I moved to the UK (Romford in Essex) from Nigeria when I was 15 – that was a culture shock. Prior to that point I had never travelled outside of Nigeria. It was an interesting couple of years adjusting to the culture.
Unusually, I studied law at A-Level. I enjoyed it so decided to study it at university. By the time I got to university, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer but had not considered being a barrister. Having recently moved from Nigeria, I didn’t know any barristers in the UK. The law firms were more visible at career events and I felt that as a black female I would fit in better at a law firm.
In my second year, I secured a training contract in a magic circle firm. It was a good offer but in my third year, my director of studies said to me she thought I would be a good barrister but I still did not think it was for me. At the end of my final year, I deferred the training contract and stayed for a masters degree, which I got a scholarship for and that gave me an extra year to think about what to do.
I did a number of mini-pupillages at different chambers (commercial, chancery, mixed civil) that year and became convinced that I enjoyed the work and had the skills (in particular communication and analytical skills) to succeed as a barrister. By the time I reached that conclusion, I had missed the pupillage application deadline so I applied to a be a research assistant at the Law Commission and in that year I applied for and got a pupillage. I was still worried about fitting in at the Bar and the risk of pursuing the barrister route seemed greater.
It was an incredibly tough decision and my mum continued to think that I was crazy to decline my training contract until the point I was offered a tenancy. It made no sense to her – this is one of the things that are a barrier to entry – if you don’t have financial security (for example parents who are able to support you) the Bar appears to be a riskier option because of the probabilities of securing a pupillage and then tenancy.
The good thing is that when I was thinking about my options, the firm were good enough to let me defer right up until the point I decided to go for the barrister route. I was lucky that I had a great alternative. Pursuing a career at the Bar felt like a risk but ultimately, I thought I would enjoy being a barrister and would be good at it.
Diversity at the Bar is a complex problem. There is a problem that we do not have enough black candidates applying for pupillage. Commercial sets recruit from top universities and there is a lack of Black students at these. There is also the ‘chicken and egg’ problem that if aspiring black barristers do not see many people who look like them at the commercial Bar, they might assume that the commercial Bar is not for them. I certainly felt this way when I was considering a career at the Bar.
The lack of black barristers creates the problem of not attracting black aspiring barristers. However, there are a number of good initiatives to address this problem for example, the mentoring scheme run by commercial sets including 3VB and initiatives led by black barristers such as Bridging the Bar. As a black female barrister, I also recognise the need to be more visible as I know that it has a positive effect on black students who may be considering a career at the Bar.
Another problem is retention. At the Bar, like many professions, I believe one needs mentors – an experienced person who takes an interest in your career, guides you and helps find focus in your career. As a black female I sometimes didn’t feel confident approaching people.
For example, if there were a black female QC in chambers, psychologically it might feel easier to approach them because of a perception that you are more likely to have similar experiences. Struggling to find a natural mentor can be difficult and I can imagine that some barristers might quit the Bar when they may not have done if they had a mentor.
However, what I have found is that one needs to have the confidence to approach others who may be able to help regardless of their background. I have found that most people are willing to help. My experience at the commercial Bar has been overwhelmingly positive.
It often occurs to me that I am the only black person in the room. It is not a good thing or bad thing, but I am aware of it. Sometimes you’re the only woman in the room or the only black person in the room. If you are prone to imposter syndrome it heightens that.