Simao Paxi-Cato

 

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

I am from a working-class family and I grew up on a Council Estate in London. I was the first person in my family to go to University and I am state schooled.

I decided to become a barrister because I saw the law as a means of making sure that the voice and rights of the underprivileged in society would be heard and recognised. I specifically decided to become a barrister, because I felt my personal qualities were more suited to the independence of the Bar.

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? 

As someone who had no professional role models in my family and whose friends came from similar backgrounds, I did not have anyone to guide me and there was no one at school. When I went to my local Sixth Form Centre, a special mentoring programme for BME students had just been set up and through that, I was allocated a mentor who was a black practising barrister, who really supported me by introducing me to the Inns of Court, life in chambers and general guidance when I was studying at university.

When I first started meeting barristers at mini-pupillages and other events, I was very much aware that I was judged by the way that I spoke. I had a tendency to add "that" and non-verbal noises to my sentences and people would judge me for it, even though I had a good academic background. It is something that is no longer a concern because the longer I have practised, my language has naturally changed.

One of my most significant challenges post-University was funding my Bar Professional Training Course. At the time after a lot of deliberation, I took out a professional studies loan. These are no longer available and it was a significant amount of debt to incur, but fortunately, the gamble paid off. Financial challenges were something that persisted inmy early days of practice because some of my peers were fortunate enough to have parents who had bought them a flat or were funding their rent. As a result, they were better equipped to deal with the low fees and slow turnover of fees which were a feature of early practice.

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

I have mentioned my mentor. I also took advantage of a career support/mentor scheme set up by Gray's Inn to support students seeking pupillage and the barrister I was allocated really helped me to find out more about the types of chambers who specialised in the work I wanted to do. One of my university teachers was a practising barrister and she was instrumental in persuading me to give the Bar a go, despite the financial worries. My friends were very supportive of the fact I was stepping into a different world that was unlike anything we knew.

After obtaining pupillage, I received a grant from my Inn of Court which allowed me to purchase a wig and gown and some key essentials before starting pupillage. Without it, I simply would not have been able to do so myself.

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

What I enjoy the most about my job is the opportunity to meet people at various stages of their life journey and work with so many different and varied companies. You learn a little about a lot of disciplines, the mistakes that we can make and its consequences as well as what works. It's a life lesson! I think in terms of the experiences and people I have met, it has met my expectations. There has been a lot of change at the Bar since I started in practice, but throughout the Bar has continued to display resilience and an increasingly entrepreneurial spirit to showcase the value that high-quality advocates provide.

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?

Throughout my career, I have always committed to doing outreach work at schools and colleges to promote the profession and reach a wider audience. Examples include:

  • The Bar Council Education & Training Committee - As part of my role on this committee, I have been a speaker at two The Lawyer Portal (TLP) events speaking to parents and students looking to pursue a career in law. I also participate in the CV clinic at the annual Pupillage Fair.
  • The Social Mobility Foundation and Bar Placement Week - for a number of years I have supported these initiatives by doing a panel event for Bar Placement Week and sharing my experiences with students around the country from non-traditional backgrounds.
  • Pegasus Access Scheme - I have been a supporter of Pegasus for a number of years and chambers provide mini-pupillages through the scheme.
  • Gray's Inn Education & Open Days - I regularly support my Inn's Education Department to give prospective applicants a glimpse into life at the Bar and answer questions.
  • I have just launched a new podcast called The UK Law Practice Podcast which aims to educate and inform people considering a career at the Bar and the profession more generally.
  • When I was a member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers, I was a mentor for those looking to pursue a career at the Bar. I was also the co-author of a YLAL report on social mobility in the law and the detrimental effects on access to the profession.

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

I believe there are a number of challenges for today's aspiring barristers:

  • The cost of the academic stages of qualification. The fact that banks no longer offer professional studies loans presents a significant hurdle for those from non-traditional backgrounds. 

  • The number of pupillages has fallen due to a more challenging market, cuts to legal funding and the cost of compliance and regulation.

  • The risk of a lot of junior advocacy being undertaken by solicitors and other legal professionals.

However - some of these challenges can be and are being addressed:

  • Awareness is increasing of the increasingly attractive opportunities available at the employed Bar (in house at firms and other organisations) and with entities

  • Through the potential for more flexible pupillages based on the new training routes which encourage, for example, part-time pupillages and work-based learning which is likely to open the way into the profession for those with caring responsibilities or under financial pressures to qualify as barristers.

  • A number of universities now offer the chance to complete your LLB and BPTC as part of a combined course. 

  • The new lower-cost Inns Bar course is likely to bring down the costs charged by the current vocational training institutions and increase competition

  •  The increase to the minimum pupillage training award, which is now indexed to the living wage.

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

Do your research and have a career plan in place. It always pays to begin early from the time that you are at university to gain experiences and skills and find out if this is really a career you would like to pursue. I would also say be open to pursuing a first career before joining the Bar to gain experience in general industry and potentially to establish some financial security. There are also groups like Cake & Counsel who can offer opportunities to meet barristers informally in a less intimidating setting. If a group doesn't exist near you, set one up! Look out for open days both for Chambers and the Inns and think about applying for the Pegasus Access Support Scheme if you are eligible. Finally, get yourself a mentor! This can be formally through a group or organisation or by writing directly to a member of the profession that you identify with.