As part of the Bar Placement Scheme, Aisha Warsame spent three and a half days at a large commercial set of chambers, 4 New Square, shadowing barrister Stephen Innes. These are her thoughts on the experience, together with a Q&A that she conducted with Stephen.
I found out about the Bar Placement Scheme through the Social Mobility Foundation, an organisation dedicated to giving opportunities to students from low-income families, allowing them to discover their potential to excel in life and break down any barriers preventing them from pursuing their career ambitions.
Initially, when I arrived, I felt intimidated by the prospect of working one to one with a barrister, with my limited knowledge about law. I thought that I would feel out of place and uncomfortable in such a foreign environment. However, my initial reservations couldn't have been further from the reality of working with the Bar. Immediately, I was made to feel comfortable and at ease, surrounded by friendly faces and open doors; and a promise that my barrister wasn't here to test me, but merely give me the opportunity to engage in open discourse with him, and develop a taste for what life as a barrister is really like. As the week progressed, I found myself becoming increasingly confident, vocal in asking questions and assertive in my belief that I am capable of potentially pursuing a career in law.
The opportunity to be in the same environment as the extremely talented barrister I was with, Stephen Innes, allowed me to dispel the overly romanticised, glitzy perception of barristers inherent in the minds of most young students. Instead of seeing somebody who was only self-interested, I saw a friendly, hardworking individual who spends his hours motivated to succeed and to help people - a sentiment mirrored by all the barristers I came across. This has helped to grow my understanding of the qualities necessary to succeed as a barrister; somebody who is driven, ambitious and perseverant in the face of adversity and challenge. My experience has led me to understand that the Bar is not an isolated institution. Instead, every role from the clerks to staff members (with whom I also had an opportunity to interact) is irrefutably linked;and, whilst competition thrives, so does a sense of community and camaraderie.
I would strongly recommend the Bar Placement Scheme to other students. The opportunity to shadow a barrister and encounter cases that not only challenge and strengthen your legal knowledge, but also improve your literary skills and ability to think critically, is invaluable. Without the Scheme, it's very possible that I would never have found the confidence or belief that a career in law is within reach despite any circumstances or financial limitations. Although much progress has been made to make social mobility easier, there are still students out there with infinite potential who find themselves constrained by societal expectations and their circumstances. However, on our first day in this scheme, we had the pleasure of meeting Lord Neuberger, past President of the Supreme Court, who, whilst looking into the eyes of 60 aspiring students, left us all with a simple yet resounding message that I believe is beneficial to anybody wishing to take part.
"Anything is possible, if you try."
Q&A with Stephen Innes, barrister mentor, 4 New Square
What obstacles did you face in your path to becoming a barrister?
SI: I must confess that I came from a pretty traditional background, with very supportive parents, so I can't claim to have faced any unusual obstacles. However, it is competitive and I do think that for everyone it does require hard work and determination.
What's your opinion on the view that all barristers come from privileged backgrounds?
SI: Undoubtedly some do, but many don't. The media likes stereotypes of posh and pompous barristers, but campaigns like #IAmTheBar are very important in highlighting the huge variety of different routes to the Bar.
Do you think it's harder for someone from a non-traditional background to excel in a career in law and what do you think deters them from pursuing one?
SI: I have no doubt that some are deterred from applying for the Bar. I can't speak for whether it is more difficult to excel whilst at the Bar, except to say that there are great examples of hugely successful barristers from all different backgrounds. There are lots of initiatives to try to encourage barristers and support them in, for instance, applying to become a QC or judge.
Why do you think the Bar Placement Scheme is important?
SI: It is vital for the Bar, and indeed for the public perception of law, that the Bar continues to attract the best students from all different backgrounds. I believe that the Scheme is very helpful to the students that take part in giving them an insight into the Bar and I always feel that the students grow in confidence hugely over the week. I also think that the scheme is very beneficial for the barristers and chambers who host students, in helping to broaden their horizons.
Do you think that the Bar has done enough to rid itself of its traditional/elitist reputation and increase diversity?
SI: The fact that in large part the public does still regard the Bar as traditional and elitist means that it undoubtedly has not done enough. However, it should be recognised that there has been significant improvement, and change cannot take place overnight. It is also the case that there is a lot of work which goes unrecognised because many do not know that it takes place. For instance I am aware that my Inn, Gray's, does a huge amount of work on its outreach programmes with schools and universities, and no doubt the other Inns do too.
What do you think the future of the Bar is going to look like?
SI: Things have changed significantly in the 18 years I have been at the Bar and I am sure that they will continue on the same trajectory. The relationship between barristers and solicitors will change, with greater movement of personnel between the two branches of the profession, more work done on a direct access basis and increased opportunities for different business structures. Like many others, I am concerned about the future of the Criminal Bar in particular, unless it is better supported by the government.
Do you enjoy working with sixth form/university students and what do you take from the experience?
SI: I have hosted a number of students over many years, and I always hugely enjoy it. I never fail to be inspired by the infectious enthusiasm and interest shown by the students.
Student, Bar Placement Week (London) 2018