People need to feel that negative experiences at work can be reported without repercussions
Freelance writer, Mental Health at Work
Doing work that aligns with your values and feels meaningful is an important part of wellbeing. This year, Sabrina has been talking to different people who are making a difference in areas that matter to them. Here, she interviews Alexandra, and asked her about her experiences as a mixed-race woman in the legal profession.
We’ve written before about the issues faced by those in the legal profession: from long hours, to an adversarial culture, to the problems that arise from well-established billing professions. When you’re working with marginalised communities, there can be even more pressures.
Please be aware this story mentions the death of a family member in the first paragraph.
Turning the last page on Alexandra Wilson’s book In Black and White left me with an inexplicable need to want to know more. I’d be lying if the book’s subject – the life of an ambitious young, mixed raced female barrister, working to give legal representation to marginalised groups – didn’t have anything to do with it.
Better representation of Black people in the criminal justice system can make a big difference
Hello Alexandra – thank you so much for being here. I want to start with one of the reasons you became a. Tragically, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time – an innocent young Black boy with his future ahead of him. Have you seen many cases of this sort since, and how important is diversity in the judicial system? Can it really make a difference?
I’ve seen far too many cases like this – sometimes not as serious as murder, but often there are young people who are badly injured. I have represented the accused a number of times and I think that there can often be a vicious cycle. Often these young people are not first-time offenders and have no faith in the criminal justice system. Whilst they may have first been caught up in low-level offences, they are often overcriminalised and punished more harshly than their White counterparts. That’s where better representation of Black people in the criminal justice system can make a big difference, particularly in the judiciary. There is less likely to be such disparities inif Black people are better represented among the decision-makers (the judiciary!).
As I understand it you’ve been mistaken as a defendant on more than one occasion. What do you think that says about society’s views on Black and brown people?
I think that these experiences really highlight that Black and brown people are overcriminalised. The colour of my skin means that people assume the worst, calculating that it’s much more likely that I’m a defendant than I’m a. There is no doubt that the overrepresentation of Black people as defendants, and underrepresentation as legal practitioners, plays into this. It’s no excuse though. These stereotypes are so harmful to progress. It’s important that we try to eradicate these biases so that people can be treated fairly and we, as legal representatives, can properly and justly represent people.
People are often terrified to report cases of sexual harassment
Reading your book In Black and White, I loved the supportive nature of some of the women you had come into contact with whilst doing your pupillage, but you also highlighted sexual misconduct – particularly towards women within the workplace. How can that be addressed to make for a better working environment?
People need to feel that these negative experiences can be reported without repercussions. Unfortunately the profession is set up in such a way that your first year, your pupillage (training year), is effectively a year-long interview. This means that people are often terrified to report cases of sexual harassment out of fear of being branded a whistleblower. In order to really change things we need to find a way to ensure that people can report things without professional consequences.
You’re a part of Ocaatfund (One Case at a Time) which helps disenfranchised Black individuals and groups who may have come up against racial injustice and seek legal representation. Can you tell me more about it?
Yes! At OCAAT we are currently in the process of registering as a charity. Once that’s complete we are extremely excited for the work we have planned. There will be more information to follow soon as to exactly how it will work, but in essence we will be providing people with grants to support them in the legal process, funding research and pairing people with pro bono legal representation where appropriate. I am really looking forward to us getting started.
That’s fantastic! And is there any advice for that young person who comes from a disadvantaged or vulnerable group, with perhaps a low socio-economic background, and is genuinely interested in working in law but has no idea where to begin? Could you recommend a way of getting started?
I think it’s important to try and find a mentor. There are a number of formal mentoring schemes out there but if you can’t get on to those yet, just follow your favourite lawyers on social media (there are lots of lawyers on Twitter) and look through their articles and blogs. There is so much information out there and people are constantly giving up their time to help people, so try to make the most out of it!
Set some time aside every day to do something you love
And finally, I was surprised to read in your book that most barristers start out as– although not so surprised that the workload was pretty full on. How do you keep a healthy mental state of mind when working under such pressure, and how do you relax?
Most barristers are self-employed, which means that it can be very difficult to find the right balance between work and play. It’s something that I still need to get a lot better at. I would recommend setting some time aside every day to do something you love, whether that’s watching your favourite TV show, playing some kind of sport or even just chatting with friends.
Great advice, Alexandra. Speaking to you has been incredibly insightful and a real pleasure.