Print Edition - 2019-02-20  |  The Guardian

The legal profession is rife with prejudice

  • As a junior barrister in 2015, I went public about sexual harassment. Attitudes haven’t changed a bit since then
- Charlotte Proudman

Feb 20, 2019-

The barrister Joanna Hardy took to Twitter to highlight sexism in the legal profession last week. In one of her tweets, she wrote: “If you’re a male in a male-heavy case, don’t ask the female counsel to fetch the coffee/pour your water. Try to remember their names. Don’t make repetitive jokes about breasts or skirts. Don’t communicate solely in innuendo.” It is a sad state of affairs that in the more than 100 years since women have practised law, we still remain marginalised in the senior rankings of the profession, and sexism is endemic.

While gender inequality in the legal profession is rightly making headlines, there are other intersectional patterns of inequality, such as class and race, that rarely garner as much attention when they should be at the forefront of the fight for equality. When I talk about equality, I mean overhauling the legal profession so that the law reflects the society it represents: people from all walks of life.

I know better than most that the legal profession is inherently sexist. As a junior barrister I have spoken publicly about sexual harassment. In 2015, I hit the headlines after tweeting a message sent by a senior solicitor (twice my age) on LinkedIn in which he referred to my photograph as “stunning” while ignoring my professional skills.

I continue to hear complaints from colleagues who have been the butt of lewd sexual jokes in the robing room or who have been bullied by male judges who have an issue with women. A colleague was asked to tie back her hair as her flowing locks were a distraction for one male judge. Lady Arden, the third woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, recently revealed how she was advised not to pursue a career at the bar on account of her being a woman—regardless, she pursued her ambition and became one of the first two women to take silk.

The #MeToo movement has failed to put even a dint in the structures of power in the legal profession. A recent survey by Legal Week showed that 64percent of women in law firms had experienced sexual harassment at work. In law, power is concentrated in the hands of the few, mainly white, privileged men who remain unscathed from outside noise. Men make up 71percent of partners of large law firms, 85percent of silks and 72percent of the judiciary. The figures alone show that meritocracy is a myth.

Despite the fact that privilege and inequality go hand in hand, class is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. The legal profession remains effectively closed to those from poorer backgrounds: 22percent of solicitors attended a fee-paying school, and the cost of attending law school is prohibitively expensive (bar school costs more than £18,000), which puts people from less affluent backgrounds out of the race.

I went to a local comprehensive school in the Midlands, where the kids laughed when I said I wanted to be a lawyer. I attended a university that virtually no one has heard of—Keele. But I had never experienced the north-south divide quite so viscerally as when I started bar school in London. I was told by one male barrister that I would never make it, while others mansplained pronunciation to me, attempting to tone down my brash accent. Such comments reinforce an outsider status in a profession that should be open to everyone.

Race has long been an issue in the legal profession.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals make up just 8percent of partners of large law firms, 8percent of judges and only 7.2percent of those in silk . This does not fairly represent the BAME population in the UK of about 13percent.

This under-representation throughout the legal profession can lead to systematic racism. The first black woman to be made a high court judge was appointed, shamefully, only 15 years ago. Dame Linda Dobbs has spoken about her experiences of racism and sexism, ranging from briefs being passed to male barristers because of her inferior gendered status or being instructed in cases because her status as a black minority would help the case.

I have long been a supporter of quotas for women from all backgrounds because I want to see equality in my lifetime. History shows that powerful men won’t give up their seat at the table unless they are made to make way for women. Mentorship schemes and scholarships for people from less affluent backgrounds are essential to ensuring access to the profession. I had a supportive mentor and I was awarded a scholarship, all of which helped me make it to the bar. Achieving gender, class and race parity needs to be the aim of the legal profession, so that we properly reflect the society we represent—and inequality is stamped out for good.

Published: 20-02-2019 10:09

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