By Jonathan McDonnell, barrister, Park Square Barristers
This short article focuses on social mobility at the Bar. Specifically, it talks about my experiences as a working-class man from a council estate in Stalybridge: a small town roughly 8 miles east of Manchester. My experiences include attending an average state school; working in a factory; stacking shelves; commissioning as an officer in the Army; joining the legal profession as an apprentice; before finally qualifying as a barrister.
Education and upbringing
I was fortunate to be brought up by a family that valued hard work. For instance, my Nan worked several jobs simultaneously to make ends meet. These jobs were laborious and fatiguing; none of them paid well. The same applied to my parents: one was a taxi driver, the other an office assistant. Again, they would put excessive hours into their work but did not receive much financial remuneration.
I grew up on a quintessential council estate. There were several rows of terraced housing, which provided a hive of community and activity. Everyone knew each other’s business; gossip was rife. Unfortunately, petty crime was all too common, and a local gang terrorised the estate through intimidation, burglaries, and assaults. I recall the local gang members breaking into my home and stealing my parent’s limited valuables. They also covered our family dog in fire extinguisher foam, which I found traumatic.
All the children on the estate went to the same local primary school. I thoroughly enjoyed primary school: I was naturally interested in learning and performed well compared to my peers. On reflection, being bright at this age was probably a way for me to distinguish myself from the other children. I left primary school with excellent SAT results.
I then moved on to the local state high school. Being bright and well-disciplined meant I was quickly subject to jibes from some of the other adolescents. Of course, this behaviour was natural, and students at school regularly police each other. I was regularly called a ‘swot’ in the first year: a light-hearted but pointed term for someone, as I was, who was bright and well behaved. Unfortunately, these comments eroded my passion for learning. Unconsciously, I began to achieve less academically to fit in with the other pupils.
Around the same time, I joined the Army Cadet Force: a youth organisation affiliated with the British Army. This organisation thrusts young people into situations that develop their soft skills. One week, the cadets would develop their team-building skills through adventurous training. Next, they would finesse their leadership skills by teaching a lesson to their peers covering the marksmanship principles. Becoming a cadet was the best thing I did. I continue to use the soft skills developed there at the Bar.
It could be team building during adventurous training or improving leadership skills by, for example, teaching a lesson on first aid principles. It was the best thing I did at this age, as it significantly developed my character.
During the fourth year of school, I obtained a job delivering newspapers every morning before school. I started work at 07:00, delivering papers until around 08:30 and then went to school at 08:45, all for £15 a week. This taught me the value of hard work. I also remember my parents sitting me down around this time and asking what job I intended to obtain after finishing school. For context, no one in the family had achieved a single A-Level, never mind attending university. Every family member had left school at 16 and went straight to work. The realisation that I was to get a job immediately after finishing school, combined with a diluted passion for learning, led to me achieving distinctly average GCSEs. It is difficult to explain how utterly disappointed I was in myself.
Working life and continuing education
A week after finishing school, I left my job as a newspaper deliverer and started full-time work in a laundry factory. I rotated between placing wet napkins on a conveyor belt, hanging wet jackets onto a rail, and sorting through the dirty laundry retrieved from hotels. The latter was particularly horrendous, and the former was monotonous. I earned around £3.64 an hour for this work, and a large portion went to my parents to help with their finances.
My colleagues at the factory were kind, which helped me quickly develop the ability to communicate with adults. Notwithstanding this, I did not enjoy this work and remember the feeling of doom and despair over the idea of doing this work forever. As such, I decided to enrol with the local Sixth Form College and reduce my hours at the factory.
At this point, I still did not know anyone who had completed A-Levels to whom I could turn for advice. As such, I had no idea about ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ A-Levels. Consequently, I chose subjects that I found interesting: film studies, media studies, sociology and a BTEC in Law.
The teaching standards here fluctuated, and I finished Sixth Form with two Bs and a Distinction* in Law. I then faced the same question that most 18-year-olds face: what do I do now?
I spent a gap year working at Tesco to try and work this out. The truth is, I wanted to join the British Army on a full-time basis. Unfortunately, they rejected me on medical grounds.
A career in the legal profession
Having enjoyed studying Law at College, I knew I wanted to continue pursuing this. I was fortunate that a new ‘trailblazer’ legal apprenticeship was offered in 2013 by Manchester Metropolitan University. I successfully obtained one of these and began my career as a legal apprentice within the legal team of a large social landlord.
I was terrified on my first day, but thankfully, I had a very supportive team who quickly showed me the ropes. I rotated between seats and instantly fell in love with litigation. I was studying Law concurrently and achieved excellent results, which led to MMU allowing me to start a part-time law degree with them one year into the apprenticeship course. Around this time, my parents divorced, and I became financially independent aged 20: on an annual salary of £14,000. I am proud to say that I have remained financially independent ever since.
Over the next few years, I continued working full-time as a paralegal whilst studying an LLB part-time. In 2016, I appealed the Army’s medical decision and went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst to become a part-time Reserve Officer in 2017. I also moved to Slater and Gordon, a law firm, at this time.
My time at Slater and Gordon was excellent. I worked in the catastrophic military personal injury team and was led and mentored by some outstanding lawyers. I became obsessed with the high pressure, standard and demands. I felt immense pride and a purpose in life that I hadn’t felt before. It was, however, incredibly tough. I worked compressed hours that allowed me to attend university one day a week. I then had to work with the Army on top of that. Spare time for relaxation was almost non-existent.
The work paid off, and I achieved a high first-class on my LLB in 2019. I then obtained a scholarship to study a full-time LLM at the University of Manchester. The extra time that I enjoyed studying for the LLM, instead of spending my time split over two jobs, allowed me to finish first on the LLM: my best achievement to date. I completed the BTC after finishing the LLM and obtained pupillage very soon after.
During these years, I engaged in some exciting work with the Army. I worked in military intelligence and went to Tallinn and Quebec to debate with other young officers from around the globe on current affairs, such as Russian expansionism. Being an officer meant managing and leading teams of highly motivated and capable soldiers. My time in the Army was invaluable and gave me a real unique selling point when applying for pupillage.
I’ve recently realised that the imposter syndrome I felt, based on my socio-economic background, was a complete waste of my energy. Once you are at the Bar, very few people care where you studied or what estate you grew up on. It truly is a profession where being excellent at your job is enough.
Not all barristers obtained a private education. Not all of them achieved straight As throughout school and sixth form. Not all of them have family members who are lawyers. One’s socio-economic background is not an impenetrable barrier to a career at the Bar. It can be more difficult, but it is obtainable with tenacity and hard work.
Jonathan McDonnell, barrister, Park Square Barristers