If there are no stories to inspire and motivate aspiring barristers with disadvantaged backgrounds, then there is only so much that the rhetoric of equality and diversity can do. Perhaps the judge had this mind when he encouraged me to tell my story of coming to the Bar.

I migrated to England from Pakistan as a teenager nearly 16 years ago with the hope of a better future. I realised soon after I got here that my journey towards building that future must begin at a university. But with only a modest familiarity with English language and with self-study atsecondary level being my highest qualification, I was far from being eligible for a degree enrolment. The lack of credentials, however, was not my only obstacle, as I was liable to pay the university fees and the only possible source of funding them, and all the other expenses, was a job that I did not have.

Self-funding was an unrealistic plan, which became increasingly unrealistic when I could not find a job for six months, not even in a pizza shop. I have no doubt that my working-class parents would have offered me support and guidance if they had the resources or if either of them had gone to a university, but I was the first generation to aspire to attend university and I was on my own.

Oddly enough, this was when I resolved to become a barrister. It was a far-fetched aspiration, not least because I had never met a lawyer – let alone a barrister – nor had the slightest clue of the full extent of my disadvantaged background for this seemingly elite profession. Notwithstanding the odds, it started to look somewhat realistic to me when I finally found a job as a door supervisor at a construction site. One of the first books I took out from a public library after getting this job was on the English legal system which was, and perhaps still is, part of the first-year curriculum on most LLB courses. I cannot thank two of my construction-site colleagues enough, as their ridicule of my aspiration, upon seeing this book in my hands, challenged my ability to break barriers and fortified my resolve. Admittedly, although their method of advising me was wrong and discouraging, their views were based on reality. I have no doubt that if they read this today, they would enjoin more optimism in future.

It soon transpired, following extensive research, that the only LLB I could afford was self-study through the University of London (UL) External System. However, UL initially refused to enrol me and suggested doing A levels or obtain an equivalent vocational legal qualification. It was this advice that led me to join the then Institute of Legal Executives (ILEx, later CILEx). This not only enabled me to join the UL LLB programme in the following academic year, but also allowed me to later become a Chartered Legal Executive.

In fact, UL’s initial refusal was a blessing in disguise. It led me to ILEx’s Level 3 and Level 6 qualifications which made it possible for me to join a law firm during the first year of my LLB. It was through these qualifications that I was entrusted with the HR role by the same employer who had initially employed me for door supervision. I was so grateful for this and for the instrumental role that CILEx later played in facilitating my alternative route to the Bar, that I tried to repay that by serving as one of Trustees of the CILEx Pro Bono Trust.

Studying for a qualifying law degree through self-study was not easy, and the only advantage I had was experience of self-study from my mid-teens. I was often seen standing at the site gates with a UL coursebook in my hands. There were nights when I had to use a torch for reading in my guard hut which had no electricity. There were times when a set back (failing two modules) made it seem impossible to continue. I had even stopped telling people that I was studying to become a barrister as I sometimes found their response embarrassing. But I was motivated during these difficult times by my construction colleagues’ verdict that I could not break the barriers.

With this motivation and a little help from Cambridge University revision courses, I finally received a 2:1 from UL and graduated without any debt. After receiving my results I enrolled for the BPTC at the University of Law and joined Lincoln’s Inn, but had to defer my place to the following academic year as I had no funds to pay the course fees. Again, this deferring for lack of funds turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it not only led me to set up a successful OISC level 3 firm, but also gave me time to assess my prospects of securing a pupillage. Despite being a CILEx and UL graduate, and despite having the SRA and OISC firm experience, my background made me conclude that I had no prospect of securing a pupillage within a reasonable time. On reflection, in the light of what I know now about desirable traits in a pupil, perhaps I was by that point overestimating the barriers and underestimating my ability, but I will never know whether I was right in my conclusion.

What I do know is that the main reason I started underestimating my ability was due to the constant reminders of my disadvantaged background. This contributed to my decision to take the alternative route to becoming a barrister which did not involve having to secure a pupillage. I transferred my deferred BPTC enrolment into an LLM LPC course and completed this course with a distinction and without any debt just before I became a Legal Executive. This allowed me to be enrolled as a solicitor without having to undertake a training contract. Around the same time I started practising as a solicitor, I passed higher rights of audience qualifications in civil and crime and became a solicitor advocate, and started exercising higher rights. I was granted full exemption from pupillage based on my qualifications and experience and I was finally called to the Bar in July 2015 and issued the practising certificate. I later changed my OISC practice into a chambers and remain in a successful sole practice in this organisation which marked its 10th anniversary last month.

While it is encouraging that the Bar allows entrants through alternative routes, should the conventional route seem unpromising due to a disadvantaged background, there is plenty of work to be done to improve diversity and inclusion in the conventional route. As a barrister and as a visiting lecturer, despite defying all odds in joining the Bar and continuing therein successfully, I still see a judicial or Attorney General panel appointment more difficult for someone with my background. But with a lot of progress being made towards diversity, I remain hopeful that the playing field will level in my working life.