‘I’d be shouted at because I left the pub at 10 o’clock rather than 11pm’, says bullied former pupil barrister

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New bar study finds rookies ‘particularly vulnerable’ to bullying and harassment

Pupil barristers are “particularly vulnerable” to bullying, harassment and discrimination, new research has found, with one bar rookie recalling how they were shouted at by their then-supervisor for leaving the pub early.

The incident is just one of a number of shocking examples of inappropriate behaviour documented in a new study released this week by the Bar Standards Board (BSB).

The unnamed barrister told researchers: “When I was a pupil I was really bullied in chambers by my supervisor — every piece of work I did wasn’t good enough. I’d be shouted at because I left the pub at 10 o’clock rather than 11pm.”

The study, conducted by YouGov on behalf of the regulator, saw 35 telephone interviews conducted with 30 barristers, and five non-barristers, who had directly experienced or observed discrimination and harassment at the bar.

“I was aware of a pupil barrister who was sexually harassed by a senior member of chambers,” another respondent recalled. “This happened at least once a week.” Another barrister spoke of the time “two drunk males made very offensive remarks” about her chest. “I was deeply upset about it but wasn’t going to say anything about it,” she recounted.

The study found the bar’s unique structure — most barristers are self employed and reliant on clerks for work, with little in the way of a formal management team — allowed harassment and discrimination to “slip through the net”. Pupil barristers who are early on in their careers and reliant on chambers for their progression, were seen as “particularly vulnerable”.

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Researchers found the vast majority of respondents interviewed had not formally reported their experiences, amid fears it would negatively impact their reputation, earning potential and career progression.

The report concludes that for anti-harassment policies and procedures to be effective, “there needs to be a shift in culture at the bar to encourage openness and to discourage inappropriate behaviour, with a role for the BSB, the Bar Council and other stakeholders in driving change and offering support”.

Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the bar, said:

“This report is a helpful reminder that everyone at the bar needs to keep shining a light on bullying, discrimination and harassment. The BSB’s findings reflect our own experience of work on this behaviour which has long-term negative consequences for individuals and the profession as a whole.”

Similar research, published by the Bar Council in 2018, found that bullying at the bar was up by was up 5%, with 21% of employed and 12% of self-employed barristers reporting that they had personally experienced mistreatment at work.

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Depressing to see the polarisation on this thread.

The Bar is a place which requires a bit of mental fortitude, which should be reflected in the ability to say to your supervisor “I’m going home” and to not feel the world has ended because you get shouted at for doing so. Shout back – you’ll probably be respected for it.

On the other hand, who shouts at someone for going home at 10pm? Maybe the poor pupil had a 90 minute commute and an early start, or kids, or the need to eat, or needed to iron clothes for the next day. Or maybe s/he just got bored by a drunk, pompous show-off!

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Younger people today have been conditioned by schools to be alert (and feel offended by) “bullying“ which people of my generation simply tolerated or engaged in. I see this in my own children who are in their mid twenties and sometimes exhibit “snowflake” traits. They are slightly censorious, easily shocked/outraged, and spend lots of time worried about things I’d never thought about – such as being inclusive and “checking privilege”. In short, they have been conditioned to see every human interaction as a potential “micro-aggression” based on some sub-conscious bias, and their obligation as more enlightened creatures is to eradicate “wrong think” and make the world “equal”.

The upside is it makes them conscious of their impact on others – and in fairness more considerate. The downside is they perceive lots of fairly harmless behaviour as “bullying” and “targeting”, overreact and lack a degree of robustness which is still necessary in life. Queue upset when confronted the realities of life don’t match what they have been conditioned to expect.

What is today classed as “bullying” by younger people (and those who manage them) often isn’t what my generation would class as bullying – and a lot of people used to suffer some pretty unpleasant experiences by being the target of behaviour which wasn’t meant to be offensive but actually was. Some learnt to toughen up, others suffered in silence. Personality differences come into play at this point.

So as ever a balance is needed. Younger people may need to toughen-up slightly, and may need to be taught how to be assertive (a skill rarely taught but always useful), because the world isn’t wrapped in cotton wool and we don’t all walk around holding hands singing Kum-by-ya! Least of all at the Bar.

But I do think my generation (I’m in my 50s) may need to understand that what we used to think of as jokey, inoffensive behaviour, is actually quite offensive at times – and yes, if someone wants to go home at 10pm, that’s actually ok, and it’s not really OK to demean someone for doing so.

As for proper harassment, targeted bullying and discrimination in the workplace, it’s there – but thankfully, and in my view, much less prevalent than it was even 20 years ago.


A very considered and measured response


The problem with these sorts of reports is it gives too much focus to the perceptions of those at the extremes of sensitivities and that harms sensible engagement of the sort advocated above, especially when the Bar Council trumpet the contents as the basis to wage even more of their battles against the sensible middle. The commissioning of this sort of report is in and of itself a disgrace and part of the problem not the solution.

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