During her barrister training, Alexandra Wilson was invited to take part in a mock trial. It was based on a genuine criminal case. As the young trainee scanned the files, she became tearful. She noticed a name she recognised – Ayo, her close friend who was murdered when they were both 17.
She tried to stay calm as her fellow aspiring lawyers raked over the distressingly familiar details of how her innocent friend was stabbed 14 times by a gang member who mistook him for a rival. Ayo – a pseudonym – had visited an unfamiliar part of south London that evening.
The tragedy compelled Wilson – a mixed-race teenager growing up in Woodford, on the border of east London and Essex – to pursue a career in one of Britain’s most elite, and elitist, professions. Now 26, she has been practising criminal and family law since she was called to the Bar in 2018 after studying at Oxford. Not many of her colleagues encounter their own childhood experiences at work.
Wilson established her social media presence, where she is known as the “Essex Barrister”, by tweeting a photo of herself in her wig, robe and white collarette captioned: “I’m 24. I’m mixed-race. I’m from Essex. I’m not posh… THIS is what a barrister looks like.”
“I’ve moved to west London now, which is completely different! But Essex will always be home,” she said, when we met in the gardens of Inner Temple, one of London’s four Inns of Court. Carrying her robe and court shoes, she wore a smart black dress with trainers and a long black parka.
When dialling in to a recent Court of Appeal case from her family home in Essex, she was required to wear the full formal attire. “It felt very odd wearing slippers so I even put heels on for that!” she laughed. “I had the curtains open and realised people walking past were looking at me in my wig like: ‘What on earth is this woman doing, playing dress-up in her front room?’”
Despite having moved out of her family home in March to live with her partner in west London, Wilson will remain the “Essex Barrister” for what it symbolises. “Having grown up in Essex, it’s so much of my identity,” said Wilson, a former Woodbridge High School pupil.
When studying philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at University College, Oxford – where she was the only black student in her year at the college – she found herself trying to alter her accent. Other students would shout “shut up!” with hammy Essex vowels when she spoke. “They’d mock my accent or say: ‘Do you love make-up and going out and cocktails?’ It was the superficial image that Essex was often branded with. I wanted to rebel against that – to associate ‘Essex’ with ‘barrister’.”
Now, her background is an asset. Clients appreciate how “normal” she sounds; 34.1 per cent of the barristers in England and Wales who declared their educational background went to a private school, compared to 7 per cent of the population.
Just 3 per cent of barristers are black, whereas black people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system; there was a black defendant in 11 per cent of prosecutions in 2019, three times the proportion of black people in the population. Black people also receive more – and longer – prison sentences.
In September 2020, Wilson was mistaken for a defendant in court three times in one day, by a security officer, a lawyer and a clerk. Her tweets about it went viral, although the situation was not new to her. Earlier that year, she had written about a similar moment in her book, In Black and White: A Young Barrister’s Story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System.
“I’m part of the generation that, when we’re upset, we go on the internet and tell people,” she said. “It was exhaustion – I was excited going for a case at a new court, I had a job to do, and it was getting to the point where everyone was standing in my way.” Months later, Wilson had to log off social media in frustration when her friend, another black barrister, wrote about the same thing happening to him. “It’s going to continue to happen, because we haven’t changed the structure of the Bar yet,” Wilson said. “And we haven’t changed the over-criminalisation of black people.”
Wilson founded the Black Women in Law network last year and colleagues at her chambers joke about an “Alex Wilson Effect”: their pupillage applications nearly doubled this year, with candidates from a range of backgrounds.
“Sometimes it feels like working two jobs,” Wilson said. “Doing my actual job representing my clients, and doing the race awareness activism. That is genuinely tiring… We can’t just leave it all to fall on the few black people willing to put up with continually speaking out.”
After the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK last summer, Wilson felt ambivalent about the response. “Empty statements” from chambers condemning racism and the promises of anti-bias training by HM Courts and Tribunals only go so far. “There should be a lot more emphasis on people educating themselves,” she said. “That’s why I wrote my book, I tweet, I’m on Instagram and TikTok. It’s about reaching a wide audience who might walk away learning something.”
One such reader is the brother of her late friend, Ayo. He recently wrote to thank her for honouring Ayo’s life. “Telling his story highlights how much of a difference his life has made,” said Wilson. “It’s affected my life massively; it’s shaped my whole career.”
[See also: Real “levelling up” means greater social justice]
This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West