Sam Mercer
Sam Mercer has run the Bar Council’s equality & diversity and social responsibility programmes for the last seven years. She is responsible for the design and delivery of support for the profession. This includes E&D training and good practice guidance, as well as the provision of direct advice and support to chambers and individuals.

This article is very different to one I might have written earlier this year. The Covid-19 pandemic has and continues to shift the landscape fundamentally. At the time of writing, predicting the position when you read this is impossible. I hope by the time this article goes to print we have greater clarity on how we manage the coming months and the issues we are grappling with today, many of which relate to equality and diversity at the Bar.

Over the course of 2020, the Bar Council has been, and continues to, fight to protect the profession, alongside the Circuits, Specialist Bar Associations and of course, the Inns of Court. Priorities from an equality and diversity perspective in the initial stages of the public health crisis were around rapid impact assessments, ensuring Government measures supported those within our profession in greatest need and that no one was left behind.

Many across the self-employed Bar and those running chambers have faced stark choices, whilst those in employment faced different challenges, but equally uncertain futures. Those who were in more vulnerable positions prior to the crisis; pupils, new tenants and those with caring responsibilities (primarily women), were much more exposed when the lockdown started. Our initial priority, with the limited resources available, was to protect these groups.

We can already see more limited opportunities for pupillage over the coming years as chambers tighten their belts and try to recover. Some pupils just ending their first six when the crisis hit faced ‘pauses’ on their pupillages, placing qualification in jeopardy. Others struggled to secure the court experience they needed to qualify and were apprehensive of reduced opportunities for tenancy. Some junior tenants, struggling with existing debt, did not have the reserves to ride out the storm. And it is not just juniors. Many across the Bar saw work dry up and diaries empty, struggled with childcare at home and encountered technical as well as wellbeing challenges resulting from too much (or too little) isolation.

My fear is that the incredible work done by so many to increase diversity in the profession risks being set back years, as those barristers with fewer resources to cushion the blows delivered by this crisis were, and continue to be, the hardest hit. Sadly, it is probable these barristers may be more likely to come from less traditional backgrounds.

Early this year, the Bar Council had in place a comprehensive programme of work in the form of its accelerator programme, aiming to speed up the positive pace of change in favour of diversity across the Bar. This consists of nine projects, four of which focus on fair allocation of work, from clerking to the legal directories and solicitor practices. Others address the Bar’s culture, promoting mentoring, tackling harassment and bullying and modelling innovative flexible working solutions. It is and remains an exciting and vital agenda. We have built an extensive network of stakeholders, key practitioners and clerks, on Circuit and in the various specialist practice areas. This important work continues, and the lessons learnt from the lockdown, particularly around flexible ways of working, may change the way we work at a speed we could not have anticipated when the programme was conceived. We believe some of the changes we grappled with in the early days of lockdown and a growing understanding of working remotely may eventually benefit all members of the Bar.

A huge positive is the sense of a profession coming together to support each other. The joy in my job is witnessing the generosity displayed by members of the profession, willing to give their time and expertise to support our work. The efforts being made throughout the crisis to save the pupillages we could, to share ideas and good practice, to maintain collegiality and provide mutual support was and continues to be inspiring – from those who were aware of our mental wellbeing as we socially distanced, offering mindfulness, online yoga and virtual chambers’ teas, to those negotiating hard with the Government for financial support and to keep the justice system going.

From a diversity perspective, it is always important to focus on the positives and look to the future. If we can grab hold of those aspects of our work that worked under ‘lockdown’ and fine tune them, we may yet all benefit from an innovation dividend – more flexibility, fewer hours on trains, and more opportunities for those juggling work-life balance. It has to be worth reaching for.

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