Tell us about your background and why you decided to become a barrister.
I am from a working-class background in North Yorkshire, went to my local comprehensive and am the first in my family to go to university – I attended Lancaster University. I have Asperger’s Syndrome and other disabilities, and spent school focused on academics and feeling like I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s until I was 15, despite trying to get support for years. I also grew up caring for my severely disabled sister. These experiences shaped me into wanting to be someone who advocates for others who face challenges. I had always enjoyed researching, debating, and formulating persuasive arguments. Becoming a barrister seemed the right career as it brought those elements together.
Did you face any obstacles along your journey to becoming a barrister and how did you overcome them?
The biggest obstacles have been financial. It isn’t just the Bar course that acts as a financial barrier to entry for many. The unpaid nature of mini-pupillages and experiences compared to those aimed at aspiring solicitors was a hurdle. Also, travelling to London is expensive and events tend to be held there. Due to Covid-19, many events (like the Bar Council Pupillage Fair) have moved to a virtual format this year, which is definitely a positive step towards access.
As a student, I found mini-pupillages that paid expenses and undertook vacation schemes to gain comparative experience and fund more Bar-focused events. I also worked as a Student Ambassador at university to build up my communication skills. I took part in mooting competitions across the country and internationally, and attended local networking events. In hindsight, I am glad I participated in events across the country as it gave me a better understanding of the differences between being at the Bar in London and on a regional circuit. At law school, I found students seemed to think it was London or nothing or looked down upon the idea of practising regionally. For me, however, practising in the North East is perfect as I can be near my family and live outside of the capital, whilst still having excellent work.
What opportunities, support and encouragement did you receive along your journey to becoming a barrister?
One of the biggest sources of support for me has been my Inn - the Inner Temple. I received scholarships to fund the Bar course and could not have funded it without their support. I also took part in the Pegasus Access and Support Scheme (PASS), a scheme to improve access to the profession and support students from under-represented backgrounds. A skills course and funded mini-pupillage were part of the package, along with support and mentoring. My parents have also been incredibly supportive which has been a tremendous help in supporting me throughout my journey to the Bar. It is important to seek out support networks on your journey to the Bar as it can be grueling and knock your confidence. There is support out there and I have found barristers to be very supportive of those who aspire to the Bar.
What is the most rewarding thing about being a barrister; has life at the Bar met your expectations?
I enjoy the satisfaction of knowing you have done your best for your client. I practice in family law and enjoy building a connection with my lay client and talking them through the process in terms they can understand. Clients are often at their most vulnerable when they are at court and it is a real privilege to be there for them at that time. Life at the Bar has been a unique experience for me due to the Covid-19 lockdown. I ultimately think being an advocate is about communication- written and verbal, and both in court and out. Talking to clients on the telephone rather than in person means having to adapt your communication skills in new ways. I have felt able to build good working relationships with professional and lay clients through technology despite this. I am looking forward, however, to going back to court and conducting hearings in person.
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 participate in events aimed at demystifying the Bar through my Inn and talk openly about my background and experiences. I conduct mock scholarship and pupillage interviews, look over applications, and answer questions students have on social media. I have also judged mooting competitions and leave time to have discussions with students about the Bar. As an aspiring barrister I found hearing from others from a similar background very encouraging and felt able to ask them questions I would otherwise not ask. Personally, I was always pleased to hear from barristers with disabilities as we still have a long way to go, both at the Bar and in this country, to talk about disabilities openly and without stigma. Ultimately, a more diverse Bar is one that can better represent the society we serve.
What are the challenges facing today's aspiring barristers, and how could they be addressed?
One of the biggest challenges remains financial. With Covid-19 and the state of legal aid, earnings are not what people may expect, particularly when very junior. Students incur significant expense to qualify and try and gain pupillage. It is encouraging that the ICCA are introducing a two-part Bar course, as it will help with some costs for students but does not solve the problem. The Inns do a lot to support aspiring barristers and I think them continuing to develop their presence outside London will help with social mobility. The Covid-19 lockdown has shown that events can be held online to widen access and I hope as a profession we continue to use technology to address this.
What advice would you give to someone from an under-represented background, seeking to succeed at the Bar?
There are great people and organisations out there who can support you, but it is vital that you believe in yourself. Being self-employed means you need to market yourself. Think about what makes you special and use that as your selling point when meeting barristers and pupillage committee members. The majority of pupillage applicants will have a good degree and experience in mooting and shadowing barristers. What those other applicants don’t have is the ‘thing’ that makes you unique. Recognising that your background is different, and the skills you can bring to chambers, is a great way to stand out and help you secure pupillage, as well as help you gain work from solicitors and build your practice once at the Bar.