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To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, we asked some of our female barristers and clerks about their journey to a career in the legal sector, their greatest inspirations, challenges they have faced and their hopes for the future.
We share responses from barrister’s, Rebecca Upton, Stephanie Panchkowry, Laura Paisley, Anisha Kiri, pupil, Rachel Pain and chambers administrator, Orla O’Sullivan.
Rebecca – I decided when I was about 13 years old that I wanted to be a barrister. I loved watching TV shows about the law, but these were mainly American programmes where lawyers strutted around the court room in red power suits! It turns out this is not what barristers do.
I was part of the public speaking team at my secondary school, however I always felt extremely nervous when participating in events. This combined with my inability to do well in exams meant that I would have an uphill struggle to follow my dream.
Although I was encouraged to go to university, I was not encouraged to pursue my career. I found A levels almost impossible but I did get a place at university and took my first step towards becoming a barrister by studying law and history. I was repeatedly told that my average results from my comprehensive school, along with a degree from an average university would mean I would not be accepted on the post graduate course necessary to qualify as a barrister. It was suggested I should perhaps apply to be a solicitor instead! But if there was one thing I did know, other than I am stubborn, it’s that I am also good at talking (those who know me well would suggest too good at times)!
I was accepted at ICSL in 1997, and after having to resit the criminal litigation exam due to illness, I passed the BVC and I was finally qualified. I started pupillage in 1999 in Sussex. I was lucky enough to have a mentor who came from a similar background, and I was finally given the confidence by him to do the job I love. Here I am 24 years later.
Stephanie – I have not experienced the typical route to becoming a barrister. I originally had a dance and drama background, having been awarded a 3 year scholarship at Italia Conti, a dance and drama academy in London, studying for a musical theatre diploma. I decided to leave that training after a year and a half as it lacked the mental stimulation that I craved. It was a daunting time – dance and drama had been my life and I knew nothing else, but I was firm in my mind that it would have been the wrong career for me. I applied to work as cabin crew for British Airways – I needed time and space to consider what to do with my life. I was successful in my application and travelled the world for a year. I decided to go to University to read Law with Business. I thought if I did not like law, I would go into business. Fortunately, I enjoyed law and I started my pursuit of becoming a barrister. I had a passion for performing and liked the idea of arguing cases in court, convincing a jury through persuasive advocacy. After completing my undergraduate degree, I completed my Bar course and went on to complete a Masters. I then worked as a paralegal and legal assistant in various law firms in order to gain practical experience in law, at the same time as applying for pupillage, which was not easy for me to secure. I was unsure what area of law to go into initially and applied for civil sets. Now, I am glad I changed direction as a career in the civil field would not have provided the daily court experience on which I now thrive.
Laura – I decided to come to the Bar at the age of ten (genuinely) when I realised I could combine two of my passions – public speaking and wearing a ‘costume.’ I have always been fiercely passionate about representing those who otherwise may not have a voice and over my teenage years continued to read about miscarriages of justice all across the world. I graduated with a law degree from the London School of Economics in 2015 and went straight to Bar School in the hope that she might be able to secure pupillage and start my dream job as early as possible.
Anisha – I cannot say that I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a barrister or that I even knew what a barrister was. In deciding what I was most drawn to, I completed various work experience placements and voluntary roles. I recall volunteering at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau where I gained an insight into the many problems faced by disadvantaged members of our society. This experience motivated me to want to be in the frontline of a fight for someone who really needs it. I undertook mini-pupillages where I observed clients who were in positions of vulnerability due to age, mental health or poverty, who trusted their barristers to help improve their situation. It fuelled my passion to join the Bar and support such individuals to champion equality regardless of those vulnerabilities or any socially defining factors.
Rachel – I studied philosophy at university and wanted a career that is exciting but also to help people. I did a law conversion and decided on the criminal bar. I worked as a paralegal whilst applying for pupillage which was great experience and is something I would definitely recommend doing.
Orla – I was studying Business & Finance and needed to gain work experience. While working at my part-time job I was lucky enough to meet a Senior Clerk called Patrick Duane who offered me the work experience and a Summer job for the next two years. At the end of my studies he offered me a job as the Junior Clerk at The Chambers of Richard Ferguson QC.
Orla joined The Chambers of Richard Ferguson QC in 1995 and has remained in Chambers from 1 Crown Office Row, 2-4 Tudor Street, and 9 Carmelite Street. Orla became the Chambers Administrator in 2003.
Her role at Mountford Chambers is to manage the administration, financial, property and all operational aspects of Chambers. Alongside this, Orla plays a key role in the organisation of chambers marketing and educational events. Orla is available to contact for any non-clerking queries.
Rebecca – At age 13 it was a combination of Grace in LA Law and Linda Hamilton as Catherine from Beauty and the Beast. In reality it is the clients. Everyone should have a voice and we help some of the most vulnerable in society find theirs.
Stephanie – My inspiration to pursue a career in law and particularly in criminal defence is my desire to fight for justice, standing up for people who require protection. I knew being a barrister would work well with my skill set and personality – I am fiercely protective and am prepared to battle for my client against all odds.
Laura – Since then, I have continued to develop a strong criminal defence passion, and have never lost the fire for representing those accused of a crime. However, I realised over the course of the last seven or so years of practising that those who need a voice are not just those who find themselves in the criminal justice system – my passion for regulatory law and inquiry work has been ignited by appreciating that so many different areas of law involve people who are fighting for the truth or for justice.
Rachel – Initially Elle Woods, of course. I am now inspired by how rewarding this career can be and look up to the many wonderful women in chambers.
Rebecca – As a young female barrister, faced with a largely middle aged male judiciary, there is no doubt that I was at times treated poorly and spoken to in a way that was not acceptable. This sort of behaviour would now not be tolerated (I hope).
I am lucky that the solicitors I have worked with were not so discriminatory and I was able to work on some very interesting cases with hard working colleagues from a very junior stage.
Stephanie – Being taken seriously as a woman in a male dominated world was challenging and still remains so. It can feel overwhelming when faced with a courtroom filled with men. I have also found it challenging being from an ethnic minority, for the same reason. I feel that there is still a stigma attached; which is changing but remains prevalent. Some Judges can be difficult to deal with in this regard. I also found it difficult not having anyone in my family in law and therefore felt as though I was stumbling through, at times blindly, without anyone to guide me along the way. Fortunately, my Bar course opened the door to mentors who were greatly beneficial in guiding and assisting me.
I did not have a straightforward career path; however, I now feel I have been able to use all of my past experience to my advantage. Life experience in this job enables you to understand the jury and be able to present your case in the most effective way. It also enables you to understand and relate to clients better.
One of my biggest challenges was gaining pupillage; I had a number of rejections along the way. I always found it difficult to regain the momentum after being rejected, year after year. Ultimately though, I persisted and managed to secure pupillage and my career has continued to excel.
Laura – Adapting to new areas of work. It’s important to have the courage and belief in yourself that you can take on new challenges and succeed. I try to say yes to new types of work wherever possible but this is always exceptionally daunting. However, the Bar, and particularly women at the Bar, are so wonderfully supportive that you will always have someone to turn to for advice.
Anisha – It’s no secret that the majority of clients, opponents and judges you will have, be up against and be in front of, will be men. At times it can be challenging to forge a connection or join in on the conversation. However, in my few years of doing the job, I have learnt that despite these difficulties, the solidarity between women at the criminal Bar is unrivalled. Organisations such as Women in Criminal provide excellent spaces for women to come together, connect and celebrate with the many fantastic women who make up the criminal Bar.
Rachel – Overcoming self-doubt and funding studies.
Rebecca – There is nothing like the feeling of winning a jury trial in a case when you believe your client should be acquitted. The hard work, hours of effort and worry can and does pay off.
Stephanie – Being awarded scholarships and awards throughout my time studying my undergraduate degree and Bar course. I am also proud of my career progression, but my greatest achievement is continuing to fight on, despite rejections and obstacles along the way.
Laura – I’ve secured not guilty verdicts in a number of very difficult cases, including assaults, sex, and firearms. I was appointed to the Covid Inquiry last year which has been an incredible experience so far.
Rachel – Obtaining pupillage at Mountford! I was also recently awarded an Ann Goddard scholarship by Gray’s Inn, which I am very grateful for. In addition, I experienced many rewarding moments whilst working as an appeals paralegal, which made everything worth it.
Orla – To be able to look after a number of Barristers over the years and to be in a position where I can make their busy lives run smoothly. It is a great achievement to work in a set of Chambers who thrive to support Women in Law.
Rebecca – I hope that women pursuing a career at the Bar are now able to do so without discrimination, from start to finish. This means being treated equally by the judiciary, colleagues, and clerks alike. This also means supporting women in returning to work from periods of leave, and making sure they are offered the same opportunities as others. I strongly believe that women should not be pushed to work in certain areas of law, or certain types of case, just because they are female.
Stephanie – For women to continue to be drawn into the profession and for there to be an equal number of women practising as Barristers.
Laura – I personally hope to continue to develop my core practice areas and I am extremely passionate about helping others on their journey to the Bar. I have spent many years conducting mock interviews, mentoring students, volunteering for outreach events and teaching advocacy. I am always extremely proud when I meet other women who are equally as invested in this profession as I am, and I am delighted that the Bar now has such a strong representation of incredible women. I hope to see this continue to grow as time goes on with more young women (and girls, as I was) motivated to pursue such a rewarding career.
Anisha – The Bar needs more women, and particularly more from underrepresented backgrounds. It is clear that in recent times there has been a shift and a growing appreciation for the importance of diversity. I hope this continues.
Rachel – I hope to see access to the bar improve in general, and continued support for women to progress in their careers.
Orla – To continue for Women to thrive in the legal sector and to grow in strength and numbers.
Rebecca – If it is what you want to do then follow your dream no matter what you are told. If your exam results don’t reflect your ability then make sure you can talk your way in to the job. I appreciate now that pupillage is more competitive than ever, but a full and interesting CV, along with determination, and the confidence to show your personality go a long way.
Stephanie – To keep persisting, despite any rejections. Keep pushing through, even when it feels as though the doors are closed. It is not easy but if you really want it, you can and will make it happen.
Laura – Keep going! It is not an easy road but continue to gain experience wherever you can, reach out to anyone you may know (or make efforts to get to know) in law and ask for advice, continue to engage with online and in-person events wherever you can, and always follow up on new connections that you make.
Anisha – Do it! As a defence barrister, your clients are disadvantaged simply by being the individual who is sat in the dock. If you’ve had to overcome adversity to be in the position you are today, whether that be due to school grades, university, family background or even gender – your obstacles are your assets because that resilience makes you even more suited to this career. Every client wants someone who will fight for them, and there is no-one better than a person who has had to overcome their own obstacles.
Rachel – Believe in yourself and don’t give up!
Orla – Keep focused, don’t take things to heart and be kind to yourself and others.
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