Alexandra Wilson is a junior criminal and family law barrister. In her new book, In Black and White, she shares her experiences as a young female mixed-race barrister. In the extract below, she recalls her first day in court as a pupil
The courtroom was large with pale-lemon coloured walls, which made it hard to work out whether it was intentionally painted yellow or it was once white and had slowly faded. The colour matched the off-white tinge of the barrister’s wigs. It was a huge case and there were lots of bodies in the courtroom: four defendants, the judge, the clerk, the usher, the IT technician, eight barristers and a nervous, smiley pupil – me. I glanced around the courtroom, quickly at first and then again, slower this time, taking in the small details of everyone’s face. I began to play the game I’d played my whole life: ‘spot the black person’.
Spot the black person is a game you are never taught to play, it’s like the unspoken ‘black nod’ when you see another black or mixed-race person at a mostly white event. It’s an acknowledgment that you are a minority in the environment and it’s a way of bringing some light-hearted humour or ease to a situation you feel uncomfortable in. And I did feel uncomfortable. I worried that people would look at me as the token pupil who had been taken on to boost the Bar’s diversity statistics; or even just as a work experience student. I worried that people would think that a mixed-race Essex girl couldn’t really be a pupil barrister.
These were legitimate worries. Although I didn’t experience any confrontation during that first case, there were moments during my training where people weren’t subtle in their astonishment at my achievements. I was shadowing a divorce case when a fairly young, white, privately educated female barrister (I looked her up afterwards), opened a conversation with me by saying: ‘You must be on work experience? How are you finding the law?’
I reassured her that I was a trainee barrister. You could tell she couldn’t quite believe her eyes. After a further ten questions I’d clearly passed her authenticity checks and she proceeded to tap away at her mobile phone and ignored me for the rest of the morning.
Of course, I wish it didn’t matter what I looked like or where I came from. I wish that I hadn’t been bothered by what everyone else in the courtroom looked like that first day on the job. My whole life my parents have tried to instil a strong sense of ‘it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing, worry about what you are doing.’ But it did matter. When I looked around the courtroom that morning, I couldn’t help but feel out of place. It was obvious that no one there looked like me. Everyone was white.
Heading to the advocates’ robing room after the trial, I still couldn’t see anyone that looked even remotely like me. The robing room sounds a lot more majestic than it is. Most courts have a room for barristers to get changed into their robes and these rooms vary hugely in size. In the Central Criminal Court (‘the Old Bailey’), where the most serious crimes in the country are tried, the robing rooms are fairly large and spacious with huge tables for barristers to work at. In other courts around the country the robing room is as big as a toilet cubicle and only one person can use it at a time. Some courts don’t have a robing room and so corridors and actual toilet cubicles are the changing room of choice.
The larger robing rooms are often scattered with old case files (despite the numerous signs warning us not to leave any papers in there) and bits that people have left behind. I have found half-eaten sandwiches, mouldy bananas, broken phone chargers and even someone’s dentures. One robing room had a substantial leak so all of the barristers’ coats were damp when they returned from their hearings. Another robing room had no working lock for a while so barristers kept having their belongings stolen.
The robing rooms are often divided by gender and in many courts the male robing rooms are larger, which emphasises the historic gender imbalance. I would often blindly follow my male supervisor into male robing rooms. He’d joke that although most men actually wouldn’t care, I might not want to see an elderly man strip naked merely to change his shirt collar. I couldn’t agree more.
There were two female barristers (out of eight) in that first case I observed during pupillage, and they were both exceptional advocates. One of them was already a big name at the Bar and a Queen’s Counsel, and the other was relatively junior but had already represented clients in a number of high-profile cases and was recognised as a star-in-the-making.
The more senior of the two would not be returning to court after that morning. She represented one of the wives in the case – who had initially been charged with money laundering – and had successfully had the wife’s case dismissed. The case proceeded against the others leaving just one other female barrister.
At the end of the case, the junior female barrister passed on her contact details and offered to be there if I ever needed her. She said that she had been impressed with how much I had helped with legal research and that my note (which I had helpfully emailed to all of the barristers) had really assisted her in her preparation. Her willingness to take time out of her busy schedule to support another woman whose career was clearly its infancy was admirable. This little act of kindness didn’t go unnoticed. It was my first experience of how supportive women are of each other at the Bar and I immediately felt pride in being able to be a part of this profession.
Despite this gesture of solidarity, my first day made me realise how important it is for people like me to be able to see people who look like us in the legal profession. Rather than sticking out like a sore thumb, we need to be able to walk into courtrooms and see an equal balance of women and men, in senior positions as well as junior positions. There should be representatives from all types of ethnic and racial backgrounds that better reflect the public we serve. Feeling like an imposter plagued my memory of an otherwise excellent first day of pupillage.
Extracted from In Black and White by Alexandra Wilson (Endeavour, £16.99).
Alexandra Wilson is a guest on A Drink with the Idler on Thursday 24 September. Join us here.