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A Conversation with ... Angela Grahame QC

It’s a cold Friday afternoon in lockdown and I have the immense pleasure of spending it with Angela Grahame QC, via our newly found friend, Zoom. We reminisce about better times, when we could have met in person and had this conversation over a cup of tea and a slice of (possibly homemade) cake. It doesn’t take us long to start discussing some of our favourite, albeit debate-igniting subjects: Equality and Diversity.

Angela’s not your traditional Advocate, with the privileged upbringing destined to QC status. She comes from a modest, working class background, whose family members view her as a bit of an ‘odd-ball’.

“My mum thinks I’m an alien”. She tells me. “I really mean that. My family think I’m crazy”.

But that is Angela’s appeal, and in part, her success. It is why her role as Vice Dean of the Faculty of Advocates was so important, not only to her but to all women who will follow. Angela has a unique quality and talent that many perceive lawyers to lack: relatability and modesty.

When describing her biggest challenges as a successful female advocate, she looks to herself rather than the century old barriers that society has created. She states, “My own preconceived ideas and insecurities”. She goes on to explain, “My lack of confidence is probably my biggest challenge, because it’s my problem”. It’s when I point out societal influences that Angela expands, “If women are confident and willing to express an opinion they can be seen as aggressive and arrogant. Traditionally, men are brought up to be confident and express their views without thinking twice. In contrast, as women, society teaches us to be deferential, quiet and sweet”. I couldn’t agree more.

Yet Angela also recognises the ‘massive’ changes in the 25 years she has been at the Scottish bar, both in herself and others. “People are more accepting about diversity and equality, even more so than when I became Vice Dean in 2016”. On her appointment, Angela took the view that this was a subject area that she would very much like to lead on and where much improvement needed to be made. Unfortunately, she wasn’t always supported in her endeavours, for example her idea to introduce a bullying and harassment policy did not receive the warmest of welcome. “It’s now a no-brainer, everyone has one. Yet, I was questioned whether we really needed it”.

A lack of awareness followed by a lack of acceptance and action, is a systematic failure in the Scottish legal sector, one that has come at a great cost to many a woman. Together with the slow pace of change, it may help to explain why, in 2021 we still have so few senior female advocates. Despite more women than men studying law and entering the profession for many years now, from the 132 practising QC’s only 32 are women.

Angela was also pioneering in her approach with other stakeholders, for example when choosing which law firm to appoint on behalf of the faculty, she took the bold and unique step of asking candidates about their diversity and equality policy, something that hadn’t been done before. Not all law firms covered themselves in glory. Angela admits that the faculty is slower than other organisations, particularly in the absence of a formal business structure with a chairperson or CEO, but for law firms to be so behind the curve is inexcusable.

Angela, like many of us, feels change is simply not happening fast enough. The facts speak for themselves; she was only the second woman in the faculty’s 500-year history to have held the post of Vice Dean. So why are more women not taking on office bearing roles at the faculty?

This can, in part, be explained by the roles being voluntary, unpaid and not having a termination period. Yet, to do the role justice, requires immense commitment, both in time and effort. Events and meetings are held outwith normal working hours, which are often prohibitive for those with young children. According to the Bar Standards Board in England & Wales the majority of female barristers are paid less than their male counterparts[1], it is unlikely the position in Scotland is any different. The Faculty does not publish their statistics. Therefore, the prospects of spending many hours working without financial reward, is simply not a viable option for many female advocates.

The election process itself can be daunting and deters many. It can involve a head to head challenge between only two advocates. The loser can feel humiliated. New rules were introduced after Angela’s election as Vice Dean, but the process itself remains shrouded in mystery for the majority of advocates.

“If I had remained an Office Bearer, I would have reviewed governance. That would have been number one on my wish list. I would have reviewed the role of office bearers; reviewed the issue of payment, duration of appointment and the election procedure to try to make it more inclusive”. Angela would also have raised the possibility of job sharing, to encourage a wider pool of candidates to come forward, particularly those with caring commitments who may not otherwise consider the role. The more who are willing to stand, the better it is for the Faculty.

So where will we find diversity and inclusion on the faculty’s agenda now? This is something that causes Angela concern. Sadly, there’s less visibility of that these days. “Probably because of Covid, I don’t see much happening in terms of diversity and inclusion in the faculty now. I suspect things are going on behind the scenes, but it is important to see things being demonstrated.”

The faculty remains a place which many feel is not for them. Its website lacks diversity like the Sahara Desert lacks water, without which little can grow. It will take a huge effort to make it more appealing to a diverse range of candidates, be they women or ethnic minorities. That effort needs to be fuelled by genuine desire to change and a diversity and inclusion policy in itself is unlikely to be enough. As Angela puts it, “Many people see a policy as the end point, a box that can be ticked, but as the recent International Bar Association survey made clear; policies are great but of themselves they are not enough, they need to be coupled with training and accountability[2]. I wanted the then Dean to make diversity and inclusion training compulsory for all members”.

Of course, Scotland is not alone when it comes to diversity issues and the Scottish bar is no exception to other jurisdictions. Recent research in England and Wales by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) found that women, particularly those from BME backgrounds were the lowest earning barristers. The BSB published their findings in November last year and these were based on income figures from 2018, therefore predate the current pandemic. What then of the likely effects of the pandemic when it comes to tackling diversity and inclusion issues at the bar?

“Covid has been disruptive in so many ways. Initially when lockdown was announced, all the court cases disappeared as did many Advocates’ source of income”. But for Angela there are more wider concerns that will need to be addressed. As Angela explains she has built up connections over many years and has a good working relationship with her clerk, who she now relies on more than ever. But imagine the hurdles for a newly qualified advocate trying to work from home, juggling home-schooling, not yet having developed her connections/network and relationship with the clerks.

Angela’s recent appointment, as senior counsel for the Sheku Bayoh Public Inquiry fills me with some optimism. This is a unique role and she’s been chosen by the Chair of the Inquiry, retired Senator, Lord Bracadale. Given her high regard for Lord Bracadale and his many achievements, that in itself is a great accolade for Angela. She tells me that it’s unusual for women to be appointed, which comes as a surprise to me. Afterall, it’s a Public Inquiry and we are half the population and a recent public inquiries, most notably the trams inquiry, have been criticised for being all male. My optimism soon fades. With the clear benefits that a diverse team would bring to such an important process, I can’t help thinking it ought to be mandatory.

Ending on a positive note, Angela tells me being an advocate is the best job in the world. And her advice to those thinking of signing up? “Do it! Don’t underestimate the support you’ll receive. Be kind to the people around you. Give it 3 years minimum, you’ll receive the best possible training and even if it’s not for you long term, you will come out a better lawyer”. I can’t argue with that.

[1] [2] IBA Report on Bullying & Sexual Harassment 2018

Angela's Biography

Angela is a qualified Advocate. She called to the Scottish bar in 1995 and took silk in 2009. Angela is experienced in all manner of litigation, both civil and criminal. She was instructed by Greater Glasgow Health Board in the high-profile Vale of Leven Hospital Inquiry and by the Lord Advocate in The Fingerprint Inquiry. Angela has prosecuted as an Advocate Depute in the High Court, Appeal Court and Supreme Court. She was appointed as a Legal Member of the Police Appeals Tribunal in April 2013 and until recently served as the Vice Dean of the Faculty of Advocates.

More information about the Faculty of Advocates and how to become one, can be found here:

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