Barrister, Serle Court, London
I qualified as a solicitor in 1999 but had every intention of becoming a barrister quite early on. I joined Lincoln’s Inn as a student member in 1993. When I was offered a training contract with Slaughter and May, though, it was irresistible.
I continually reassessed my career path. Having reached partnership, I began to question the type of work I was doing and how I wanted to practise. I was called upon to do difficult standalone work but this did not necessarily need to be done in a law firm. A combination of encouraging soundings among peers, and a motivation to develop my advocacy practice where this skill set is highly valued, prompted me to fulfil my original ambition. After 15 years practising competition law as a solicitor, I was called to the bar in 2013.
A key difference between life as a barrister and solicitor is the relative financial insecurity and cashflow challenge at the bar. As a barrister, although you are part of chambers you are an independent practitioner. You need to have a clear sense of self and independence, to be confident to justify your position and challenge what is put to you.
Some of the rigid distinctions between what barristers and solicitors do are eroding following the Legal Services Act reforms and over time. That’s one of the benefits of having two related professions specialising in particular types of work and providing choice to clients, whether lay or professional.
Although not all instructions come directly through solicitors, understanding the needs and challenges of solicitors as ‘consumers’ of barristers’ services is a prerequisite for delivering an effective service.
When I wanted to go to the bar 20 years ago I was discouraged by tutors and by contemporaries. They thought this might not be the right move for me as someone who did not have a ‘typical’ background. But it was not issues of gender or race that dissuaded me, but the practical economics of knowing I had nothing to fall back on in terms of financial support if it did not work out. The solicitor route was a more pragmatic option. I don’t believe my gender or ethnicity have been an overt impediment to my personal progression so far.
However, this does not mean there are not gaps between the legal profession’s aspirations for diversity and gender equity, and the reality.
If the law is where your heart is, then pursue it and consult widely. Try to differentiate yourself from the many well-qualified people also seeking opportunities in the law. If what you are doing is not working or personally fulfilling, step back and reassess. My experience is unusual but not unheard of. As you progress in your career it can get harder to change track, so you do need to have tenacity and perhaps a plan B.