By Adeola Fadipe.
Opening my emails to find an offer of pupillage back in 2019 was a moment I will never forget. As a young black, state-educated, woman I had overcome many obstacles to reach that point. That said, it was not all down to my own effort. As a student, I had been selected for highly competitive outreach initiatives. The generosity of the late HHJ Jeremy McMullen QC, a former member of Old Square Chambers, meant that in my second year I was able to benefit from the award he set up with the Middle Temple. The fully funded mini-pupillage and marshalling experience allowed me to start building a network of mentors and advisors, as well as gaining a better understanding of the Bar. Similarly, there were other diversity schemes that invested in me by providing access to practising barristers and quality work experience. I thrived due to regular mock interviews, professional workshops and advocacy opportunities. These initiatives were a game-changer for me, especially since the statistics for black students hoping to enter the profession do not make for good reading. The latest BSB report depicts the disparity in obtaining pupillage for those BPTC graduates from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds who enrolled from 2014-2018 as compared to their white counterparts. For instance, of UK/EU domiciled BPTC graduates with an upper-second class degree and Very Competent overall BPTC grade, 41 per cent of them from white backgrounds had commenced pupillage, compared to just 23 per cent of the BAME cohort with the same degree class/BPTC grade.
During Bar school, I met many impressive black and ethnic minority students on the Bar course, some of whom were working part-time to support themselves and others with significant caring responsibilities. When my pupillage post went viral on social media, I received an influx of requests for mentoring and support with the pupillage process, particularly from young black women.
The barriers for non-traditional applicants entering the profession include the high course fees and unconscious bias on the part of some pupillage recruitment panels. For this reason, I became determined to support talented and diverse individuals in navigating the pupillage process.
The first person I went to for advice was Dame Linda Dobbs DBE, former High Court judge and the first black women to be appointed to that role. The guidance she provided as well as her words of encouragement gave me added fuel to get the project off the ground. I set up the BME Legal Intensive Support Programme (“the ISP”) in November 2019, with the help of 25 barristers and QCs from a range of different Chambers. We are all united in our commitment to increasing diversity at the Bar. The ISP is focused on empowering more black students, ethnic minority students and those from low-socio economic backgrounds to improve their skills to obtain pupillage and prestigious scholarships. We provide quality training and work with the unique skillset and personality that every participant brings. Getting a place on the ISP is a highly competitive process, with a paper sift, an interview, an advocacy exercise and just a handful of places. Those successful can expect to be assigned a practising barrister who assumes the role of a dedicated mentor. All of the practitioners have been very generous in volunteering their time. From hosting us in their chambers to leading professional workshops to equip the mentees for success. As a team, we have worked collaboratively to achieve real, tangible impact.
The success of the initiative has been undeniable. In the first year of the programme 4 of the 7 participants that applied were awarded prestigious Inns of Court Scholarships and 3 of the 9 that applied for pupillage have now been successful. In the second year, 2 of the 5 participants that applied were awarded Inns of Court Scholarships and 3 of the 8 that applied for pupillage have been successful, with others to follow no doubt.
Adjoa Adjei-Ntow, having participated in the BME Legal programme, obtained pupillage at a tier 1 ranked chambers in London. She said of her experience on the programme:
“I am so grateful for the support that BME Legal provided, and without it I doubt I would have obtained pupillage when I did, after just one round of gateway applications. Through the Intensive Support Programme, I was not only connected to a great mentor, but other barristers who were willing to help me through the application process. The advice I received and the mock interview practice was invaluable and I would highly encourage others to apply!”
This Black History Month is a reminder of how much more needs to be done. But also, how much more is possible. We use feedback from our mentees to constantly improve our offering and also share qualitative data with different chambers who are committed to embedding inclusivity into their pupillage recruitment process. There is so much more planned for the future of BME Legal, with exciting collaborations in the pipeline, as well as our website and newsletter launch at the end of the year.
In early November 2021, applications will open for the next cohort of diverse candidates and future stars of the Bar. If you would like to find out more about BME Legal, our website will be live soon, but in the meantime please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on social media.
William Meade (Senior Clerk)