Diversity at the Bar: Susan Belgrave

Susan Belgrave is an employment barrister at 7 Bedford Row. She has over 20 years of experience in employment tribunals and courts. Her practice covers the full spectrum of employment law from unfair dismissal and redundancy through discrimination, whistleblowing, TUPE and trade union rights. Chamber Global Diversity editor, Dee Sekar recently spoke to Susan about her career, thoughts on diversity at the Bar and community work.

Becoming a lawyer was not Susan’s initial career route: “I grew up in Barbados and studied languages and international relations. I wanted to be a diplomat and I worked at Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Barbados for 3 years but I hated it! I suppose it was because I don’t like bureaucracy!” In particular, Susan found the length of time and approval it took to do work, quite frustrating: “There was a limit to how much creativity you could put into your work as it had to be checked on so many levels. My father was a criminal barrister and so I decided to follow him into the legal profession. Frequently you are helping to run the case from an early stage if you’re a barrister. You have much more input and can affect the outcome and direction of a case.”

Susan Belgrave, 7 Bedford Row
Susan Belgrave, 7 Bedford Row

In 1989, a newly married Susan moved to Brussels with her husband. “I was called to the Bar in 1989.  I studied for a masters in European Law while in Brussels and worked at Stanbrook and Hooper, the European law firm. When we came  to the UK in late 1992, I wanted to get into European law chambers but it was very competitive. I started doing housing law then moved into employment law. There is a lot of EU law in employment law so it was the perfect marriage for me. Employment practice is also a great mix of law and facts. It allows you to use all of your legal skills.”

In terms of diversity at the Bar, Susan was the only black lawyer at Stanbrook and Hooper however she found it diverse in terms of a having a number of female lawyers and lawyers from other EU countries working there. Overall, pinpointing the difficulties of the lack of diversity at the Bar is still quite difficult to quantify in terms of work being distributed: “It’s difficult to say whether being a black female has been an issue for me as you never know why you do and don’t get instructed. Sometimes, you feel that you would be further along the route if you had the same skills and qualifications but if you were a white male. However, there is not much point worrying about that  as you can’t do anything about it except constantly seek to excel.”

Recent changes at the Bar Council demonstrate a willingness to address and measure diversity at the Bar, a step which Susan fully supports: “There have been lots of changes at the Bar Council in the last 5 to 10 years. The Bar Council now requires chambers to monitor levels of earnings; perhaps a person is not earning enough because they are slow at turning work over but perhaps it could be because the clerks may be sending more briefs to certain barristers. Traditionally young male barristers tended to get on better with male clerks, they may had more in common in terms of a love of football etc, and this friendship can lead to differential treatment.  If chambers monitor work distribution then you can try and see if favouritism is happening. There is a requirement on chambers to monitor the distribution of unallocated work. Clerks and barristers now receive training on equality and diversity as a matter of course and Chambers also have officers (senior barristers) in charge of diversity. Clerks and practice managers will meet more frequently  with barristers to assess the state of their practice: where you are and where you want to be.”

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Susan also enjoys the opportunity to network with other like-minded lawyers and clients as a way of finding inspiration and helping others: “There used to be a Minority Lawyers’ conference every two years which took place jointly organised by the Bar Council and The Law Society. The common public perception of the Bar is that it’s full of white men in pinstripe suits so a young black woman may not expect to see a black woman barrister as silk or a junior barrister. These kinds of events give students  the option to consider the Bar and not rule the profession out.”

Encouraging the next generation is a cause that is very important to Susan, who has two children of her own. She currently dedicates a lot of her time to events aimed at young black students: “I am a trustee of British Foundation for the University of West Indies (UWI). There is a real lack of visible role models for black students in the professions or in business.  UWI has a large number of black professionals in its alumni and so we decided to set up an academic programme of lectures/seminars for British black students aged 14-18. For example, we had Professor Warde who is a senior professor at MIT give a presentation to students, he is of Barbadian heritage although not a graduate of UWI. He held a workshop at Imperial College about careers in sciences. This year, we are hoping to organise some more workshops including a legal workshop and a banking/financial sector seminar.”

Susan also believes in providing future barristers with an honest outlook in terms of the realities of life at the Bar. Becoming a barrister in a post-recession world has made the Bar even worse in terms of competitiveness: “It can be quite difficult when you start off in terms of lags in payments in the early years. One of my friends worked as a junior barrister in Temple. He told me that he decided to leave the Bar when he saw that the man who was begging at Blackfriars station had more money in his tin than he had in his bank account. He now works in house in the financial sector.”

Susan’s advice to wannabe barristers is to have good people skills as well as academic excellence: “It is crucial to have excellent oral and written communication skills. You have to do extremely well academically but that’s not enough. You have to make yourself stand out as different from anyone else as everyone is academically brilliant at the Bar. It’s fundamentally important to be able to relate to a wide spectrum of people. The Bar is a fantastic place if you’re a self-starter or an entrepreneurial spirit. You have to be a people person and market yourself. You have to be a person of  integrity and get your name known.”

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