Barriers Beyond the Bar

From The Practice November/December 2020
Highlighting key stories about the profession you may have missed

In this issue of The Practice, we explore the power of personal narratives, the prevalence of occupational inheritance (see “Following in Their Footsteps”), and how issues like race and gender intersect in the careers of lawyers. While primarily focused on the U.S. legal profession, a recent profile in the New York Times, “‘What a Barrister Looks Like’: A Young Black Woman Paves the Way,” paints a portrait of Alexandra Wilson, a first-generation lawyer and barrister in the United Kingdom and author of the recently published memoir, In Black and White: A Young Barrister’s Story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System.

The daughter of teachers—her father, the son of Jamaican immigrants, and her mother, the daughter of a working-class British family—Wilson set her sights on a legal career early. From the beginning, she realized she was fighting an uphill battle, with some suggesting her education and career goals were, according to the New York Times piece, “too ambitious.” Nevertheless, Wilson went on to study at the University of Oxford before graduating with her Graduate Diploma in Law and Master of Laws at BPP University in London. “When she graduated from Oxford—after studying in classrooms where she was often the only Black student—and applied for a legal traineeship, peers told her it would be impossible,” writes Megan Specia in Wilson’s New York Times profile. “And when she became a barrister, they said she wouldn’t fit in.”

The numbers for diversity among U.K. barristers hardly suggest a warm welcome. As Specia notes, per the Bar Standards Board, women make up just 38 percent of all U.K. barristers and 16 percent of the most senior barristers. For Black barristers, those figures are 3.2 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively. “I think we like to think of ourselves as this post-racial society where race doesn’t exist and we all live in racial harmony, and frankly, it’s not true,” Wilson says. “We can’t just fool ourselves into thinking that everyone has the exact same life chances and everyone is on a level playing field, because they are not.”

As Wilson has documented, she serves as living proof of that inequality. Indeed, she has been mistaken for a defendant in court no less than three times. Nevertheless, Wilson is undeterred, having pushed for reform within U.K. courts in both how diversity is understood and how it is enforced and founded the organization Black Women in Law as both a support and professional development network. Wilson hopes her path ultimately creates more opportunities for potential lawyers who “don’t fit in.” “It’s so important that kids see Black female lawyers,” she says. “I didn’t, and I wanted to.”

Want to know more?

‘What a Barrister Looks Like’: A Young Black Woman Paves the Way,” New York Times

Essex Black Barrister Mistaken for Defendant to Meet Courts Boss,” BBC

Diversity at the Bar 2019,” Bar Standards Board


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