Symposium for the Devil

The Bar Standards Board have identified a potential problem amongst barristers in “cross-cultural communication.” There is a fear that the Bar may be too caught up in its own “tribal culture” and rely too much upon overly technical language which may lead to a miscarriage of justice. 

This problem was identified at a recent “symposium” hosted by the BSB. Yes, that’s right, a symposium. The Greek scholars amongst you will know that a symposium was a drinking party back in the day. Now it is a talking shop. 

Discussing cross cultural communication in something you decide to call a symposium would be described by members of my Private-Eye-reading tribe as “you couldn’t make it up” whereas the man on the Clapham omnibus might suggest they were “havin’ a f*#%in’ laugh”.

You can read the report of this symposium (I have now broken my own national record for the number of times someone from my cultural background has used the word symposium in a single day) here. I do suggest you read it. There are some valid points in it. Yet it illustrates a continuing problem with the Bar’s regulator – they really have no idea how to communicate to us. 

I appreciate that they are there to regulate. I do not expect to be regularly stopped by the Traffic Police and be congratulated for driving within the speed limit whilst maintaining a safe distance between myself and the car ahead. The problem is that so often the BSB’s message is lost amongst the collective sighs from the profession as they descend into their tribal language of “stakeholders” and “outcomes”.

Even the most open minded of the profession sometimes shrug their shoulders and ask themselves “do the BSB really understand what we do and why we do it?”

There is a section of the report about the Bar’s tribal nature. Whilst I fancy the notion of Jett Street Chambers facing off with Shark Court in a knife fight over recruiting the new pupil Maria or Marius, this is not what is being described. The Report describes the perception of the Bar as being subtle coded messages in the way we dress and our education – in short a terrible stereotype of the Bar. 

There is a degree of uniformity about the way we dress, brought about by very necessary rules and conventions. The advocate with shocking dyed orange hair may scream diversity and non-conformity, but they also scream “look at me” and the courtroom quickly descends from analysis of the evidence to fashion parade. 

I have often said that the Bar has a long way to go in terms of diversity, and I fear economic pressures may cause us to slide backwards, but the BSB should be doing all it can to fight these lazy stereotypes of an Oxbridge educated Bar, not promoting this image. We have come a long way and continue a positive direction of travel.

There is a great example of the BSB’s introspection in the Report. There is mention of the Cab Rank Rule and the words are accompanied by a footnote which goes on to clearly explain this technical shorthand for a vital aspect of the profession. Bravo! Yet the Report also tells us the discussion was held under “Chatham House Rules” without further explanation. All the regular readers of regulatory symposia will, of course, understand exactly what the “Rule” is. But that understanding and the assumption of understanding is all, well, a little tribal

I am sure everyone could benefit in lessons in effective communication across a broad spectrum of people. A good place to start is this report and an example of how not to do it. 

3 thoughts on “Symposium for the Devil

  1. Francis FitzGibbon QC

    Dear Jaime

    I admire your writing greatly and there aren’t many nails that you fail to hit on the head – but this time you may have got wound up unnecessarily. Yes, the BSB paper has its share of irritating corporate mumbo-jumbo (and the delegates probably weren’t having a philosophical booze-up ether), but to use the BSB’s own terminology, that’s the language of their tribe.

    The core message is important, though, if trite: advocacy is always about communication and often empathy (though we all know some fine advocates who lack all empathy, and some top empathisers who can’t ask a simple question). We all think we are good at both, but some are better than others and we can all learn to improve. If that’s the message, it’s a good one.

    I’m not sure what to make of the word ‘tribal’: from the context it sounds mildly derogatory, which may be thought a slur on tribal peoples all over the world, and so rather inconsistent with the goal of ‘cross-cultural communication’. If barristers are a tribe, it’s one I’m proud to belong to, but I recognise that some of our ways and customs must appear odd to outsiders. The same probably applies to any group of professionals whose work produces distinctive forms of speech and manners. I don’t want to dumb down or talk down to anyone, but I do want the people who matter to understand me, and so I welcome any chance to improve my communication skills.

    We should read the BSB’s paper as a taste of what to expect when we undergo vulnerable witness training – coming soon to a venue near you. Not to be despised out of hand.

    Kind regards



    1. jaimerhamilton Post author

      Francis, I hope I tacitly accepted that some of the message from the BSB has value. I certainly welcome and value effective communication with jurors, witnesses, judges and clients. I was being critical of a method of communication which fell foul of its own complaint. I also tear out what little hair I have left that our regulator fails so spectacularly to communicate effectively with the Bar. And finally I lament the sack cloth and ashes approach to diversity at the Bar. It may be that I live in a bubble but the junior criminal bar in Manchester is not the domain of Oxbridge and I feel this is a myth the BSB are only too happy to perpetuate. The Bar has been worse in the past over diversity and there is no reason to be complacent; we have much left to do. I just find it deeply frustrating that an outmoded stereotype of the Bar is repeatedly repeated by our regulator. And if my blog did not communicate that effectively I am in need of more symposia.



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