Robert Povall, Barrister at Exchange Chambers
So, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
My name is Robert Povall. I'm a barrister at Exchange Chambers, having recently moved from Chavasse Court Chambers in Liverpool where I completed pupillage and was a tenant. My pupillage was in criminal and family law. However, I'm now going to be specialising in family. I am also hoping to do some Court of Protection work as well as some human rights work.
In your experience, what's it like being out in legal profession?
My experience has been somewhat different. I came to law through a GDL when I was 24, did the BPTC thereafter and got of pupillage at 26. I turned 27 this year, so I have had quite a lot of time to come to terms with who I was. I decided very early on in the process that I was just going to be true to who I was, because there's nothing wrong with being gay.
Luckily, I found the response to my sexuality and being out quite positive. I've never had any explicit incidents yet where I've had any major problems. I do acknowledge, however, that there is quite a long way to go for me and others to really feel comfortable being out in the legal profession. It can feel at times as though I still have to stifle who I am a little bit. But overall, the experience has been relatively positive. I received positive feedback from a member of chambers who was on my pupillage interview panel who said that one of the things that helped me stand out was how comfortably I spoke about myself, my partner and my home life.
Were you ever advised when you were doing your applications to not disclose your sexuality? Or were you ever afraid to?
I was never advised to hide who I was, indeed, quite the opposite is true. Many career advisers from the GDL and beyond, often advised me to be myself. Coming to the profession as a mature student as opposed to a recent graduate also helped, as I believe I had already come to terms with my sexuality unreservedly. I think it's natural for anyone in our community to second-guess whether being out and proud is the right thing to do. But again, the question we must ask ourselves is ‘why would I want to work somewhere where I should hide who I am?’
So, creating a selection criteria based on how likely a Chambers and the people there were likely to accept you?
It's too easy now for students and aspiring lawyers to fall into the trap of saying ‘yes’ to everything and ‘no’ to nothing. Chambers and firms still need us, they still need us to be there; we are their future practitioners. Ultimately, in the legal profession, so much of what we do is fighting for other people. My advice is: start on ‘day one’ fighting for yourself and making demands for yourself because you'll be happier in the long run.
Were you ever anxious to come out in the workplace or when you're meeting new people or new clients?
I think the sooner that you start being honest and open about who you are, you will start saving yourself later occasions where you have to have sort of ‘mini-coming-outs’, which I think a lot of LGBTQ+ people can relate to; we come out all the time. I'm asked frequently by people who maybe don't know my sexuality, ‘what does your girlfriend do?’, questions like that. And you make a decision in those situations. Do you correct that, or do you just let that fly and just move on? I think there are times, especially in this profession, where you do have to sort of gauge your audience and I think that that's sad. I've certainly found comfort in surrounding myself with people that I know I can be myself around and I would say that is a good place to start.
Especially within Chambers, a lot of barristers feel very comfortable coming out within their chambers or with other barristers. But with clients, it's more much more of a deciding game of “Does this mean that they won't work with me?” or something along those lines.
And have you had any difficulties because of your sexuality in your career or any issues like that?
In school, one of the things that I was always bullied for was for ‘sounding gay’, whatever that means! I always think it's empowering that I've entered into a profession where my greatest tool and my greatest asset is my voice.
I think the main difficulty that I’ve faced that related to my sexuality has always been, rather than an explicit obvious insecurity, more of a drip-feeding; a subtle insecurity that I had as to whether or not I'm worthy to become a barrister, whether people like me become barristers. I'm a gay man that grew up in a very small village in Merseyside; I went to a state comprehensive after I failed the 11 Plus. I just didn't see people like me represented in the profession. However, we've come a very long way in the past few years in terms of representation in the media and in the professions of different types of people. That said, I think we still have a long way to go. I say to aspiring LGBTQ+ lawyers that there is space for us, and we can get there.
On that note about representation, do you think that even within the LGBTQIA+ representation that exists in law firms and in Chambers, there tends to be a bit of a skew towards certain groups of people within the LGBTQIA+ community?
I think the reality is, and I can't speak about the solicitor side of things, though I do appreciate that that's competitive as well. But in terms of the bar, I think the brutally honest reality about this is that it's so competitive to get in. There is a low number of pupillages out there by comparison to how many applicants there are. And so, I think that the adage is true in that, as an LGBTQ+ person, or indeed anyone of any minority, you can feel at times that you need to be twice as good to get half as much.
I'm certainly not far enough into my career to know the inner workings of how chambers recruit, and what they look for. All I know, having been in the process recently, is that it is just so competitive. I think the difficulty we face is that it’s going to be so hard to depart from a certain type of person, no matter who they are, that gets pupillage because it just seems so insurmountably difficult sometimes and chambers have an interest in recruiting the very best. Our clients’ lives are on the line and they deserve the best barristers, and we can’t ignore that academic achievement plays a huge part in that decision.
Do you think the legal profession and specifically Chambers are doing enough to ensure enough support for LGBTQIA+ employees? And if not, what more do you think could be done?
I think solicitors’ firms, from what I can tell, have got the right idea in that they are, at a structural level, better placed to have things like Pride celebrations within their firms or recognition events, that kind of thing. For me, at the bar, because the majority of barristers are self-employed, I don't know how much of a collective interest there is in actively campaigning to further inclusion and diversity.
I'm a member of FreeBar which is an LGBTQ+ network. If you're not a member of it, or anyone who is going to read this interview isn't a member, you should definitely check it out. This is just one of the movements within the profession to try and further diversity and inclusion. Notwithstanding, I do still think we have a very long way to go. I would say visibility is the crucial point here.
Sadly, when barristers are so busy, working so hard, working all hours of the day, I think it takes that even further extra mile on an individual level to begin to think about getting involved with anything like this. So, it can feel at times that it grinds to a halt. But I stress it is critical that we come together and try and get movements like FreeBar or other LGBTQ+ networks off the ground and moving because that will build the momentum of the movement. There's definitely so much more that needs to be done in my view, but we can get there.
There was a solicitor that I was talking to and they mentioned that the reason that solicitor's firms can do so much is because they have an HR person doing it, they're not doing it themselves. And it's what you'd mentioned- that sense of collectiveness- that makes a world of the difference in terms of representation, because you've got somebody whose full-time job is doing just that.
Yeah, exactly, and like I said, for me, it's all about representation. I know someone that is due to start a training contract at a reputable family firm who wanted to be a barrister but just didn't want to pursue it any further because he felt that as an openly gay person, the bar just wouldn't welcome him. I just think that that's absolutely tragic. It is our duty to be more visible so that we don't lose future talent.
What are the three pieces of advice you'd give to aspiring LGBTQIA+ legal professionals and barristers in particular?
Firstly, to work extremely hard. It's not impossible to get into the profession at all but you're going to have to work very hard to get there.
Secondly, and this has become crystal clear to me: it gets better. It sounds like a cliché or an overused buzz phrase in our community, but it really, really does. I know how I felt at 21 or 22. I know how small I felt, how weak I felt, how invalidated I felt following rejection after rejection. But just keep going because it does get better. Moreover, you’ll start to see that the people that bully you now, the people that make you feel ‘less than’ now, in five years’ time, I guarantee won't be doing as well as they think that they're going to do. But you, on the other hand, have every potential to skyrocket. If you want to get into the legal profession, it's a tough job that requires a tough and thick skin but hopefully you will look back, like I certainly do, at all the adversity you faced in your life, when a judge is criticising your advocacy or picking you up on a point that you have gotten wrong, and you'll just be unflinching. I know that sounds ‘easier said than done’ but I've honestly found it to be true.
My final piece of advice would be, just to be yourself. You obviously need to keep it professional and appropriate for the time and place, but nobody can be a better you than you can, so don't feel that you should hide who you really are. As rewarding and exciting as it is, it's just a job. It's not worth compromising everything about yourself to get there.