It occurred to me that the much discussed outing of a solicitor who liked Charlotte Proudman’s linked in picture might provide a teachable moment.
I am perfectly prepared to accept that his message was an act of blatant sexism. I don’t see it quite like that myself – but why should I? I’m a man. I don’t get menaced by considerably older people saying inappropriate stuff, and while I’d be perfectly happy to call it creepy and move on, not everyone is forced to adopt that approach, especially if it is genuinely the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I do think he was trying it on. The ex post facto “I simply meant that it was a professional photo” is about as good as “I bought it off a man in a pub whose name I don’t remember”.
I wouldn’t express myself as Charlotte did either, but in my view, junior members of the Bar almost invariably use high falutin’ language when simplicity is better. I did as well. In my case it was something to do with being slightly overawed that someone was actually prepared to rely on my opinion and thinking that involved sentence structure and big words added weight. Plus which, there was the hope that the complexity of the whole would prevent clients seeing the Emperor’s new clothes content. So, aggravating but not an offence.
Nor am I particularly bothered that this generated a complaint to the firm and the SRA. Both are big enough to say “Thanks. We’ve undertaken a detailed investigation in 30 seconds. He does a good job for his clients. You are entitled to be offended but that doesn’t mean he should be disciplined.” Or, if they’ve taken leave of their senses, or are as frightened of publicity as the craven UCL was in the Tim Hunt affair (or, to be honest, if I’m wrong), they could discipline him.
My concern regarding barristers is that this was published for all the world to see. I have a real problem with ‘outing’ anyone. It unleashes the torrent of vile and disgusting people who, lacking lives of their own, make up for a self-esteem shortfall by being vicious on social media. Barristers with experience in criminal or family work have almost always seen this in action. If they haven’t, they have heard it discussed in Chambers – even virtual chambers. If Charlotte wants to take that on for herself, then she’s entitled to do so. But to sic a mob onto someone who has offended you by saying something you dislike is nasty. If it’s not nasty, it’s unthinking. For a barrister, neither is good. We hold ourselves to a professional, ethical standard. This isn’t it.
Moreover, Charlotte’s answer to this is that the offence justified the punishment. That is precisely what we don’t do as a profession. We leave such assessments to Judges and juries. We don’t act as either. We certainly don’t act as both. And we definitively do not permit situations in which the prosecutor, the judge and the jury are the same person. That is the antithesis of what barristers do.
Does it matter? I think it does. The difference between a profession and a job is that the profession follows through into your personal life. I expect barristers to live a life informed by the ideals of a profession which stands up for the powerless and the downtrodden. Not because I’m preachy and not because I’m a fanatic, although both may be true. It is because I do not see how you can do this job properly unless you believe in what you are doing. I believe what we do makes society better. Therefore, behaving in that way is not simply a professional, but a personal obligation. However bad it is, you don’t breach those ideals for your own benefit, because it suits you and you have decided it is justified.
Barristers who feel entitled to play fast and lose with those ideals are people who believe the end justifies the means. If you believe that then you should be a soldier or a politician. The former is an honourable profession. That latter can be. But if you believe primarily in the rule of law – that it should be the same for everyone under all circumstances – you don’t prosecute, reach the verdict and pass sentence. Not in any situation. Certainly not when someone’s wife and kids are thus thrust into the public sphere and when livelihood are at risk.
If you get pupillage, please don’t behave like that. You will let down yourself and your profession.