The path to the Bar has always been complex and challenging. In Hilary 2020, an exhibition was mounted in the Inn’s Library – Becoming a Barrister: Overcoming Barriers on the Path to the Bar. This explored some of the challenges faced by aspiring barristers over the centuries, such as religion, ethnicity, finances, social status, disability and educational background – and told the stories of some of the incredible individuals who have overcome these barriers on the path to the Bar.
Following the opening of the exhibition, a campaign was launched – Becoming a Barrister: What’s Your Story? – inviting Middle Templars to submit the stories of their own paths to the Bar and beyond, in their own words. Each of these stories has been preserved in the Inn’s Archive for posterity. A handful of these fascinating, unique and illuminating accounts have been reproduced here.
When I left secondary school in 1965 without any formal qualifications I had no idea that when I retired some 53 years later I would be dual qualified as a solicitor and barrister. I then lived on a South West London Council estate and nearest you came to the law was when the local police drove round. Back in the sixties the legal profession was predominantly white male and public school. So different today, and in my opinion the profession is far the better for it.
As an outdoor clerk I would sit behind counsel when it would have been a mortal sin for solicitors not to send someone along. I wondered at those bewigged barristers getting up in front of – dare I say – some disagreeable judges, to put their arguments, not realising some years later it would be me.
After realising I could not stay in the profession unless I obtained qualifications, I started out on the road to qualify as a solicitor. I was admitted in 1984. To complete my finals I gave up work although I had 3 children and a mortgage – it was all worthwhile in the end.
I always had a good working relationship with members of the Bar and up until 1993 would appear in the Crown Court in a limited capacity. I acquired Higher Rights in 1994 and started to conduct jury trials. I was aware that some members of the Bar then did not welcome HCAs, but that was not my experience.
The circle was complete in 2004 when it was time for me to take the plunge and leave my reasonably secure position in a firm of solicitors and be Called to the Bar. My Call night was in March 2004. I was the eldest person being Called that night, at 53, and it was a proud moment for me and my family.
My first appearance at Lewes Crown Court as a member of the Bar, I remember so well. Fellow counsel welcomed me, and the judge welcomed me to the Bar in open court. It had been a long road and at times challenging from outdoor clerk to a member of the Middle Temple.
During my time at the Bar I became a pupil supervisor and was approved to train members of my chambers in Direct Access. I judged a number of Mooting competitions, and now in retirement I am involved in the Bar mentoring schemes.
I was above average age when I was Called to the Bar, but I still faced many of the challenges that younger aspiring barristers face. Would I get work, could I pay my bills, would I be taken on as a tenant? Would I be looked upon differently, having come from the other side? I did have moments when I wondered if coming to the Bar was the right move, but, looking back, it certainly was, and made even more so by fellow members of the Bar and my chambers.
When I was born, in Mauritius, my parents were in a state of extreme poverty, my working father drawing a meagre salary and my mother a housewife. My mother sometimes did not even have food to feed herself when she was pregnant. I was not even six months old when
I was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, and the doctors were pessimistic about my future. Wheezing, fever and coughs became the routine of my childhood instead of laughter, cooing and the sound of toys. When I was growing up, we were still burdened by financial difficulties; I witnessed my father getting angry at the drop of a pin. Due to the fear of chronic bronchitis, my mother did not allow me to have friends outside, get in contact with dust and eat ice cream like others. I barely had any toys or dolls. I was a lonely and sad child.
The turning point was when my mother started buying story books for me to read. I developed a sudden love of looking at the pictures and reading the stories aloud. My mother was determined to send me to school and to teach me. At school, I was still not like the ‘normal’ children. Teachers were cautious around me and I fell sick basically every week. But my mother taught me never to give up, a lesson I have not forgotten. There came a time when my little sister was born, my father got another job and, except for my medical vulnerability, I stopped struggling that much.
In Mauritius, the legal profession is still quite a restricted and closed circle where the majority of new entrants are the children of those already practising. I experienced this during mini-pupillage when I saw how easily the children of those lawyers were trained and preferred. I came from a non-legal background and was the first person in the family to have chosen law and gone to university; I had to figure it out by myself. I did not have the same academic and practical legal knowledge as other students. I was never advised or guided. I just had to trust myself, keep moving and do my best. I realised quite early that only my dedication, love for law and hard work could get me a place within the profession: I had nothing and no one else to rely on.
However, there came a point where I felt my only strengths – dedication, passion for law and hard work – falter: when I failed the Mauritius Law Practitioners’ Vocational Course (equivalent to the BPTC) thrice. Well-off parents and lawyers never opted for their children to study the Bar Course in Mauritius, a system which attracted criticism from practitioners, academics, students and lecturers. Since my father had to cater for the education of both my sister and I, studying the BPTC in the UK could not be my first choice. I had no choice but to study the Bar in Mauritius.
After my first failure, I bounced back by working harder, revising more and studying the syllabus in detail. The second and third failures, though, did not have the same taste as the first. I felt as if my life had ended. My whole purpose of life was over. My parents stopped trusting me. I grew suicidal. I had no specific time to sleep or to wake. I stopped feeling hungry. The sun stopped warming me up. I watched everyone go to work with a sense of purpose in their lives. I stopped going out. I was an adult without a job, success, income or sense of purpose. I felt I had failed my parents and was just a burden. Worse, I felt I had failed myself. I started questioning myself and doubting if my reasons for becoming a Barrister were good enough, if my love for advocacy was good enough, and if the profession was for me.
Six months to one year into my suicidal pattern, I decided to take psychological help. I was applying for jobs and I wanted to move on in life. Going to a psychologist was the best decision that I could take at that time. I was diagnosed with borderline clinical depression. She helped me find my own identity, one separate from law, and boosted my confidence. At that point, I started living gradually, working and studying for the GDL. With my income, savings, a scholarship and some help from my parents, I went to the UK to do the BPTC. I discovered another me in the UK: a free me, a blooming me, a confident me and a mature me. With the guidance of my tutors, I grew hopeful. I started feeling that I was not a failure. I remember the day I was sitting in Middle Temple Hall and Master Richmond was delivering a lecture.
His words still resonate in my ears: ‘If you are good enough, you are good enough and let no one tell you otherwise’. Indeed! I passed my BPTC exams at the first attempt with an overall grade of Very Competent. This success remains my proudest yet humblest.
Today, pupillage brings its own struggles. Faced with reality, I realise that the legal profession is very male- dominated and a closed circle with children perpetuating the legal background of their families. As a woman, my ambition puts many men off. Instead of being proud of me, my relatives warn me that law is not the right profession for a woman. When I speak on domestic violence and mental health issues, people tag me as a ‘radical feminist’. I get confused as to how I will balance family and professional life later, while men do not have to worry. I wonder if my ambition, vision and dreams will get sacrificed in the future. At the same time, I have to work harder to be recognised and to make my mark in this competitive and ruthless profession. Those whose surnames are already known are more relaxed. But, as my pupil master says, ‘Nobody will invite you into the profession. You will have to barge in’. This is exactly what I aim to do as the first Barrister in my family and as an asthmatic middle-class woman: I will open the doors of the profession and barge in, bringing my ambition, dedication, hard work and dreams. One thing I know is that I gave up on myself once. There will never be another time, for my parents, teachers, psychologists, loved ones and my own sake!
I was born and brought up in Bootle near Liverpool, then as now a contestant in the gloomy competition for the place in Britain with the lowest per capita income. My father was a shipping clerk and my mother worked in a biscuit factory. My elder brother joined the police and at the age of twelve I helped him revise for the exam at the end of his training. Our question and answer sessions over the contents of Moriarty’s Police Law was my introduction to the law and I was hooked.
I won a free place at a ‘good’ independent school but my school days were undistinguished. My teachers concluded that I was suited neither to university study nor to the law as a career. I went instead to Edge Hill teachers’ training college in Ormskirk, which offered Bachelor of Education degrees validated and awarded by Liverpool University. I graduated in 1973 and won a postgraduate exhibition to take a higher degree at Manchester University. In passing, I am proud to point out that I qualified as a teacher at the same institution as a much more distinguished Middle Templar, Helena Normanton, who obtained her Certificate in Education from Edge Hill in 1905.
I taught briefly before moving to an educational publishing company, where I had my second exposure to the law in the form of author contracts, acquisition and sale of publishing rights and intellectual property matters. More than ever I knew that this was what I wanted to do; I took a deep breath and enrolled on the Postgraduate Diploma in Law course at City University and proceeded thence to the Inns of Court School of Law. I was Called to the Bar by the Middle Temple in 1982.
My aim from the outset was to work as a salaried lawyer, but it was clearly desirable to complete pupillage. I received just one interview invitation. I had paid my way through my studies with occasional work for a management consultancy and for this interview I had to fly back from an assignment in Northern Ireland. My interviewers, who were about my own age, knew about this but did not mention it. Thus, addressing a candidate with three university qualifications, business experience and the Bar finals behind him, their opening question was ‘Why didn’t you put your A level grades on your CV?’ I did not pursue the pupillage route further.
I returned instead to the publishing industry, as in-house advisor. I received a telephone call in 1989 asking if I would be interested in joining the Paris-based European HQ staff of a well-known computer software company, as its first attorney outside the United States. The company was Microsoft and I moved to Paris to set up its headquarters legal team in 1990.
Soon after I spoke to a French lawyer from another company about how things worked in the legal departments of these high-tech giants. His answer was full of Gallic flair: ‘There are only two lawyers in Europe who understand computer law…. and I am both of them‘.
The law had struggled to keep pace with the inventiveness and rapid growth of these companies and it was a challenge to identify suitable candidates. Moreover, legal expertise was not enough as it had to be combined with an ability to deal with the demands and short attention spans of impatient executives.
I managed Microsoft’s European legal department for five years before joining IBM to work on corporate acquisitions in Europe and subsequently the US. This was fascinating work but I was grateful for the chance to return to Paris as European General Counsel for Apple Computers. Much has been written about the personality of Steve Jobs, whose first words to me on meeting him in Paris were: ‘Why is it so hard to fire people over here?’.
On retirement I held a visiting fellowship at the Oxford Internet Institute, alongside a fellowship at Green College, and have worked as a consultant and an external expert. I have also recently been appointed non-executive chairman of an exciting start-up company in the field of artificial intelligence.
As someone who was told to ‘forget the idea’ at the age of 16, I am proud to have made my way in the world as a lawyer. I am proud too of my membership of the Middle Temple.
I have watched with satisfaction as the Inn has done more and more to acknowledge the presence and contribution of employed barristers. Changing career in the 1970s was perhaps easier than today. Nevertheless when I left my publishing job to study law, my father (who had known some years of unemployment) was understandably nervous on my behalf. He did, however, say to me: ‘You’ve had the best education other people’s money can buy. I assume you know what you’re doing’. I did indeed.
I was Called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1994. I had read English Language and Literature at Oxford as an undergraduate and I chose Middle Temple largely because the first performance of Twelfth Night had been put on there in 1602. (In 2002, I was in the audience for one of the performances of the play put on in the Hall for the 400th anniversary.) I was lucky: my law conversion course and the Vocational Course for the Bar were funded by the Government Legal Service. During the Vocational Course, I lived in the student flat at the top of 3 Temple Gardens, where I used to look up from grappling with the law of evidence to watch the boats go by on the Thames. The nearest place to do my grocery shopping was Tesco’s in Covent Garden.
Still sponsored by the Government Legal Service, I did my first six at Fountain Court Chambers whose members were all terrifyingly brilliant and extremely kind to me and my second six at the then Department of Health and Social Security. I was again lucky enough to have stints at the European Commission in Brussels in the Internal Market Directorate-General and at the Conseil d’Etat in Paris where my task was to try to understand the French Social Security system. The Conseiller d’Etat charged with explaining it to me had a go once a week and then I’d try to explain it back to him. ‘Pas exactement,’ he would say, ‘il y a des nuances…’. My last two years as a government lawyer were spent at the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel where, among other things, I worked on what would become the Hunting Act 2004.
I’d chosen law because it seemed a socially useful way of working with words but I came to realise that my vocation really was for literary scholarship. So in 2001, I returned to Oxford for a DPhil on the war writer Martha Gellhorn. More luck followed: a Junior Research Fellowship at Balliol and permanent jobs at Glasgow and Birkbeck. In 2014, I returned to Oxford again to take up a tutorial fellowship at Harris Manchester College. My own story of changing career is mirrored by many of those I teach.
My literary research to date has focused on war literature: I’ve written three monographs on the subject and edited The Cambridge Companion to War Writing. But, having said all I have to say about representing armed conflict, I’m now writing a literary history of silence. It’s the most absorbing and enjoyable topic I’ve worked on.
Any regrets? Never for a moment from this ex-lawyer although, since Brexit and the election of Trump, I’ve sometimes felt that we should all re-train as human rights counsel.