Founded in 2020 by Mass Ndow-Njie, an entrepreneur and barrister at the Government Legal Department, Bridging the Bar (BTB) is a beacon to those who might consider a career at the Bar an impossible dream.

It is a change-making initiative, improving access to the Bar for people from non-traditional and underrepresented groups. A more diverse Bar has wider benefit for everyone, as Aaron Mayers, Deputy Chair of BTB, reiterated recently: ‘A Bar that represents society, benefits society.’

BTB seeks, in a sense, to shift the narrative the Bar tells itself: about who belongs, and who does not. It also seeks to change the narrative that aspiring barristers tell themselves; lifting their eyes from limitation, to possibility.

I admire these aims. BTB’s emphasis is a helpful antidote to the racially tinged nationalism afflicting contemporary politics. Inclusivity is integral to a rich, harmonious civic life, but from personal experience in a business and charity context, I appreciate the real challenges involved in forming heterogenous yet coherent groups. I wanted to ally myself with their work, and so volunteered on the BTB mentoring programme.

That programme, designed by Will Marsden and Emma Hughes, launched in September 2020. They rapidly paired 75 students with practitioner mentors, based on practice areas of interest. The aim, as Will Marsden explained, was to ‘assist students from our target backgrounds with the scholarship process. [In doing so] our mentors can actively assist in BTB, and creating a more diverse and inclusive legal profession’.

I had anticipated being paired with someone of a different ethnicity, so was a little surprised when I found that Jake Acock and I shared skin pigmentation. I should not have been: BTB is about increasing diversity across the spectrum. Jake, 23, a gay man, dyslexic, and a young carer to a single-mother, was an ideal candidate. His story was remarkable. As we got to know each other, I was impressed by this urbane, smart as a whip candidate, of considerable determination and resilience. After several months of interacting on Zoom and WhatsApp, I asked him how he started with BTB, and how it was going.

‘I was lying in bed one night, panicking about how I would become a barrister, when I saw a link to the mentor scheme on Twitter,’ said Jake. ‘I realised that this was what I needed. I thought that BTB mentoring might be able to help me tell my story, to gloss it up and help me word it in the right way. I also thought that my connection with BTB would help me to meet other people, also from non-traditional backgrounds, who are on the same journey.’

We reflect on Jake’s background. ‘One thing I struggled with,’ he says, ‘is my experience as a young carer for my mother,’ – a single parent who struggled with mental health issues. ‘I always had a sense it was a drag on my academic progress. Perhaps I could have achieved more. On the other hand, I buck the trend of young carers, who typically fail their exams. I have not dropped out: I achieved.’

I sense the conflict in Jake over his experience. I am also struck by his impressive academic attainments, despite experiencing traumatic events at home. His are no mean achievements.

Jake mentions another area of struggle. ‘Something I have only just admitted to myself: my dyslexia. I remember broaching the subject first with you, saying I was very reluctant to get a diagnosis.’ We chuckle together as Jake recalls that occasion. He imitates my stentorian reaction to him at the time: ‘What? Do it! You have nothing to be ashamed of. It underscores your achievements.’ This was a helpful moment of stigma-busting for Jake, because even though he has overcome the challenges posed by his dyslexia, he was worried about the perceptual problems of being dyslexic at the Bar.

I ask Jake how he has been developing as an aspiring barrister. ‘I have honed how to present my abilities in a succinct way on paper, to help me stand out. That is the most important thing I have learned.

‘I have raised my game: I feel like a serious candidate now. Before the mentoring began, I didn’t know how to improve. Having someone explaining why your applications aren’t up to standard – and how to go about improving them – is essential.’

Jake expresses a measure of frustration with people who offer only encouragement, but never any pointers to improve. ‘You already know what you are good at,’ he says. ‘You need someone to point out the weaknesses in your applications.’

I agree with Jake. Hearing difficult feedback was important to me on my own hunt for pupillage. (One particularly helpful mentor offered the salutary advice that my applications sounded stilted, ‘wooden’ and artificial.)

As we talk, I reflect that giving realistic feedback is not exactly easy. This is particularly the case when it comes to helping applicants deal with the rigours of the pupillage process itself. On the one hand, a mentor wants to instil confidence in their mentee; they want them to believe they can do it. On the other hand, mentors know that many good candidates try for pupillage for years. A mentor with any sense of responsibility will want to help their mentee deal with the – almost inevitable – setbacks along the way.

I ask Jake what are the most important qualities of a mentor. Another way of putting that, I say, is – how can we improve?

‘Reliability,’ Jake says, without hesitation. Some of his supporters have been rather dilatory. ‘It’s no use saying “send me your applications, I’ll look over them” – and then not responding for a month. A mentor needs to be prompt in returning comment and feedback, especially when an application deadline is looming.’

Personal commitment to the mentoring relationship is important for Jake. ‘If you want to be a mentor, you have to put your heart into it. It is better to take one or two mentees than five or six, and let them all down. It is better to help a few properly.’

Now Jake offers me some advice. He thought I was unduly pessimistic about the prospects of securing multiple pupillage interviews on a first attempt; especially given the effort he has put in.

Jake says: ‘I think you should tread a middle line when pitching your encouragement to a mentee. Build them up, but not so much that they are going to fall too far.’ This is useful feedback for me. I am learning from Jake, as he shares techniques he uses while representing people in their cases, as a local councillor. Jake says, ‘When people say to me “What are my chances?”, I say “Well, we are going to work very hard and make every effort to win. But I can’t guarantee that we will.”’ That blend of positivity and realism is what Jake finds most useful in his own work, and what he wants from a mentor.

This experience occasionally moves us beyond our comfort zones, but I think I am benefiting from the mentoring programme as well as Jake. I would recommend BTB mentoring to practitioners who wish to develop more self-awareness, and help shape the future of the profession.