Natasha Shotunde has had to battle “impostor syndrome” — a feeling that one is not good enough

Natasha Shotunde has had to battle “impostor syndrome” — a feeling that one is not good enough.

Several hundred barristers will gather in London on Saturday for their annual conference. They will be predominantly male and white, but less so than in years gone by. They will also be predominantly middle class. The Bar is a costly profession. Pupil barristers may carry up to £50,000 of debt, and if they are heading for the criminal Bar, it will be years before they can pay it back. Things are changing, however.

There has been a clear shift towards gender equality at entry, with a 50:50 split achieved at call to the Bar, although women tend to drop out in greater numbers and are poorly represented in the profession’s top tiers. The Bar itself has predicted that, when looking at those qualified for more than 15 years, gender equality will not be achieved “in the foreseeable future”. With black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) barristers, the proportions achieving pupillage exceed the proportion in the general population and the Bar predicts that it will meet its ethnicity targets in 15 years. Again, though, based on present trends, that will not be achieved at the top level of Queen’s Counsel.

Yet arguably social mobility remains the biggest hurdle, given the high costs of qualifying, then staying at the Bar. Data collated by the the Bar Standards Board confirms what is widely known: that a disproportionate amount of the Bar attended an independent school in the UK. The figures show that, even if all of the barristers who chose not to respond had gone to state schools, the proportion of barristers who went to fee-paying schools is higher than in the wider population, with 12.3 per cent (including non-respondents) having primarily attended a fee-paying school between 11 and 18, compared withabout 7 per cent of children in England at any age. Of university students, 10.1 per cent of UK-domiciled young full-time first-degree entrants in 2015-16 went to a fee-paying school or college.

Aspiring barristers without parental means can, though, make it with the help of scholarships and bursaries from the Inns of Court. In the summer the Bar Council launched its #IAmTheBar campaign to profile barristers from non-traditional backgrounds. Many have shared their stories on Twitter. Some have been selected as social-mobility advocates and next month a live-streamed panel discussion will take place (see box). Here, three of them describe their career paths.

Natasha Shotunde, 5 St Andrew’s Hill 

I grew up in Tottenham, north London, in a single-parent household with my mother, who is of Nigerian and Kenyan descent. She instilled the importance of education in me and was keen for me to join a profession. At the age of nine I decided to choose the profession I wanted to enter. I did not have any close family or friends who worked in the “traditional” professions, so my only influence was television dramas. I wanted to become a doctor, but after watching Casualty I decided that medicine was not for me. My mother was an EastEnders fan and, when watching a court scene, I asked who the people “in the wigs” were. She told me they were barristers and I became hooked on the profession.

I have had many obstacles in my journey to becoming a barrister. My first obstacle was not being accepted to the Russell Group universities I had applied to. My second (imagined) obstacle was obtaining a 2:1 degree from my university. Even though it was a high 2:1, I was convinced I would not make it to the Bar without a first and was devastated. My third obstacle was the cost of training for the Bar. At the time it cost £15,000. We lived in social housing and my mother would have struggled to obtain the funds through loans. I applied for a scholarship at Lincoln’s Inn and was rejected. I was successful second time, receiving the Lord Denning scholarship of £15,000 and the Hardwicke entrance award, which covered the fee to join the inn, normal dining sessions and call night.

My fourth obstacle was obtaining pupillage. It took three years and several unanswered applications before I secured pupillage. My fifth obstacle was completing pupillage, in which I had limited income and felt anxious about my abilities. I obtained tenancy at my chambers, which was a huge relief.

An obstacle that has persisted is “impostor syndrome”, a feeling that I am not good enough to be at the Bar. It is an internal struggle and has not come from other members of the profession, the courts or my clients. I fight it as much as I can.

Despite me having no contacts in the profession, many people gave up their time to help me along the way. At sixth form one of my teachers arranged work experience with a solicitor who was one of the school governors. At university lecturers checked my scholarship and pupillage application forms. I obtained paid work experience aimed at people from non-traditional backgrounds and worked at Inquest for three weeks.

After university a barrister I met at an alumni event allowed me to shadow him for a week. Through the sponsorship scheme at my inn I obtained CV advice, an informal mini-pupillage and marshalling. I also had assistance with my application forms through the institution at which I undertook the Bar professional training course. I undertook a significant amount of varied pro bono work during my studies, in which the supervisors provided me with many transferable legal skills. I could not have made it to the Bar without the assistance I received.

Natasha is a barrister who accepts instructions in landlord and tenant, civil, family, crime, regulatory and extradition. Read Natasha's related article for the Times on 'the Bar conference: what do junior barristers make of the issues facing the profession?'

Danielle Manson, Red Lion Chambers

I grew up on a council estate in inner-city Nottingham, where there were high rates of gun crime, drug use and drug dealing. My mum raised me as a single parent because my dad was in prison. There was, therefore, more chance of me ending up in the dock as opposed to representing anyone else. Then, when I was ten, my mum (a qualified English teacher and woman of good character) was charged with a serious criminal offence. After a lengthy trial she was acquitted and has spent the past 20 years trying to piece her life back together. I became a criminal barrister for her, having recently completed pupillage and the vocational stage of training.

I attended state school before studying law at the University of Sheffield on a partial scholarship. After graduation (not having undertaken a single mini-pupillage or moot or knowing anyone in the field) I was fortunate enough to secure a job as the junior clerk at Doughty Street Chambers, where I worked for a year. I spent my time as a clerk photocopying, carrying boxes and sorting out the post, but the experience confirmed that being a barrister is the demanding, stimulating career I want.

The prospect of joining a profession such as the Bar at times seemed unattainable for someone like me; the cost of training (£18,000 on top of my undergraduate debt), the competitive nature of securing pupillage (some chambers receiving in excess of 300 applications for one place) and the perception that the profession is only open to a certain type of candidate were all reasons for me to self-eliminate. My advice to anyone with similar concerns is to persevere regardless. Do not limit your aspirations. You could be just what the profession needs. I was (and continue to be) supported by some wonderful organisations: Lincoln’s Inn having awarded me the Lord Denning scholarship to support my BPTC studies, and the Kalisher Trust, which funded an internship at Justice, where I worked on criminal justice policy reform.

I have also been encouraged, championed, mentored, inspired (and sometimes informally reprimanded) by senior members of the profession who have invested their time and energy in me. I don’t want to embarrass anyone by naming individuals, but I hope if they are reading this they know who they are and how much I value their support. The Bar is a profession not without challenge, and even now I’ve qualified, there are times where I struggle with the economic and cultural reality of what life as a self-employed barrister entails. With payment of fees being sporadic and the travel costs extremely high, there were days during pupillage when I had to buy my lunch using my Boots Advantage Card points.

I am pleased to see that the Bar Standards Board has adopted a recommendation to increase the minimum pupillage award and set it in line with the Living Wage Foundation’s recommendation. This is certainly a step in the right direction.

Sarabjit Singh, QC, 1 Crown Office Row

I am the son of immigrants from villages in Punjab in India. My family were farmers and have no history of anyone becoming a lawyer or otherwise entering the professions. When my parents came to the UK they did all the stereotypically Indian jobs, such as driving a taxi (my dad) and running a corner shop. I grew up in Peterborough and attended my local comprehensive school, which was not academic, but had a great down-to-earth culture.

I became interested in becoming a barrister when I found that I was always arguing with my teachers and challenging what they told me. I decided to see if there was a job where I could argue for a living. Another major appeal was that I did not like being told what to do, so the idea of being self-employed was a very attractive one. From there I studied law at Oxford University before going straight on to Bar school and to pupillage in my present chambers. The entire cost of Bar school was funded by a scholarship from Lincoln’s Inn.

While my barrister friends laugh and call me pretentious when I say this, I really do think that as barristers we are artists. We take our knowledge of language, the law and the facts of our case and we aim to craft it together to create persuasive arguments. I also love the confrontational aspect of going to court and facing an opponent who is arguing that everything I say is rubbish.

In the last few years I have been making an effort through outreach initiatives to speak to children from state schools to get them to see the Bar as a career option for them. This is because the Bar is still some way off being representative of society.
The Bar Council conference takes place on Saturday at the De Vere Grand Connaught Rooms in London. Speakers include David Gauke, MP, lord chancellor; Geoffrey Cox, QC, MP, attorney-general; Baroness Chakrabarti, CBE, PC, shadow attorney-general; and Lord Sumption, OBE, justice of the Supreme Court

Join the #IAmTheBar panel

The Secret Barrister, Chris Daw, QC, and two of the Bar Council’s social mobility advocates, Rachel Spearing and Natasha Shotunde, will join a live-streamed panel discussion on social mobility and access to the Bar on December 5 at 6.30pm.

The event takes place at the Bar Council in London, but anyone interested in the law or a legal career, at any level of education, can submit questions in advance, or on the night via Twitter. It will be live-streamed on the Bar Council’s social media channels. For more information follow @thebarcouncil on Twitter.

This article was originally published in the Times on 22nd November 2018 and can be viewed on the Times website here.