Alexandra Wilson is a 25-year-old barrister speaking out about sexism, racism and class inequality at the very heart of the legal system. She shares her disturbing experiences and why her courageous new memoir and activism will make a difference
As a young mixed-race barrister, clients often comment I’m not who they expect to see representing them in court. It was the same during my time training to join the Bar, I rarely saw a black barrister like me. White, posh, middle-aged men seemed to dominate my profession and I was intimidated by this. It’s a situation that needs to change.
For too long, the Bar has remained an elitist profession for the most wealthy and privileged people. A fact that’s hardly surprising when you consider the post-degree, one-year course (and in many cases, after a law-conversion course) for aspiring barristers is £19,000. I was fortunate to receive a scholarship and bursary, otherwise I’d never have been able to afford it.
In my debut book In Black and White: A Young Barrister’s Story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System, I highlight the gender, racial and class inequalities that still exist at the heart of our justice system. My memoir details my experiences in my first year at the Bar and the cases I encountered along the way.
Sexism in court
Early on in my time as a pupil barrister (the term for a trainee), I was shadowing a senior barrister during a serious Crown Court case. As my colleague proceeded to address the jury, another more senior barrister leaned towards me making inappropriate comments about his genitals under his breath. Sexism at the bar clearly still exists when a male barrister thinks this is an appropriate thing to say to a junior female barrister.
While the recruitment of women at the junior end of the profession has improved (the most recent statistics show that 54.8% of pupil barristers are female), the Bar struggles to retain women. Only 40.2% of non-QC barristers are female and just 16.2% of barristers are QCs. Women are poorly represented at QC level or as judges.
For too long my colleagues accepted that the profession didn’t suit family life. The hours are irregular and there is often an enormous amount of travel. However, lockdown has shown virtual hearings are possible. It’s a shame that it took a global pandemic to force everyone to make these reasonable adjustments for female barristers.
Racism writ large
My experience as a woman in this environment is compounded by the fact that I am black. I will never forget an older, white male barrister approaching me in the Robing Room. He told me he felt the diversity drive in the judiciary was compromising the quality of the judges. There were many other white, male barristers in the Robing Room that day but he chose to speak to me.
The legal profession still lacks diversity. It’s getting better but change is slow, which is frustrating. In the criminal courts it strikes me how overrepresented black people are as defendants. Black people make up only around 3% of the population, yet 11% of prosecutions were of black defendants. I rarely see a fellow black barrister, let alone a black judge.
There are some real advantages to being different. Many of my clients explain they are pleasantly surprised to be represented by a black barrister because I’m someone they can relate to. My clients come from a range of backgrounds and it’s essential the Bar represents that.
Some of the cases I talk about in my book are heartbreaking and have stayed with me long after their time in court. Once I represented a young girl who couldn’t even afford to buy food from the law courts’ vending machine, so I bought her lunch and sat comforting her. I also help babysit young children in court while their mother speaks to the judge. All these experiences make me realise my job is more than just acting as an advocate in court.
Mentoring the sisterhood
Sadly, I come across many vulnerable young people who are being exploited for drugs. These cases are some of the most difficult. Often, I will only meet my client for the first time in court. In just a short space of time they have to put their trust in me on what might be the most important day of their lives.
My work can be very emotionally challenging. How well I advocate in court can affect whether or not a person loses their children, or even their liberty. The most rewarding part of my job is when I secure a favourable verdict that goes some way towards helping a client.
As a black barrister I want to support other black women in my profession, so I recently founded Black Women in Law. It’s a network providing mentorship, guidance and communication between female black barristers, solicitors, academics and anyone aspiring to make it in one of these careers. It’s essential in my profession to have a strong support network, particularly as a black woman. It can make a real difference.
* In Black and White: A Young Barrister’s Story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System by Alexandra Wilson is published by Endeavour, £16.99. You can also follow Alex at @essexbarrister on Instagram and Twitter