Ex-bar leader: commercial chambers interested only in students with top degrees from top universities

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By Judge John Hack on

Despite resources thrown at diversity and equality programmes, chambers still tilt towards elitism when recruiting, say silks


A former Bar Council chairman has confirmed what aspiring barristers have known for ages — if you want to crack the cream of commercial chambers you’d better have a first-class degree from a university that can trace its origins to at least the middle ages.

Michael Todd QC — who led the bar in 2012 — suggested to a recent Law Gazette roundtable that the overriding principle of selecting on merit meant that in some areas of the bar diversity and social mobility programmes were doomed to failure, and elitism carries the day.


“How do you define merit?” Todd (pictured) asked the roundtable. “How do you define who’s going to be a good barrister? What does being a good barrister involve? What are the characteristics that you need to get?

“Unfortunately, the answer that always comes back is — you need a first-class degree from a good university.”

Todd should know of what he speaks. The Erskine Chambers silk specialises in areas of law that often appear closed to those from non-Russell Group or new universities — and, heaven forbid, scraped through with an upper-second.

Erskine’s website promotes Todd — also a former chairman of the Chancery Bar Association — as being a top-drawer company lawyer, specialising in corporate finance, capital markets and corporate insolvency.

Part of the diversity problem, Todd told the Gazette roundtable, is the tidal wave of students gagging to join the commercial bar. The high volume of applications results in the first look being done on paper, with the gaze of practising barristers who fondly remember their Oxbridge and Russell Group days naturally alighting on candidates with similar backgrounds.

“So, inevitably,” Todd told the roundtable, “you’re going to get a particular class of person.”

The Bar Council has devoted considerable effort in a bid to relegate the elitism charge to history. A point acknowledged by another commercial silk at the roundtable, Richard Wilson of 36 Bedford Row.

But Wilson, who is black and himself graduated from Jesus College, Cambridge, remained pessimistic about diversity at the bar, describing the profession as being “segmented and stratified on gender, race and class lines”.

The Bar Council said that Todd had joined the roundtable discussion “in his own personal capacity as a barrister in chambers and not as a Bar Council spokesperson”.