Tell us about your background and why you decided to become a barrister.
My decision to become a barrister was one that arose both early in my life and definitively. Having immigrated to the UK as a child and having to move regularly throughout the country during those early years, I quickly alighted on the necessity of the spoken language in helping me assimilate at each new school. My parents were committed, even when I was a mere toddler in India, to ensuring that they instilled in me a love for the English language and always pushed me towards expressing myself in it. My ability to speak became the crutch I relied upon in every new and scary situation and by the time I discovered, around the age of 12, that a job existed where the defining quality was to persuade and defend using little beyond your command of the English language, I was fairly sold. It seemed like the one thing my skill set was built for.
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?
Despite being female, an ethnic minority and technically a first generation immigrant, I have always considered myself fortunate in my journey to the Bar, for two reasons. The first is that despite the inherent struggles that come from moving to a new country with a young family, both my parents are professionals with a concrete conviction that education and its pursuit is a primary objective in life. The second, arising from this conviction, was that they were eventually able to send me to a private girl's school in the North of England. I spent most of my school years in Rochdale, on the fringes of Manchester. Unfortunately, its reputation precedes it for some of the worst news headlines in recent years. I was incredibly privileged to have access to a private education, but despite even that head start, I found that when it came to pursuing a career as a barrister, I was somewhat lost. No-one around me had any knowledge of how to access this "old boy's club" profession. To get my first mini-pupillage at 16, I telephoned 23 chambers and dropped my CV at about 12. I had no connections into this elite world. That was a feeling that persisted for some years. I suppose, on reflection, it was a type of imposter syndrome; an acute feeling that whatever I might do, however well I might succeed, this type of profession with its 14th century Dining Halls and fantastical costume would never truly be within my reach.
What opportunities, support and encouragement did you receive along your journey to becoming a barrister?
Part of my ignorance in my journey to the Bar was the truly idiotic step of failing to apply for an Inns Scholarship. Quite simply I didn't realise they existed at the time. At university, the entire LLB careers support was geared towards becoming solicitors, and indeed, for many, the access provided to that side of the law likely influenced their decision not to apply for the Bar. In terms of financial support, the Career Development Loan offered by some banks was instrumental in allowing me to pursue the BPTC in London. Unfortunately, whilst there are mentoring schemes with the Inns etc., I have to admit there was a reluctance on my part, perhaps arising from the same sense of imposter syndrome, which held me back from accessing many of these established support schemes.
What is the most rewarding thing about being a barrister; has life at the Bar met your expectations?
The sense of accomplishment one feels the first day you don a wig and gown and rightly hold yourself out to be a barrister is a feeling unlike any other. The knowledge that you are part of a profession steeped in history and excellence and that you can count yourself amongst its elite numbers is probably the best thing about the job. Life at the Bar is not easy and to be honest it is not what I expected. This is not a job for the fainthearted or the unadventurous. Every day is a rollercoaster; a heady mix of the most exhilarating rush of adrenaline combined with the depressing crush of anxiety and panic. The work is intense and the quality demanded beyond belief. But, whilst the Bar will challenge you at every turn, the highs for me exceed every one of my expectations.
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?
The reality is that when one arrives at the Bar as a pupil barrister or a tenant, almost all the concerns that may arise from being from a non-traditional background are, in my opinion, eradicated. The problems that exist are ones which need to be addressed much earlier and from my experience it is the lack of transparency and the ideology of the "old boys club" which make it difficult for the vast majority to feel comfortable pursuing the Bar. Since joining my chambers I have regularly spoken at schools and Universities regarding access to the Bar. I deliver "mock trial" boot camps and act as a mentor for state school teams in mooting and mock trial competitions, in particular in association with the Citizenship Foundation. I judge moot competitions at a number of universities and judge mock trial competitions for 13-18 year olds. I have also had the privilege of writing for Beyond my Ethnicity magazine but there is definitely a lot more left to do!
What are the challenges facing today's aspiring barristers, and how could they be addressed?
I recall virtually every senior member of the Bar saying to me at some point during my pupillage "well done for getting here, I certainly wouldn't have managed it today." I believe, without doubt, that becoming a barrister is far more difficult today than it ever has been before. There are fewer jobs, more viable applicants and the requirements are becoming more and more onerous. I don't see that as a negative in any way, but it certainly raises the bar (please excuse the pun).
I believe the growth and prosperity of the Bar will be dictated entirely by the diversity, talent and merit of its intake, and it is here that we need reform. Diversifying the Bar, in my humble opinion, does not simply mean targeting certain groups or encouraging candidates without the necessary skills, academics or potential, but rather making the Bar a more accessible and relevant place for all quality candidates. The Bar has to take responsibility for driving away quality candidates from non-traditional backgrounds over the years in a way other professions simply have not. Chambers need to have a presence at universities outside of Oxford and Cambridge, encouraging the best minds to consider the Bar. The ability to fund the BPTC through merit-based Inn scholarships also ought to be better publicised. The candidates are ready and waiting, the Bar must simply start casting its net wide enough to allow them to be caught.
What advice would you give to someone from a non-traditional background, seeking to succeed at the Bar?
My advice is to persevere. Self-doubt, I feel, is probably the single greatest cause for deterring exceptional aspiring barristers, specifically from non-traditional backgrounds, from pursuing the career. It is much easier to fall into line and apply for a training contract or pursue a career as a doctor or accountant where people who look, sound and feel like you are visible and prominent. But I urge all future barristers to push through. If you've decided, after proper research and consideration that you would be suited for this, don't let any fleeting feelings of being an imposter deter you. There is nothing more rewarding that breaking a glass ceiling or achieving what you, and those around you, thought would be impossible. Persevere.