It is too easy to criticise barristers, with their wigs, gowns and traditions dating back to medieval times, for being out of touch and unrepresentative. Those - including myself - who fall back on outdated stereotypes of a profession dominated by white, posh Oxbridge types are quickly corrected by Stephen Hockman QC, the chairman of the Bar Council, the organisation which represents the interests of barristers.
"The fact is, if you look at the statistics, you will see the Bar is already extremely diverse comparatively speaking," says Hockman, who was born in Manchester in 1947 and was called to the Bar (the profession's jargon for passing the Bar Vocational Course) in 1970. "There are a lot of misconceptions about the profession but whether you look at it from a gender or ethnicity point of view, the Bar is already quite progressive."
Around one third of the Bar's members are women and 11 per cent are black and minority ethnic (BME), compared to a national percentage of about 8 per cent. Trainee barristers - known as "pupils" - are roughly 50/50 male and female, and around 17 per cent are from BME backgrounds. But the numbers, although encouraging, leave no room for complacency. "There is more we can do and should be doing," says Hockman.
Diversity is important to the Bar Council because a profession which is founded on respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights should be an agent for social change and inclusion. The profession cannot hope to function effectively or command respect from those it represents unless it reflects society as a whole. What's more, says Hockman, there are substantial commercial advantages in terms of attracting and retaining an excellent pool of talent.
A number of initiatives are in place to make sure women and ethnic minority barristers are represented at all levels and in all areas of the profession. The Bar Council is, for example, looking at ways to encourage more women and BME barristers to become more involved in the running of its various committees. It is also in detailed discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service to make sure there is an appropriately diverse range of barristers doing prosecution work.
But, perhaps most significantly, the Council is looking at how to open the Bar to people from a wide range of social backgrounds, irrespective of gender or ethnicity. There is limited data on the social background of Bar members, something the Council plans to address as part of a wider package of measures to make sure the profession doesn't become a middle-class enclave.
It is expensive to train to become a barrister, which can deter those from lower-income backgrounds. To qualify as a barrister, you must have either a law degree or a good first degree in any subject plus the demanding graduate diploma in law, which essentially crams a full law degree into nine months and can cost upwards of £6,000. The next step is the one-year Bar Vocational Course (the BVC), another £11,600. Would-be barristers must then secure a highly prized one-year apprenticeship, known as pupillage: around 1,500 students study for the BVC every year but there are only 800 pupillages on offer.
The costs of all this study in the face of such fierce competition can be a hurdle too high for many students, particularly those already feeling the pressure from debts accrued during their undergraduate years. Although the jury is still out on the recent changes in the higher education funding regime, the introduction of top-up fees has made these concerns more pressing.
In response, the Bar Council has set up a high-powered working group, chaired by a judge from the Court of Appeal, to ensure the profession's resources really do target those most in need of assistance during those expensive early years of study and training.
"There are some limitations on what any profession can achieve in this respect," admits Hockman, who points out that because a degree is a prerequisite for any candidate, the profession's recruitment policies are largely dependent on the social intake to higher education institutions. "No one profession can revolutionise the social structure of the country but we are trying to do everything we can to make sure lack of means is not a deterrent."
The Bar, with its long and prestigious history, is not short of funds and the four Inns of Courts (societies that provide support and training for the profession) already distribute around £4m a year in scholarships and awards to help students.
"We want to see whether there are ways those funds can be effectively co-ordinated to make sure they reach those who need it most," says Hockman. "We are also looking at whether there is scope for a low-interest loan scheme that could offer temporary relief until someone has established themselves later in life."
The Council also recognises that for many young people, the jargon and traditions of the Bar can be confusing and intimidating and it visits schools and universities to dispel some of the myths about the profession.
"This is a profession that is open to all those with talent, not just for those who are rich, posh or have connections," stresses Hockman. "Yes, everyone has to have a degree but it's very far from true to say everybody comes from an Oxbridge background."
The Council Chair is keen that people from all walks of life get to experience the variety and satisfaction he has derived from a career that has seen him become Head of chambers, deputy high court judge and a specialist in environmental law.
"I've been very lucky in my career and it's not over yet," says Hockman. "It's a very rewarding job and I've got great satisfaction from some weighty cases in the environmental law area."
As he prepares to return to practice at the end of this year, Hockman hopes some of the diversity work of the past year will ensure the profession a strong and sustainable future - and open the door for talented young barristers from a wide range of backgrounds.