Tell us about your background and why you decided to become a barrister.
I am an employed female Welsh barrister based in Cardiff, from a state school, and my route to the Bar is the opposite of traditional. I knew no one at all who worked in the legal profession. I grew up in a typical large Catholic family. The school I attended was in a deprived area and I saw classmates with very difficult backgrounds. Despite knowing nothing about being a barrister, I was determined to be one from a young age after seeing courtrooms on TV.
From being told by my careers adviser that I should be a legal secretary as I was female, to being asked by a law professor at an Oxford university open day as to why on earth I was studying Welsh A-Level, I had a few bumps along the way. However, I turned this on its head and did not take up my place at Oxford. Instead I went to Aberystwyth University, took my Bar course at Cardiff University and travelled a journey to my current job as the Welsh lawyer at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, where knowledge of devolution is essential.
I’ve never thought of myself as a disabled barrister, but in the current crisis, my severe asthma has put me on the “shielding” list as being at high risk from Covid-19 and made me think about how it has affected my life and work.
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?
Before my A-Levels, I was given advice about how hard becoming a barrister would be. The exact statistics may be wrong but it went like this; only 40% of the population study A-Levels; only 20% pass them; only 20% study a law degree; only 10% pass it, only 5% study the Bar; only 2% pass; less than 1% get pupillage and become barristers. I wasn’t put off by this, assuming that determination would put me in the 1%. I passed my A-Levels, law degree and Bar course and all seemed to be going well. Fortunately, I had taken a gap year to work before starting my law degree, working as a paid coordinator at the local youth forum, which enabled me to fund my time at university. Without that, I’m not sure how I would have afforded the fees.
The biggest obstacle began with trying to obtain pupillage. I completed thousands of applications and attended hundreds of interviews. At a second interview in a Cardiff chambers, I had to sit all day with the four other (male) candidates, only to be told by a junior barrister that they had “too many females at the junior end”. Being from outside London, and not wanting to work anywhere but in Wales was another obstacle because so many pupillages are in London.
This carried on for a few years, and I worked as an advocate for Legal Practice Clerks (LPC) and at several solicitors’ firms which lead me to cross-qualify as a solicitor. I never gave up wanting to be a barrister and so I took and passed the higher rights examination, obtained exemption from pupillage and became a barrister.
The obstacles did not stop there, as I’ve not been able to become a member of the Wales and Chester circuit – who do not allow employed barristers to join – but I’m still working on that.
What opportunities, support and encouragement did you receive along your journey to becoming a barrister?
I’ve been very fortunate along my journey to becoming a barrister to have had tremendous support from the Welsh legal community. When I was only 16, the then Recorder of Cardiff, Judge John Griffith Williams allowed me to spend 2 weeks marshalling with him, watching criminal trials in Cardiff Crown Court. I’ve had mentors from my Inn (Middle Temple), coaching from a senior colleague and the opportunity to be a member of the Bar Council and Employed Barristers’ Committee.
What is the most rewarding thing about being a barrister; has life at the Bar met your expectations?
I always thought the best thing about being a barrister was wearing your wig and gown to cross-examine witnesses in court. Whilst I do enjoy advocacy, I find the challenge of preparing complex legal advice is more rewarding. I love finding a grey complex area of law, researching it, looking at it from all angles and then preparing an advice that explains it to clients in a way that they understand.
How do you use your experience of coming to the Bar from an under-represented background to support those seeking to do the same, and/or why is it important for barristers to contribute in this way?
I’ve tried to use my own experience to support others from under-represented groups to become barristers. For example, last year, I spoke to a group at Cardiff University about my experiences at the Bar. I was the only employed barrister on a panel of five and I took time to explain it as a different option. The security of receiving a pay check every month may seem like the best reason to be an employed barrister, but actually there are many other benefits, like working as part of a team and being able to jointly work longer-term to achieve successful outcomes for your employer/client. As a young mother with three-year-old twins, I’ve seen friends at the self-employed Bar struggle with combining parenthood with life in chambers, whereas I benefitted from being employed. Paid maternity leave, being able to work flexibly when I returned and childcare vouchers/paid holidays, not to mention cover for the numerous times my children have needed looking after when unwell. Being an employed barrister enables you to develop other skills, including working on projects and project management, advising at senior level inside your organisation and different types of advocacy such as presenting to or advising committees or Boards.
What are the challenges facing today's aspiring barristers, and how could they be addressed?
The current health crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities and issues. Pupillages are not easy to find and obtain. Fees in some areas, particularly legally aided work, mean that some junior barristers may make it difficult to make ends meet. These are areas where female barristers are more likely to work and I’m concerned that the profession still needs to do more to support female barristers, particularly around maternity leave and sexual harassment issues. However, I would encourage any aspiring barristers to consider my journey to the Bar, to gain as much legal experience as you can and consider becoming an employed barrister, as chambers is not the only route!
What advice would you give to someone from an under-represented background, seeking to succeed at the Bar?
The best advice I can give to someone from an under-represented background is to be persistent and to look at all options. Being from outside London can feel like the biggest obstacle but if you look closely, you will find opportunities that suit you.