Why I Joined Forces With Mass Ndow-Njie to Build Bridging the Bar
It was late 2015. My Mum, Dad and I were all huddled in my Mum’s front room. Mum and I were sat on the sofa, whilst a couple of metres away my Dad was stood up, permanent marker in hand, next to flipchart paper which was blue-tacked to the wall.
The flipchart paper was entitled “PUPILLAGE”. There were four subheadings:
ADDITIONAL QUALIFICATIONS (BPTC/MASTERS?)
Under each heading there were various scribblings from each of us which resembled our brainstormed ideas about how I could fill the gap between where I was, and where I wanted to be.
Despite having graduated with a First Class degree in Law, there was a distinct feeling amongst us that even if I went on to complete the BPTC and picked up relevant work experience along the way, I would fall short of what was needed to secure a pupillage. There were other forces at play.
All three of us had spent weeks looking through the profiles of recent pupils at dozens of chambers, from magic circle sets to the lesser known regional sets. There was a stark and prevailing theme: none of these people bore any resemblance to me. It was apparent to all of us that the overwhelming majority of the pupils and barristers we came across were of a completely different background to me in a whole range of aspects, from class and race, to their networks and educational opportunities. What was even more obvious was that the scope of variance for these different “background characteristics” was alarmingly narrow.
The problems we faced (I use the term “we” deliberately because attaining pupillage was a team effort and my parents’ unconditional support was critical) primarily fell into 5 categories:
- How was I going to afford this? The BPTC (as it was named at the time) was just shy of £20,000. Neither of my parents had incomes or inheritance which could spawn that amount of money (and it certainly wasn’t hidden away in a cupboard in one of the social housing flats I grew up in).
- Despite graduating with a first, I still had to shake off the stigma of not going to Oxbridge or even a Russel Group university. Did I have to go and undertake a Masters degree at one of these universities just to have their name on my CV? How much would that cost?
- We had no lawyers in the family. I didn’t personally know any barristers. I had heard about barristers such as Courtenay Griffiths QC and Leslie Thomas QC who had risen to the top of their profession despite their non-traditional backgrounds. Nevertheless, based on our research, their experiences seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. How was I going to develop a network of colleagues and mentors which could provide guidance and opportunities? How could I breach the seemingly impermeable wall of prestige?
- How could I set myself apart from other applicants by demonstrating something uniquely different about me? What was my X factor? Maybe I didn’t have one yet. Where does one find an X factor?
- Why do some chambers have little to no people of colour, with the exception of a few people who appeared to be of Asian heritage? Of the very few who were black, why is it that so many went to private school and/or Oxbridge? Of course at the time this laid the foundations for imposter syndrome. Even if I managed to surmount all of the aforementioned hurdles, would the journey be worth it? If I am to get there, will I feel like I belong?
(I might write a short follow up piece about how I eventually overcame these difficult questions in the coming weeks. Follow/Connect with me to be notified when this is published)
“Are you sure you don’t want to be a solicitor?”
This was a question my Dad had asked me repeatedly over a number of months. It was a valid question. At the time, the solicitor profession seemed a lot more accessible from my perspective. There were far more of them, and therefore more opportunities. It also seemed like a “safer” route for me at the time, given that it was common to have a firm pay for the LPC, and it’s the route the majority of my university friends took. It also seemed like it could be easier to build my network there.
Perhaps I could start at a high street firm, and move around until I found somewhere comfortable? Perhaps for a while I could endure doing work I didn’t really like, adopting working habits that didn’t suit me (I’ve always preferred being self employed) and instructing barristers with a hint of resentment whilst “what could have been” lingered at the back of my mind…
“No.” I replied. “This is what I want. I appreciate the journey will be challenging, but I’m not going to compromise my career intentions.”
My conviction was clear; it needed to be if I were to surmount the challenges I was up against at the time. I was acutely aware, even back then, that not everyone faced these barriers. I was also aware that many people faced far more barriers than I did, owing to their different characteristics. This seemingly unending system of inequality needed to change, and I wanted to be a part of the solution one day.
Returning to the present day, as a pupil barrister at a chambers which has thus far been unwavering in its support of my career, I often look back on my pre-pupillage days (which were not long ago). I reflect on them partly with gratitude for how the challenging journey left me ‘hardened by battle’, but partly with the perspective of knowing how other people must feel when they see our profession from the outside. I still remember that feeling, and I can see how it affects others with different characteristics to me — some visible, some hidden, some psychological, some ideological. When they peer over the edge and look just past the surface to see what largely resembles a homogeny of appearance, outdated views, slow progress and privilege — what do they think?
Of course, this can deter them from diving in altogether. Many chambers, and indeed entire areas of law, are being deprived of diverse talent as a result of this perception problem.
That feeling of being afflicted by a recruitment culture that is not made with you in mind, and does not account for inequity of starting positions, is what I want to change. An injection of diverse characteristics is precisely what the Bar needs to secure its own prosperous future.
After all, a Bar that represents society, benefits society.