1. Tell us about your background and why you decided to become a barrister.
I had a very difficult childhood and my family life was tumultuous. Having grown up in rural India, my father made the decision to enrol me in a Catholic convent. The standard of education was extremely low with greater emphasis on “moral” education. At the age of 16 when I was finally able to move to the UK, it was evident how inadequate my education was and unfortunately the two years of A-levels was insufficient time to make up the huge gap in my education.
Furthermore, I had a learning disability which was only later diagnosed in my thirties. As a result, I never completed my A-Levels and the two years were only sufficient to complete a portfolio for art school. Although art school was a viable option it wasn’t necessarily the best fit either given I did not have much interest or talent as an artist. Eventually I left university with a lower second degree. I graduated in 2009 with a degree in Visual Communication and subsequently completed a Masters in Curating from the University of Arts.
Although during my time as a curator I was fortunate to work on interesting projects, the art world is notorious for unpaid or low paid work. Having graduated in the midst of the 2008 financial crash and without parental support, my average week included juggling 3 jobs; Working nights in pubs/clubs to make up the shortfall. I met several young persons, equally qualified, who were struggling to maintain a decent living and I became disillusioned with the exploitative environment of the art world.
It was during this time I became increasingly interested in social justice and politics. The troubles of my childhood, witnessing mistreatment of women in India and the financial hardships later as a young person all led me to want to practice law. I felt that I could no longer be a bystander.
In 2016 I decided to undertake the law conversion course. However, as passionate as I was, the GDL was an experiment. I was convinced, given my purely art-based background, that I would struggle with a law degree. However, I really enjoyed it and had a natural aptitude for law, eventually getting a distinction. It was during the GDL that I decided to go down the barrister route.
2. What kinds of challenges have you faced in your journey to getting pupillage and how have you overcome them?
Along with the other challenges mentioned above, securing pupillage without A-Levels and a lower-second degree from a non-Russell group/Oxbridge university is extremely difficult. During the GDL I spoke to a careers advisor who strongly advised against the Bar. However, I was determined to follow this path.
Since the GDL I took on several legal roles to make my CV impressive enough to overcome the failures of my past. I undertook mini-pupillages with high-profile barristers, which I mainly secured from networking. The support and mentorship I received from the profession has been invaluable. Similarly, I undertook work experience at well-known firms to show my commitment to the profession. After the GDL I worked in Berlin with a refugee charity and during the BPTC I worked part time as a researcher.
Ultimately however, certain chambers would always be out of reach for someone with my background. In 2020 I applied to the CPS. CPS applications are “blind” assessed, thus removing any bias towards grades that may affect an application. This was the perfect opportunity for a candidate such as myself as it allowed my experience and conduct in interview to shine and I was subsequently offered pupillage.
3. Tell us about your experience of training to become a barrister and how you prepared for pupillage applications.
Getting courtroom experience was helpful both for the BPTC as well as pupillage applications. Due to the structure of the course, there simply isn’t enough class time to understand all the practicalities of court procedure. During the BPTC I assisted a KC (then QC), working as a legal researcher and I took every opportunity to shadow him in court. Some chambers have a “topical” question in their application forms and being familiar with court procedure illustrated a wholesome understanding of the topics.
In terms of choosing a chambers, as someone from a non-traditional background I shortlisted various chambers that had similar candidates to myself. In my first round of applications I applied to all chambers I was interested in, but subsequently I was a lot more selective. Researching the chambers was equally important in demonstrating why I wanted to work with them. During my CPS interview, I spoke about landmark cases as well as the importance of public service, both illustrating why I was a good fit for the CPS.
The CPS was the only interview I had, I am therefore unable to comment on chambers’ process. However, the Civil Service has clear criteria which candidates must satisfy, thus making the preparation process more focused. I studied each criteria carefully and identified the key competencies. I chose a handful of experiences from my CV that satisfied each criterion and prepared an answer that could be modified depending on the question.
4. What are the main challenges facing those currently applying for pupillage and those planning to apply for pupillage in the near future? How could they be addressed?
There are 2200 Bar students across the UK. However, there are fewer than 400 pupillage spaces. Furthermore, there is a backlog of students who re-apply. I believe there needs to be more training opportunities for Bar students and the profession generally must do more to provide opportunities for under-represented communities. This is particularly crucial for criminal practice. Years of financial cuts, and the uncertainty wreaked by the pandemic, will lead to fewer juniors choosing defence work. This is a twofold setback, there are not enough training opportunities and the profession seems like an economically unsound choice. I fear that younger talent will either refuse to join the criminal Bar but if they do, they may end up leaving as it is unsustainable.
There is also a lack of transparency in the interview process and few chambers provide detailed feedback. Given the amount of highly qualified candidates, without feedback, talented candidates have no concrete way of knowing how to improve their chances going forward. There should be a single centralised and more regulated application process, with guaranteed feedback for students invited for an interview. Chambers should also provide students with clearer selection criteria with a marking system.
5. What advice would you give to prospective barristers from an under-represented background?
Don’t give up. If, much like myself, you are being discouraged from pursing this profession, if you are determined you can fulfil your ambitions. I will however add that you must be flexible and if one route is not working, reassess your position and find an alternative route. For someone with my background, if I had solely set my eyes on high-profile chambers, I would have been disappointed. You can find an equally rewarding and enriching career somewhere you did not plan for and it will quite likely be a better fit for you.
Don’t be discouraged if you do not have contacts or lawyers in your family or social circle. Start networking, let your passion show and you will find there are people in the profession who will support you on this journey.