Ciara Bartlam, Barrister at Garden Court North Chambers
So, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
My name is Ciara and I am a barrister at Garden Court North Chambers in Manchester. I took a bit of an unusual route to the Bar. At university, I read Religions and Theology and then moved to St. Petersburg, Russia for three years. After Russia, I moved back to Stoke-on-Trent, where I worked with young people and care leavers as a homeless prevention officer.
As a barrister, I am a junior legal aid lawyer and have a mixed civil practice. Because of my background in homelessness, my main area of practice is housing but I also represent bereaved families at inquests and work in the areas of immigration and asylum, court of protection, mental health, parole, and welfare benefits. I think a broad practice is useful because so many of my clients need holistic advice that is not always accessible due to cuts to Legal Aid. I would eventually like to narrow my practice by age and become a youth practitioner.
In your experience, what is it like being out in the legal profession?
It is difficult to say because I have never been ‘out out’ in the legal profession. Although I came out to friends and family when I was 21 years old, I did not feel comfortable telling anyone I was gay when I started the GDL in 2015, six years later. As a newcomer to the legal profession, my immediate impression was that ‘professionalism’ was all-important and that conversations about sexual orientation might be perceived as unprofessional or, worse, political.
The feeling was reinforced after one mini pupillage where a barrister told me that I would never succeed at the Bar because I had not been to Oxbridge. When speaking to two trusted practitioners about it on separate occasions, their response was that the barrister was known to be nasty and I should not worry about it; she was only like that because she was a closeted lesbian. Neither practitioner knew I was gay, so would not have known the impact a comment like that would have on me, but I found it really difficult.
After that, I could not even contemplate telling anyone I was gay for a long time. As much as senior members of the legal profession might say that being gay is not a problem and ‘who cares?’, this example illustrates, for me, all the reasons why we should care. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community should not have to be concerned, firstly, about coming out at work and, secondly, the various things that people might say about them behind their back if they do (or equally do not). Although not every member of the LGBTQIA+ community experiences stigma or discrimination and although not every member of the community will experience distress, this example is, sadly, just one of many experiences that I have been told about at the Bar.
That said, I have had reaffirming experiences at the Bar also. During a qualifying session at Middle Temple, I happened to sit next to a senior member of the judiciary who told me about a landmark case they had decided on sexuality and asylum. During this conversation, I told them that my dad was gay which happens to be true but is also something I use to avoid having to out myself (which I know is wrong). This person’s response was wonderful. They are not gay themselves but spoke about their experiences and the experiences of people they knew in a way that made me feel very comfortable. Although I did not tell them I was gay, we had a conversation that for me was very wholesome and very natural.
After that, I decided that I needed to be braver about my identity if I was ever going to be happy at the Bar, so I made it plain in every pupillage application I completed. The majority of people I have shared my identity with have been really great about it, but I still do not share it often which for me is quite unusual. I am trying to be more visible, though.
Were you ever advised not to disclose your sexuality on an application form or were you ever afraid to?
I was definitely afraid to disclose my sexual orientation on application forms. I was lucky because one of my tutors on the BPTC was openly gay and talked to me a lot about it before I did it. Their advice was that if it is important to you then you have to.
Although I was always conscious that pupillage is highly competitive, I knew that I would not have been able to sustain a career at the Bar if, having accepted an offer of pupillage, I later learnt that I could not be myself at work. For that reason, I decided to make my sexual orientation prominent on my application form by drawing on my experiences in Russia during 2012 and the enactment of the Anti-Homosexual Propaganda Act.
For me, it was a test for chambers. If a chambers looked at my application and did not invite me to an interview for whatever reason, that was alright by me. If, however, they invited me to interview having read about my experiences, that was a very good sign.
Ultimately, not everyone will make the same decision I did. It boils down to how important it is for you to be visible and accepted. For me, it was vital because I was just so unhappy. It was terrifying, though, and I do not doubt that I may have been discriminated against in some of my applications, but it was worth it.
Were you ever anxious to come out in the workplace? And do you ever feel anxious about coming out to new people, to clients?
Yes, I definitely do. Generally, I feel more anxious about telling colleagues than clients. Although I do not think I would hide it from a client and have occasionally had conversations about it, it does not often come up very often because we tend to be focusing on their case and their concerns. On the occasions I have talked about it, it has been when a client has asked me about my home life or partner.
In terms of colleagues, there are some colleagues I feel very comfortable talking about it with but there are others who, even now, I would not discuss it with.
In general, I still feel anxious about coming out and it does not get easier for me with time. Perhaps that is because of my own experiences of discrimination, I do not know. One of the things I always have in mind when coming out to female friends and colleagues is the risk that their behaviour might change towards me after, usually only subtly. It is hard to point to the precise ways in which that happens, but it feels very real and uncomfortable. Obviously, that is the anxiety-inducing part of coming out; you never know what the reaction will be.
Do you think the legal profession is doing enough to ensure full diversity and inclusion of LGBTQIA+ employees and if not, what more could be done?
I do not think that the legal profession is doing enough. Obviously, there are people doing amazing work, including Brie Stevens-Hoare QC, Cameron Stocks and Ollie Persey, but I would love to see more.
It would be helpful to hear more about the experiences of LGBTQIA+ lawyers, which is why this initiative is so great. I also think there has to be a greater emphasis on engaging with people on a personal level.
One of the main issues at the Bar is the pressure on barristers to be ‘identity-less’. I think the profession would benefit from a greater appreciation of how fallacious and harmful this approach can be; nobody is identity-less or objective and lived experienced is valuable. I could count on one hand the number of times people have asked me about my family, for example, which is mad because it is a huge part of my life and is not unprofessional to want to discuss it – quite the opposite, my lived experience makes me a better lawyer.
It would be great if we could, as a profession, acknowledge that we all have biases and start to discuss them openly while trying to understand other people's lived experiences. We must learn to ask questions, listen unrestrictedly and accept the fact that we are subjective human beings. What we, as practitioners and students, bring to the profession is more than just legal acumen and academic talent. Fearless and effective advocacy, particularly for disadvantaged clients, often requires much more than that. We should be aiming for a Bar that is not just representative of society but one that recognises the importance and value of lived experience and those ‘soft skills’ of empathy and compassion.
Then finally, what are three pieces of advice to give aspiring LGBTQIA+ lawyers?
My first piece of advice is to go in with your eyes open. I don't think any LGBTQIA+ aspiring lawyer is going to be naive about the Bar or the legal profession, but it is important to be realistic.
The second thing is to find allies because there are many. If for example, you are aspiring to the Bar, get in touch with me or the many visible practitioners out there. Create yourself a network. Go the LSE Featherstone moot, get as involved as possible, and trust that there are safe spaces.
The third thing is probably the most important: be true to yourself. There is no point in going into this profession and working so hard if you have to leave yourself at the door. It is 50 to 60 hours of work a week as a pupil and into your junior years. It is such a substantial part of your life; it is not worth being half the person you are during that period. Part of being true to yourself is accepting that you have other qualities precisely because you are LGBTQIA+, such as your ability to empathise with people, your ability to understand discrimination and your ability to be compassionate. All of those are essential qualities which should not be minimised.