In Black and White: A young barrister’s story of race and class in a broken justice system by Alexandra Wilson Endeavour, £16.99

J’accuse: the legal system in the dock

As a pupil, Alexandra Wilson frequently encountered racially loaded assumptions. In court, clients assumed she was a defendant


This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

A trainee barrister is called a pupil. They shadow a fully-fledged barrister for six months then can get up on their own feet in court and start earning money (not a lot of it at first). Pupils are not paid by the chambers although generous scholarships are often available (unlike in my time). Pupils are often exploited. I had to deliver papers to a QC who lived in faraway Ealing and I used to overhear my pupil master betting more on a single race than I earned in my six months with him.

In the first chambers where I was a pupil, tenants (the permanent members of chambers) had wooden coat-hangers while pupils could only use the metal ones. In the second we had to buy tea and cakes for the tenants’ daily teas and yet we were not allowed to drink or eat what we had bought. Now barristers are too busy for the daily tea ritual and even pupils probably would not put up with this.

‘Networking’ after court was and is a big part of the lifestyle

My first pupil master had such a big practice that at one time he had four pupils in tow. It is now forbidden by the Bar Council for a barrister to take more than one pupil at any one time. That chambers contained a young barrister called Anthony Blair who appeared to have an excellent career ahead of him at the Bar. In another chambers one of my pupil contemporaries played chess with the head of chambers and always let him win; alas, he still did not get taken on as a tenant although he went on to a distinguished career elsewhere.

In those days a pupil also had to pay for pupillage (the going rate being 100 guineas) although my pupil master “generously” (as he told me) agreed that he would not seek it from me. In those days the chambers clerks (a mixture of theatrical agent and administrative guru) were more powerful: some told stories of making and breaking those at the start of their career, especially women, although there were not many of them.

Often, we pupils were pushed in at the deep end: a senior member of chambers would at the last minute not be able to come to a court hearing (often because he was booked simultaneously in several courts that day) and we were required to “hold his brief”, learn his lines and go into bat at the last minute. That was how you learned (and fast). 

In those days, “contacts” were usually necessary for a career at the Bar. Chambers positions often went to members of tenants’ extended families. Even if not as unsubtle as this, they looked for “people like us”. I had no lawyers in my family nor any legal acquaintances at all (unusual for a Jewish family, I know).

Wilson was motivated to become a criminal barrister because her cousin died in a knife assault

Such travails of a young barrister as set out by Alexandra Wilson in her excellent book were to some extent the same as mine (only more so). Like me, on her first day she got there very early, an hour before the court opened; she suffered from imposter syndrome; she was made uncomfortable by the fact that so much judging of pupils occurred by socialising after work; she got locked into her chambers because she was working when everyone else had gone home. The purchase of the wig and gown dealt a real blow to her finances. 

She says pupillage is “a magic roundabout where you wake up, work, go to court, go to an event, work and sometimes sleep”. I will drink to that, and drinking was a major part of the culture. “Networking” after court was and is a big part of the lifestyle.

I was an outsider to a limited extent as a northerner educated at a state school. But Alexandra’s problems were magnified by her blackness whereas I was pale and am now also somewhat stale. Her grandparents came to the UK from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation to rebuild Britain. During her pupillage she frequently encountered racially loaded assumptions. She describes how on several occasions she was approached at court and asked if she was in fact the barrister. 

Indeed, just after the book came out she was quoted widely in the media as having been asked this three times in a single day (in one instance being mistaken for a defendant). She also recalls the offhand remarks which reveal racism, such as talk about minorities being promoted to the judiciary without merit.

Alexandra Wilson with her family

She was motivated to become a criminal barrister because her cousin Ayo died in a knife assault. Some of her cousins were hostile to her choice of profession, which must be difficult to cope with. She felt out of place on her first court appearance as the only black person in the room. She gives a fascinating account of her early cases: the sheer relentlessness of getting papers the day before the case and meeting clients for the first time at court. She vividly describes difficult judges and solicitors who do not serve their clients well (although many do). 

There is a poignant description of the devastation wreaked to young lives by the county lines drug gangs. She has represented many drawn into criminality in this insidious way by older men flashing their cash and apparently glamorous lifestyle. There is an interesting account of various criminal sanctions and whether they work, and of the tragic lives of many defendants and the still low numbers of black barristers. She also brings to life what she aptly calls “pupillage paranoia” — the feeling that the small mistakes you make in front of judges will be reported back to chambers and you might not be taken on as a tenant. 

It is a shame that she does not name the chambers where she did her pupillage. My message to Alexandra: the early years are worth it but keep fighting against injustice.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover