Nancy Williams

 

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

I was born in Sierra Leone and arrived in the UK on my first birthday. I attended a comprehensive secondary school and local sixth form college. My father became an Immigration Adviser as a result of the challenges he faced finding good quality legal representation for our family whilst we were regularising our immigration status in the UK. He ran a small local advisory centre in East London and was not computer literate, so he often asked me to type letters and assist with printing relevant application forms. I essentially grew up around the law. I was fascinated by it and I witnessed first-hand the immense gratitude of my father’s clients for his work and the life-changing effect of the law, as it provided individuals with the opportunity for a fresh start after experiencing suffering in their countries of origin. This instilled within me the desire to become a lawyer at a very young age.
 

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? 

I studied law at a predominantly white middle-class red-brick university. This was a culture shock for me. I was a minority on my course and in my hall of residence. I remember vividly a black male in my hall alerting me to the fact that I was the only black woman.  I found university challenging in the sense that at school, I had always stood out for being one of the more intelligent people in my year, whilst at university, everybody was more or less the same level of intellect. I struggled to find the thing that made me special whilst also being acutely aware of the fact that I was different to everybody else in terms of my race and socio-economic background. I initially wanted to hide that difference then I realised that my difference was important and should be highlighted.

Ultimately, the biggest obstacle that I faced was financial. I did not have the means to afford the training required to become a barrister. Fortunately, I received a scholarship from my Inn which assisted with paying for the BPTC.
 

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

I received a scholarship from my Inn which covered almost all of the cost of the BPTC. My Inn also offered an interview coaching scheme for aspiring barristers. I have remained in contact with the barrister that conducted my mock interview, he has supported me through the application process by reading my applications and offering advice. Before becoming a barrister, I worked as a paralegal for 2.5 years at a leading human rights firm. In this position, I had the opportunity to work closely with barristers and develop a good working relationship with some of them. I used these relationships to assist with the pupillage process by requesting mock interviews and review of my pupillage applications.
 

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

I have a common law practice which encompasses family and criminal law. At times, I act for very vulnerable clients. I am glad that I am able to assist them by using the law to try to make their lives better. Life at the Bar has met my expectations in terms of the challenging workload. However, it has exceeded my expectations in terms of the collegiate atmosphere - many barristers are willing to help each other out, especially the most junior members of the Bar.


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?

Whilst working as a paralegal, I was involved in an outreach programme with sixth formers at an Academy in London which involved a debating competition and presentations about careers in law. I assisted with mentoring sixth formers in preparation for the debate competition. Now that I have become a barrister, I was invited to speak at the Academy and explain the role of a barrister to the students. My chambers has recently become involved with the Sutton Trust social mobility programme. I am currently supporting the programme by providing online mentoring to students.

The Bar has championed diversity for some time on the understanding that a profession that represents people from all walks of life should reflect the society that it serves. I believe that the most effective way to support individuals from under-represented backgrounds to aspire to a career at the Bar is for barristers from those backgrounds to share their stories and demonstrate that a career at the Bar is possible for all.
 

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

The biggest challenge is the fierce competition to get pupillage. The number of graduates from the various Bar schools outstrips the number of available pupillages. This has affected diversity to some degree because it has reinforced stereotypes about the type of profile that a prospective candidate must have in order to meet the requirement of excellence that chambers demand. I am aware that applications for pupillage have gone some way to addressing this problem by removing the identity of the universities of candidates from the application forms that are provided to chambers. I think that a further step that could assist in levelling the playing field is if the Bar adopted a contextual recruitment application process so that chambers are able to identify individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds who have exceeded expectations.

There are various sources of support and information for aspiring barristers. The primary source of financial support is the Inns of Court. The Inns also provide support at different stages of the journey to becoming a barrister through open days, mentoring schemes and mock pupillage interviews. In addition, social media is used by many barristers, legal organisations and chambers. It is an excellent tool for self-promotion, building a network and getting exposure to different opportunities and will certainly help provide a competitive edge if used effectively.
 

7. What advice would you give to someone from an under-represented background, seeking to succeed at the Bar?

Do not be afraid to share or highlight what makes you different. In a sea of excellent candidates, your difference is what will help you stand out. Don’t be afraid to tell your story!