Like many, when the soundtrack for the Broadway musical Hamilton was released in 2015, I was astounded by the lyrics and scintillating score of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece. So popular is the show that it might now seem trite to say, but I also identified with the titular character’s struggle as an outsider for recognition in his chosen field. The barnstorming My Shot became a rallying cry for me as I sought to overcome the seemingly immovable barriers stopping me from reaching the Bar.
Finally, after seven years, I am in The Room Where It Happens, as a pupil barrister with the Government Legal Department (GLD). “So, let me tell you what I wish I’d known, when I was young and dreamed of glory…”
I cannot claim that, based on outward appearances, I look around the legal sector and see no one who looks like me. However, it is a rare occurrence when I hear the dulcet tones of a fellow Ulsterman or Ulsterwoman, for whom the received pronunciation of the Queen’s English was just another thing that separated us from the residents of the big island.
My Northern Irish identity forms such a key part of who I am, and yet there can be a real conflict at the heart of it. On the one hand, citizens from Northern Ireland can choose to be British and enjoy all of the privileges that that entails. On the other, you can choose to be Irish and embrace the rich history and culture shared with our fellow islanders. Or, like me, you can choose to be both and accept that the two things are not mutually exclusive.
In any event, I certainly haven’t come to the Bar from a so-called traditional background. I was the first of my immediate family to go to university; my mum worked incredibly hard, first by providing for my brother, sister and me at home when my dad worked in the airline industry, and then by juggling her own curtain-making business with any number of supposed ‘unskilled’ jobs. We were always supported by my maternal grandmother, a prison officer in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and Grandad, who worked in linen factories.
As I approached six years of age, the first ceasefire was called. As I was coming up to ten, the Good Friday Agreement was signed; I therefore remember little of the Troubles. My parents and grandparents were determined that we would not inherit the same prejudices that befell so many other families across the province, but I was always politically (and by inference, legally) aware.
This led me to Queen’s University Belfast to complete my LLB in Law and LLM in Human Rights Law (plus a year’s liberal arts education in the College of Idaho, USA). When it came to deciding whether to try my hand at the Northern Irish or English and Welsh Bars, I opted for the latter, on the basis that the Bar Library system that operates in Northern Ireland seemed to necessitate being independently wealthy and having a network of professional clients at the ready. The support structures across Chambers and at the employed Bar in England were more appealing.
I got off to a good start, with a scholarship from Manchester Metropolitan University. I have been fortunate too in receiving lots of support from members of the profession at Lincoln’s Inn (for example, through its terrific Pupillage Foundation Scheme), and elsewhere, over the years.
However, although I knew pupillage places were few and far between, I wasn’t quite prepared for six years of heartache, as I submitted well over one hundred unsuccessful applications and attended probably a couple dozen interviews which amounted to nothing. You can imagine my frustration, especially as I had been at pains to strengthen my CV after being called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 2013: I had been a paralegal at Herbert Smith Freehills; I completed a traineeship at the European Court of Human Rights; I was sworn in to the New York Bar; and (until the commencement of pupillage) I was an assistant editor at Thomson Reuters Practical Law. Only in 2018 was I finally offered that elusive pupillage (the acceptance of which was one of the easiest decisions I ever made, second only to asking my now wife to marry me a few weeks beforehand).
The clock had nearly run out (indeed, I needed to get dispensation to commence my pupillage more than five years after my call to the Bar), but I got there, and I am delighted to see that the GLD boasts a diverse range of trainees from many different backgrounds. Its application process, which evaluates one’s abilities based on aptitude tests and assessments, is also perhaps a model for others to consider.
Throughout my quixotic quest, I had lots of time to reflect. Some might argue that I clearly wasn’t good enough, but I knew the efforts to which I was going. The questions I started to ask were whether I was not being considered because I went to the wrong university, spoke with a strange accent or didn’t know the right people. Was I destined always to be that intractable ‘other’, not quite this, not quite that, like any number of my countryfolk who contemplatively consider their Northern Irish identity? If that’s what I was up against as a straight, white male from a Judeo-Christian background, how do others square the circle when issues of sex, sexuality, disability, race or religion seemingly come into play?
I am pleased now to be able to offer help to students from non-traditional backgrounds, particularly from my alma mater, as I know what it is like to be a first-generation graduate fighting against the odds.
If I can conclude simply by offering three morsels of advice:
- Don’t give up
- Take every opportunity that comes your way
- Have a hinterland, even if it is something as simple as watching a show with someone special
That Would be Enough.
Jack Meek is a pupil barrister at the Government Legal Department, currently sitting with the Home Office and Immigration Division.