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“You’ll never make it as a Barrister…”

Latest Post“You’ll never make it as a Barrister…”

By Kevin Athow, Employed Barrister, and General Counsel at BSH Home Appliances Ltd

I wonder how many people have heard that phrase and have been permanently dissuaded from pursuing such a rewarding career?  On the other hand, how many have looked upon that statement as a “call to arms” and refused to believe it and have gone on to become accomplished Barristers?

I fall into the latter group – and yes, I have heard that statement myself; from friends and relatives all the way through to a receptionist at an Inn of Court, but my thought was “Why not?  What’s stopping me?”

My journey to the Bar was, I would say, not the perceived “traditional” route.  I didn’t even think about a career at the Bar until I was around 29/30 years old – and even then it was only after Jury Service at a local Crown Court where I witnessed first-hand members of the Criminal Bar at work and I remember thinking to myself  “I could do that” whilst watching defence Counsel cross-examine witnesses.  I didn’t appreciate at the time the years of training and experience that those Barristers had undergone to make what they did seem so effortless.  At time I was living in Nottingham, commuting to work in Luton and studying the LL.B. part-time in Nottingham, and I was looking around at the post-graduate options.

I hail from what many would now call a low socioeconomic background in the depths of farming country in Lincolnshire.  My Father was a farm labourer and my Mother worked as a nurse in a canning factory, and apparently money was always tight.  From age 9 or 10 I used to help at weekends on a local small-holding for a bit of pocket money.  I am disabled, being partially deaf and partially sighted, spent several weeks each year undergoing plastic surgery, as well as having then undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome.  I didn’t recognise any of those “issues” as being life-limiting in any way – each one was just a challenge to either be overcome or acknowledged.

I passed my 11+ and eventually went to the local Grammar School, the first (and only) of my family to do so.  I left Grammar School with a clutch of GCE’s and no sense of direction after school, and went straight into a job with a snooker table manufacturer, until, that is, I went to see a “rock” band play in London which was a life-changing moment. I got to know that band personally, followed by other groups, their friends, and their followers, and then touring with various music groups around the UK and Europe and before working for some of them (now quite big name groups) as a roadie.

That, for the next six or seven years was my life, touring until I met my wife and settled down to full-time employment and a mortgage.  We made a deal though, my wife and me.  We both wanted to study undergraduate at University so we agreed that I would finance her full-time studies until she completed her degree whilst I studied part-time and continued working to support us. In return she would support us both if I left full-time employment to concentrate on studying full-time.

But why a career as a Barrister?  That’s the one thousand and one dollar question – and to be honest I think probably the first question anyone thinking of a career at the Bar should ask themselves before embarking on the challenging, often gruelling, and sometimes what feels like at the time, a frustrating career route.  I was first in my family to attend University, let alone trying to pursue a legal career.  Those facts, in themselves, often preclude striving to become a Barrister – it was something unheard of from my background at the time, and it often came with questions like “Why risk so much?  It would be easier to settle down with a less risky job, wouldn’t it?” Aside from possibly a subconscious interest in the work of Barristers derived from watching Crown Court on TV in the early 1980’s, I think it was the chance to be able to help people that aren’t necessarily able to stand up or speak for themselves.  I had been a part-time Union representative and, possibly naively, I thought that being a Barrister would be a natural progression from being a Union representative.  One of the things that I didn’t question though was the effect of my Asperger’s – people with Asperger’s don’t generally like too much attention, don’t tend to like networking or public speaking, all of which are quite significant elements of life as a Barrister.  My view was that those elements are just additional challenges to confront and overcome by deliberately placing myself in those situations.  The prospective rewards, I felt, outweighed the obstacles.

I’m not saying that all the above were the only challenges encountered.  Almost everyone striving for a career at the Bar will have received the rejection letters relating to applications for mini-pupillages; funding/bursaries/grants; pupillages (and for some, tenancies).  I was no exception, but they were just challenges to accept and move on.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to a perceived barrier to a career at the Bar for those from diverse backgrounds, finances.  Most prospective Barristers are conscious of getting into debt, or further debt, particularly if they take an alternative route.  Indeed when I made the choice to try for a career at the Bar 25 years ago I (and my wife) had the same concerns.  When I made my choice I did so on the basis that I would almost entirely self-fund apart from a professional studies loan to finance the course fees, day-to-day living expenses, and to contribute to the mortgage.  Probably not sound financial sense – taking out a loan in order to help to pay off another loan.  I did apply for bursaries/grants at the time, however somewhat foolishly, after a few rejections, I ceased applying. I thought that I’d made it so far without external help so would continue to do so.   In retrospect, I could have been more financially secure if I’d continue to apply for and hopefully obtain funding, but I’m aware that the question of funding is just another challenge to overcome and a character building opportunity.

Friends and relatives couldn’t understand or appreciate what I was striving to achieve, so moral (let alone financial) support was sparse.  I think they couldn’t comprehend that someone from my background would want to “break the mould” and actually achieve something “risky”.  The lack of understanding or appreciation perhaps derives from the fact that a legal career can often be so removed from their frame of reference or experience, and that the closest that they may have come to such, would have been via TV dramas etc. or the, often incorrect, portrayals of Barristers and the judiciary within the media.

The Bar and legal services generally is an “industry” much like any other service industry.  One of the great improvements enabling access to this industry (and indeed, the judiciary) over the last 20-30 years has to be the acknowledgement by the majority of the Bar that, in order to continue to be a successful and thriving profession, it needed (and needs) to be more representative of the general population. It needed (and needs) to be more inclusive to, and accepting of, the various social groups such as: lower socioeconomic backgrounds, different races, ethnicities, religions, abilities, genders, sexual orientations and those with differing physical or mental disabilities.  This has started to open up a Bar career to those that previously could be either excluded or restricted, or thought that they are/would be.  That said, the challenge works both ways – the Bar is opening up, but at the same time there is a real need for those within those currently under-represented groups to actually “strive” for a career at the Bar despite the perceived (or actual) challenges, to just go for it.  There are routes/resources etc. available, including from the Bar Council, from the Inns of Court, and from practicing Barristers that can be of great assistance.

So, my top pointers for those wanting a career at the Bar:

  • Talk to those people around you so that they understand what you’re trying to achieve, and the steps that you need to take to in order to get there;
  • Research, research, research: sources of funding; sponsorship; mentoring; mini-pupillages; pupillages; alternative routes to the Bar;
  • Acknowledge from the outset that there will be challenges and situations that could lead you to question “is it worth it?” Understanding that they are likely to arise will make it easier to cope, to deal with or overcome.  Then move on…;
  • Be resilient, determined, and to a certain degree, stubborn. Challenges will undoubtedly arise that may seem to be the final straw but they can be overcome, or if not overcome then worked-around. Then keep going…

Finally, Good Luck!

Kevin is an Employed Barrister, and has been General Counsel at BSH Home Appliances Ltd since 2010

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