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Taking the fear out of being different at the bar

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Hardwicke’s Brie Stevens-Hoare QC on why she’s backing FreeBar, a new bar-wide LGBT+ initiative

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Visibility is important. One of our pupils recently told me that references I’d made to my partner, Paula, during some work experience he did before joining us had been an important signal for him that he could be himself at the bar. I’m also aware of one chambers which lost out on their first choice pupil because he was concerned about not fitting in there — which was ironic because one of their senior members is an active founding member of FreeBar.

So it can be very much luck of the draw for aspiring barristers. Certainly it’s fair to say that the bar hasn’t been the best at communicating its (often progressive) stance on diversity and inclusion.

A lot has changed since I started out as a barrister in the 1980s. At the beginning of my career I had only been in relationships with men, although as a teetotal vegetarian woman keen to specialise in civil work I quickly gained experience of being “other”. When I fell in love with a woman, who was a fellow barrister at Hardwicke, coming out felt daunting. In a large part this was because there were no visible examples of people who had done it, so we had no idea how people would react.

Happily, after experiencing a lot of stress over it, we received a great deal of support from the members of what has always been a modern and liberal set. A significant moment was when one of the senior clerks let us know in a gentle way that he had sussed us. For him to take that initiative made life so much easier. Still, even here, we used to get the occasional comment from a few individuals, usually after they’d had a few drinks. That has not been the case for a long time now.

My career has been a gradual process of becoming more confident to express my identity. My preference has always been to be myself and the strategy was to decide with each person I meet to what degree I need to edit my conversation. It’s usually a 30 second process, sometimes less. Part of the challenge for me, being a very open person, is that I am not very good at pretending not to be me. And no doubt this openness informs how I work. Some barristers are much more private, which also comes through in the way they work. The extent to which you disclose who you are including your sexual orientation, LGBT+ or not, is very much a personal decision.

Since I became a QC in 2013, I feel more responsibility to be visible, to support and encourage others to be confident of being visible. As a lesbian and only the 287th woman to take silk in the history of the legal profession of England and Wales — a pretty shocking statistic! — I’m conscious that I am role model but I want to be the sort that empowers others.

With FreeBar, the new LGBT+ forum being championed by chambers including Hardwicke, Matrix, 5 Paper Buildings, No5 and 3 Hare Court, in association with Stonewall, we are working to see LGBT+ issues considered on a more organisational and profession-wide basis. The focus is not only on barristers but the whole bar community including chambers staff and everyone whose work revolves around the bar. We are also encouraging straight “allies” to get involved, an approach that has proved successful for Interlaw, one of the main solicitor LGBT+ groups, but is new to the bar. Complimenting the work supporting individual barristers that is done by the Barristers Lesbian and Gay Group (BLAGG), hopefully FreeBar can help to develop a wider collective voice for the bar on LGBT+ and more generally on diversity and inclusion.

As I have seen with my young colleagues, LGBT+ people at the start of their careers remain in need of more reassurance and encouragement. We need to take away the fear for those who don’t have the privilege I have of seniority and being on the inside. With the privilege I know most of the bar to be very accepting, supportive and not to be feared.

Brie Stevens-Hoare QC is a barrister at Hardwicke.

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