Rehana Popal

 

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

My family came to the UK when I was a child. We came as refugees. No one in my family could speak any English but my parents were keen that we learned and we took advantage of any opportunities offered. Our home was an inner London council estate. My family were poor but my parents considered education a lifeline to a better life. One day, when I was 9 years old , I arrived home from school to find my brother watching TV. There were people wearing wigs and talking in a courtroom on the TV screen. I asked my brother who those people were and he told me that they were "barristers". I was transfixed and from that day, I decided that I was going to be a barrister. I wrote down my life plan on a post-it note. First, I would study for a degree in politics. Secondly, I would do a law degree and thirdly, I would qualify as a barrister and practice in Human Rights law. Everything I did from that point onwards, was directed towards a career in the law. My teachers were less supportive of my career choice as my English wasn't very good at the time. It was only when I was diagnosed with dyslexia that my English started to improve when I finally received the support I needed. 

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 got excellent GCSEs and got into a good sixth form college. However, I did not perform well in my A-levels and missed out on a place at a prestigious university. Rather than retaking my A-levels, I decided to go through clearing. I was fortunate to be accepted at City University where I went on to study International Relations. I really loved my degree but I still wanted to be a barrister and so I began to properly research the Bar. It was at this time that I realised how competitive it was to become a barrister. The vast majority of the barrister profiles that I read were of predominantly Caucasian men who had been educated at Oxbridge. I hardly saw anyone who looked like me at the Bar - those that I found were few and far between. 

However, I didn't let this deter me. I knew that I had to cultivate my own "USP" so that I could stand out and it was at the point that I began to really appreciate and make the most of my background. A university friend and I set up an NGO to advocate for the rights of Internally Displaced Persons. We worked closely with a number of sister organisations and charities.  In my third year of university, I travelled back to Afghanistan to carry out interviews for my undergraduate dissertation. I interviewed members of the Taliban and senior government officials, including Ahmad Wali Karzai. Those experiences opened other doors for me. I was recruited to work on the United Nations SRCT Drones Inquiry and later head-hunted by the law firm Leigh Day as a paralegal. At Leigh Day, I worked on civil claims brought by Aghani civillians who alleged that they had suffered human rights abuses perpetrated by members of the British armed forces. 

Without a doubt the biggest obstacle that I faced was financial. I held down a part-time job from the age of 16 alongside my studies. As I had always planned to do a law conversion, I spent years saving in order to be able to pay my GDL fees. I knew that I would not be afford the BPTC and my family would be unable to help me but during my GDL, my course mates told me about the scholarship programmes run by the Inns. I applied and was extremely fortunate and grateful to be awarded a Major scholarship by the Inner Temple. The scholarship covered all of my BPTC course fees and there was also a little money left over to cover my dining sessions.  

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

I would never have been able to afford to pursue a career at the Bar without the scholarship from Inner Temple. It was a huge encouragement and felt like a sign of endorsement from Inner Temple that I was on the right path. As well as awarding me the scholarship, the Inn also played a major role in helping me to become a barrister by allocating me a mentor, who gave me advice on applications and securing mini-pupillages. The Inn's dinning sessions allowed me to network and meet other barristers and aspiring barristers. The Drama society helped me build my confidence and - more importantly - create wonderful memories. 

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

One of the most rewarding aspects for me of being a barrister - specifically as a barrister who practises asylum and immigration law - is knowing that I am making a genuine change to someone's life. Helping someone to live their life openly and freely, particularly those who were persecuted in another country because of their sexual orientation or political views, gives me great satisfaction. 

Intellectually and professionally, I enjoy the challenge of appearing in the Court of Appeal to set a new legal precedent one day and then representing an asylum seeker at the First-tier tribunal the next day. Being a barrister has a transformative effect on a person's life. 

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?  

Being the first Afghan woman to practise at the at Bar, I am aware of the fortunate position that I am in. I am also very aware that with that fortune, comes responsibility. Inner Temple has done so much for me and I have been keen to give back whenever I can. I am a member of the Inner Temple Bar Liaison Committee and through this, am co-opted to the Bar Council as the Inn's representative. On the Bar Council, I sit on the Equality, Diversity and Social Mobility Committee.  

In my spare time, I work with organisations that mentor young people from non-traditional backgrounds on ways to enter various carers including law. I also volunteer at Inner Temple advocacy sessions, dinning sessions, residential weekends and scholarship interviews. 

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

Financial. The cost of just a three-year undergraduate degree is now £27,000. Add to that the expense of accommodation, living expenses and any postgraduate degree. The cost of tuition fees is increasing but so are the number of scholarships and bursaries from the Inns, universities, charities, companies and private benefactors. Scholarships not only alleviate a student's financial burden but also are mark of achievement in a competitive profession.

In terms of what can be done, I think we are generally moving in the right direction but to use that hackneyed expression, more must and can be done. We need to look at why the BPTC has become so expensive and the Future Bar Training plans are a promising sign of more routes into the profession becoming available. A cheaper, two-part course is a good example of a development that may go a long way to improving social mobility within the profession. 

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

I assist with my chambers' pupillage applications. The already high standard increases year by year. Academic achievement is paramount but those who do not have the best grades should not lose heart or give up. What may be lacking on paper academically, can be balanced by achievements in other areas such as compelling work and life experiences. Excellent references will count. 

I would also say to those from non-traditional backgrounds: don't be ashamed of your background. Your experience is unique and gives you skills and an outlook that others from prestigious backgrounds will not have. Use all of this to your advantage. The adversity that you have faced will strengthen you and help demonstrate your commitment and determination to succeed at the Bar. Where there's a will, there is a way. You will find the right path.