Alex Cisneros

Alex Cisneros SMA

SOCIAL MOBILITY ADVOCATE: ALEX CISNEROS 

1. Tell us about your background and why you decided to become a barrister.

For me it was about fairness. I come from a modest background where I was entitled to free school meals and was only the second person in my family to go to university. I remember growing up and thinking how unfair society could be if you weren't born into the 'right' circumstances. My mum is a social worker and so I grew up hearing stories about how bad some people's lives can be. I saw the Bar as a way to help people. Someone once asked me why I didn't become a social worker myself if that was my motivation; the honest answer is that I also liked the idea of not having a boss. I did debating at school and so expressed an interest in law. My school career adviser warned that the legal profession was full of people from a different kind of background to mine and that I might find it hard to fit in. To be quite honest, being told that I might struggle to fit in made me question whether I wanted to study law. Luckily, by that time it was too late and I had already made my choices. When I got to university I realised that there was a mix of people and that the Bar could be a place where you could help people.

2. Did you face any obstacles along your journey to becoming a barrister and how did you overcome them? Have any of them persisted since becoming a barrister?

It goes without saying that the cost of training for the Bar is a massive disincentive. I worked in bars and restaurants through university and chose to do the BPTC part-time to earn money to pay my rent. I also took some time out after university to save up to pay for the BPTC. I am indebted to Middle Temple for giving me a scholarship without which I still wouldn't have been able to pay the course fees.

The biggest barrier for me though, and the thing that almost stopped me coming to the Bar, was a particularly bad mini-pupillage. When I arrived on the first day I was asked to wait outside because 'clients might need to use the chairs in the waiting room'. It was raining outside. I then spent the week being ignored by the barrister I was following. Being treated like that gave me second thoughts about whether this was the career for me and whether I was 'barrister material'. All I can say to prospective barristers is not to worry if you have a bad first experience of the Bar. There are inevitably bad people, but the majority of my colleagues are wonderful (NB if you ever do a mini-pupillage with me, it usually involves cake).

3. What opportunities, support and encouragement did you receive along your journey to becoming a barrister?

I am indebted to Middle Temple for giving me a scholarship to allow me to do the BPTC. Without that scholarship I wouldn't have been able to cover my BPTC fees. 

I will also lay any success I have at the door of a barrister called Jonathan Cooper at Doughty Street Chambers who I met on an internship after university. To have someone senior within the profession tell you that you're good enough to make it does amazing things for your confidence. Not having any lawyers in my family meant that I had no idea what a barrister was 'meant to be like'. Jonathan reassured me (and still does) that there is not one mould; the real secret is hard work and resilience. 

4. What is the most rewarding thing about being a barrister; has life at the Bar met your expectations?

Before I was called to the Bar, a friend told me that the most rewarding thing about the career is 'the thank you cards'. It sounded a little cliché at the time but when I started and realised how hard the job is (emotionally, intellectually and physically), it really does become worth it when a client says thank you and you realise that your hard work has gone into helping someone. 

As to whether life at the Bar met my expectations, there are less 'boozy lunches' than TV would have you believe. I never expected it to be so physically demanding but equally I never imagined I could actually enjoy staying up late to read books about law...

5. How do you use your experience of coming to the Bar from a non-traditional background, to support those seeking to do the same, and/or why is it important for barristers to contribute in this way?

I sit on the Bar Council's Young Barristers' Committee and used to run a charity called Big Voice London. I think it is incredibly important that the Bar is seen to be a profession open to all. Once you're in it you realise how inclusive it is but I know from first-hand experience how it looks from the outside. We must work hard to engage students from non-traditional backgrounds while they're still in school. All classes get citizenship classes as part of the curriculum; barristers should be willing to go to schools to tell students about their job. 

Because as a junior barrister I have LOADS of time on my hands (kidding), I am also a trustee of a small charity that gives money to help students from non-traditional backgrounds access music lessons. The charity doesn't just teach music for the sake of it, it hopes to improve the children's confidence through exposure to new experiences. That is the same with exposure to the law; social mobility schemes are not just about developing the next generation of lawyers, but also giving young people the confidence to challenge and question the world that they live in.

6. What are the challenges facing today's aspiring barristers, and how could they be addressed?

The challenges are well known: financial pressure, competition and stress. If the eye-watering figures about how many people compete for pupillage each year don't worry prospective barristers, they probably haven't read the numbers properly. This pressure from perceived competition continues throughout your career.

In terms of how to deal with this, I was only called in 2015 but I have already seen a marked improvement in how the Bar talks about mental health. The Bar Council's wellbeing initiative has shown us young barristers (and prospective barristers) that other people, and even senior people, do experience stress and worries about not being good enough. 'You are not alone' seems to be the maxim. This is incredibly helpful as it's easy to forget that most barristers at some point have had to overcome some form of adversity, even if they don't show it.

7. What advice would you give someone from a non-traditional background, seeking to succeed at the Bar?

There are a few things.

1) Don't think that you need to rush straight into the BPTC, it is ok to take some time out. The added experience will look good on pupillage forms and you can save up some money!

2) Use the support that the Inns offer. The scholarships are the most obvious example but most of the Inns also offer marshalling experience or a mentor to help with interviews.

3) Don't be afraid to email barristers that you have noticed or that you think seem cool (within reason). It can often lead to work experience or just a friendly message wishing you luck.