players while having a few black players on the field themselves. Cognitive dissonance much?

Race is one of the fault lines in ­social policy. Add to that sexual orientation, religion, disability, age and sex, and you have my staple diet as an employment barrister and equality and diversity officer in chambers. While it is true that the fight for equality of opportunity, if not equality of outcome, has made considerable advances since I was called to the bar in 1989, there is still work to be done. This is as true for ourprofession as it is for society as a whole.

The bar has evolved from the frosty reception that issues of diversity first received to an open embrace that seems genuine in its attempts at ­inclusiveness, even if sometimes slow in execution.

Talk of discrimination used to be met with derision, disbelief and an offended silence. Less frequent now are the days I am mistaken for a court clerk or even a waitress in the Inns of Court. Few would now imply that women or minorities are expecting preferential treatment because they complain of the shortage of people like themselves in the upper ­echelons of the profession.

There is a widespread recognition that simply saying anyone can ­become a barrister if they are good enough does not mean talent will ­effortlessly then rise from Newcastle to Belgravia. The bar has historically been the preserve of the middle classes who can set their children on the right career path as easily as they send them to piano and tennis ­lessons. It is almost impossible when your family, your friends, your school and your neighbourhood have not even a passing acquaintance with the cloistered world of the Temple. This is a pernicious waste of talent. Exclusion based on social class is still something we have to work on.

We can consider how we select our pupils to give those without the ­advantage money can buy the entrée into our world their talent deserves.
There are many outreach ­programmes encouraging children from state schools to have work placements or mini-pupillages in chambers.

The more the bar reflects society, the more society will respect the bar, not as grasping elitists slightly less disliked than bankers, but rather as a profession that is ­important to the fabric of society. The future of the profession depends on how we adapt to an increasingly ­diverse society and market for our services.

Footballing antics often make me wonder whether we are making any progress in society, but then I remind myself that, through many invisible steps, the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.