Top QC under fire for suggesting pupil barristers should have ‘well polished shoes’ and a ‘proper haircut’

By on

Former Bar Council chief Richard Atkins apologises for posting tweet quoting recently deceased judge

A top QC has come under fire for suggesting pupil barristers should have “well polished shoes” and a “proper hair cut”.

In a tweet last week, Richard Atkins QC, who served as the chair of the Bar Council last year, appeared to back the views of a recently deceased High Court judge.

His tweet was dismissed as “outdated” by the legal Twitterati, with many questioning what a “proper haircut” is and what a barrister even looks like.

Family barrister Lisa Edmunds wrote:

“The profession needs to look forwards and not backwards … ‘look like a barrister’ means what exactly? I’m all for smart and professional but that sounds old school and Dickensian to me.”

Meanwhile, One Essex Court commercial barrister, David Wolfson, said, “A barrister isn’t meant to ‘look like’ anything. A barrister should ‘be’ many things: courageous, fair, determined, reliable, honest and (at least) competent”.

He added: “I believe you can be all of those things, even if your shoes aren’t well-polished.”

The latest comments from across Legal Cheek

Others reminded Atkins that it’s 2020, not 1920, and, as one silk quipped, “Wait a minute! We’re supposed to get fully dressed for court these days? I thought that ended in March? #tophalfonly #dontstandup”.

Human rights lawyer, Dabaleena Dasgupta, said “this idea of ‘looking like a barrister’ is rooted in patriarchy, racism and classism”. She elaborated: “Because when that advice was given and sadly still much of the time now, ‘looking like a barrister’ means being male, white, and posh.”

Atkins’ tweet referred to an obituary in The Times (£) of the former High Court judge and fellow Bar Council chairman Sir Robert Johnson QC.

It described Johnson as “a believer in being correctly dressed” and someone who “adhered longer than most to the traditional male barrister’s attire of a black jacket and waistcoat, pinstripe trousers, stiff collar and bowler hat”.

The obituary concluded: “He expected his pupils to have their hair properly cut and to wear well polished shoes. ‘Even if you don’t know any law … you can at least look like a barrister'”, he is reported to have said.

Atkins, who heads northern set St Philips Chambers, told Legal Cheek that the tweet was intended to pay homage to Johnson. He said:

“I am sorry that the message I tweeted on Thursday quoting Sir Robert Johnson has caused some people upset. That was not my intention, I had never intended to offend anyone. I had intended to pay homage to Sir Robert Johnson, a man who set high standards for so many things. It was also intended to be light-hearted. I have spent a large part of my life seeking to promote a modern, forward thinking, diverse bar, open to all, and will continue to do so.”

The Twitter row comes as a war of words erupted between family law firm Vardags and a legal workers’ union over a leaked dress code email. The incredible 1,000-word dossier, which found its way to Legal Cheek in September, included fashion and lifestyle pointers such as dressing “discreetly sexy and colourful and flamboyant at the same time according to your preference”.

For a weekly round-up of news, plus jobs and latest event info

Sign up to the Legal Cheek Newsletter



One thing I dislike about this sort of thing is the pile-on and everyone thinking they need to have their say. Someone has already criticised him for it and he knows it. We really don’t need to hear that you too are one of the 500 people who find it offensive to recommend looking smart for work and that polishing your shoes is literal violence.


But of course, it’s perfectly acceptable for QCs to spend hours of their time on Twitter typing thousands of tweets to pile on and criticise absolutely everyone else….

Scouser of Counsel

Oh come on!


Polished shoes shoes you have pride in your appearance and pride in your work.

How on earth does this cause offence? Is it in some people’s cultural heritage to have un-polished shoes? I missed that diversity seminar!

And likewise, how is having neat and tidy hair an issue either? There are many many hairstyles of all cultures that are tidy and show pride in appearance.

I’m usually considered a bit too PC but criticising this guy as if he had made some sort of racist, sexist or homophobic remark really is just plain daft.

Scouser of Counsel



Indeed!!! I could not agree more. I think a simple way of looking at this is… would someone let a teeth-less dentist treat his/her teeth? No!


Absolutely right.


What’s wrong with being presentable? Everyone will judge you for this from interviews to court appearances, including those complaining it’s an old school way of thinking!

Just why

What’s wrong with not having polished shoes or a neat haircut, does it affect your ability to present coherent arguments?

There should not be a look to any profession. I am not saying it is racist or sexist just boring that people still care what other people look like…


It is beyond me why people object to officers of the court adhering to basic standards of professional appearance. Your client might go to prison, depending on what comes out of your mouth, and you can’t be bothered to polish your shoes for the occasion?


Barristers are not officers of the court.

Jaw dropped

Yes they are. How can you not know this?!


They really aren’t.


They are certainly not. It is one of the most oft-repeated statements relating to the status of barristers.


They are not. I know this because I am a barrister. You could know this too if you use a wonderful thing called Wikipedia.


At the risk of being pedantic- since when are barristers in England & Wales officers of the court?

Shoe Polish Doesn’t Discriminate

An extremely biased article. Plenty of support for the tweet in its replies and not one mentioned.

The idea that looking presentable is outdated is nonsense.


Links or didn’t happen


A&O or it didn’t happen


CC or it didn’t happen

Shoe Polish Does Discriminate if Worn as by Al Jolson

Shoe polish has a bit of a chequered history when it comes to the issue of racial discrimination.

See, inter alia, The Black and White Minstrel Show etc etc


Snowflake brigade at it again.

If you can’t tell from context that this is a light hearted tribute rather than some deep-meaning commentary regarding sartorial standards at the Bar, then I wonder if the legal profession is for you.


This is a step in the wrong direction.


I think it’s a step in the right direction.

The Anti-Jarrod

Whatever direction the step is in, it better be in polished shoes.


Totally Jarrod. The attitude that this represents is so antiquated and archaic. The world will not change and people will continue to be repressed so long as vulgar comments like this go unchecked. Shame on this QC. Shame on him. I note that he is a man too.


Get back to Malory Towers, Miss Rivers!

Bombay Bad Boy

Everyone has an Oxbridge 1st with the BCL these days. You’ve got to be able to make distinctions somewhere. The person who has uses Kiwi instead of Saphir Medaille d’Or Pate-De-Luxe is definitely at a disadvantage in the current market.

Bar Standards Bored

I have my shoes cleaned for me. God knows what they use but the chaps are very good. The clerks pick them up and drop them back with my shirts and my tea and crumpets.


This is ridiculous, demanding that barristers dress appropriately is hardly offensive.


I judge a person by their shoes, their watch, their dog and their spouse. In that order.


It’s the best advice you’ll get for real social mobility.

Lady barrister

Disappointing that he backed down and apologised. If it’s discriminatory to demand smart hair and polished shoes, is the implication that women/ethnic minorities would not normally have those things? Proper poshoes tend to be the scruffiest of all.

Conan the Contrarian

In 1755, Dr Johnson had published his Lexicon. It was the last word (see what I did there?) In dictionaries for almost a century.

He was visited by a deputation of the ‘Gentlewoman of London’ who thanked him for not including the many rude & obscene words so often heard.

He, in turn, congratulated them for taking the time required searching for them.

Desperately looking to be offended & outraged isn’t such a new thing, after all.

Derek Haslam

Kiwi Parade Gloss is your only choice. Kiwi of course is unfortunate as it recalls the Maori wars. I always wear my medals in court.

His Majesty The Rt Hon, The Rev. Dr. Alan Blacker, the Lard Horley of Rochdale District Counsel, LL.B (Double 1st) Oxon, LLM (Cantab), DPhil (Novgorod), best friend to the Tsar of Meerkovo, Order of the Colostomy Appliance

I wouldn’t wear medals in court.

It doesn’t end well.


St Philips is not a Northern set. It’s in Birmingham.


I.e. the North

Cockney Rebel

It is not London. That’s all the matters.

There is nothing wrong with tradition. Snow flakes want to wear PJs to court

Social Justice Lawyers! Where was the outcry and public apology from the female partner at a family law firm telling her staff they need to look sexy and no cardigans allowed.

Whats wrong with polished shoes and dressing smart. I guarantee everyone knows what a good haircut means.

Qcs to the Tradesman’s Entrance, please

What will he do if one of his children wants to marry someone who chooses not to have the haircut or shoes he deems ‘proper’?

He comes across as snobbish, controlling and small-minded.


Presumably be fine with it, as he recommended a course of action for barristers in the workplace and not people in every day life? I have no idea whether comments like this are (a) a joke (b) disingenuous, or (c) stupid


Comments about hair care are stupid because this QC presumes everyone’s hair grows exactly like his does.

Some barristers and BPTC students are Black.

If they wear their hair naturally to show its thick texture, they will be accused of looking untidy for sporting an Afro and told to get an even shorter haircut.

If Black barristers braid their hair to keep it in place, they will be told that braids are for the beach and not chambers.

There’s no way for those who have African hair to win under this man’s definition of a ‘proper’ hairstyle.

Do better.


With all due respect, what the hell does ‘have a tidy haircut’ have to do with racism against black people? Speaking as a black guy, I think it is obvious what a tidy haircut is, skin fade with high top, baldie or level all over with shape up. If as a guy you want dreads, tie them up. But dreads is not a black thing fyi, it is very specific to a group of people. Sisters can rock braids, cornrows, natural with buns, weaves (if they so choose) or go low like the fellas. I don’t think stating that people should wear their hair tidy means black people should be treated differently. I wouldn’t expect my commercial barrister who i’m paying £600 an hour, if he’s a white guy, to rock up with a rat-tail or a gelled quiff.


They see it here, they see it there, the social justice warriors see prejudice every-bloody-where.

Previous poster

I’m anonymous Nov 16 11.05pm. To anonymous Nov 17 9.08am, please jog on. I didn’t ask for your pathetic support. My point wasn’t made in the same spirit as yours.


12.22, don’t be so chippy! 9.08 was agreeing with you. X

Previous poster

@ RS

The problem with being sensible and middle of the road in this uber woke world is that one often ends up on the same side of the argument with alt right idiots who try to ride one’s views for credibility. I didn’t say anything about people mistakenly seeing prejudice everyone, I responded to what I thought was a mistaken point.


We always judge by appearance, it’s human nature. We always have expectations and criteria when we seek a partner.

Hottest lawyer in the Manchester area and you know dat

He apologised even though he is right?
How disappointing!

This is the problem now. Too many idiots are ‘offended’, and they don’t even know why. They just get offended because they can.

Then intelligent people ‘apologise’ for offended people’s stupidity, thereby vindicating and enabling this idiotic behaviour.

I bet those who were offended have not amounted to much in their lives.


I”m with Conan the Contrarian. If these people realised how stupid they appear then we’d be deprived of the amusement they bring.

Chris Osbourne

Looking through the sets profiles, they have a large amount of female and ethnic minorities; compared to other sets the same size. If he is head then clearly not being exclusive !

If I turned up to court and my representative was scruffy barrister, I would not be happy. Anyone taking a “proper haircut” to mean anything racist is just looking to cause trouble.

Any race can be scruffy and any race can be smart. Mine is Afro and I keep it neat. Trying to assume he means all Afro hair is messy is just putting words in his mouth he did not say !

Bottom line you need to be smart in the business/legal world and it does not cost the world. J am working class nothing beyond a few GCSE, started out buying £50 suits at slaters or £70 with shoes, bargain ! you work your way up, now I have a choice of 10 and provide for my family.

Alan Slackbladder

I remember when Legal Cheek was respectable.

It all fell to rack and ruin when Lord Harley got struck off and it began to publish sh1te instead of proper articles.

Join the conversation