Find your way, find a mentor

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Not only will you learn how to become a better barrister, but you will learn how to become a good mentor too, write Alexandra Wilson and Jamil Mohammed 

Alexandra Wilson:

Being a pupil barrister isn’t easy. I remember it all too well. It is not only intellectually challenging but a huge number of ethical issues crop up, and it can be difficult to know how to best deal with these situations when you are fresh out of Bar school. The first six months of pupillage seem to fly by; before you know it, you are ‘on your feet’, doing your own cases.

When panic sets in – and it will – every pupil barrister needs reassurance and support. Mentoring is one of the most important things we can do as a profession. The best way to ensure that the Bar strengthens and improves is to ensure that those joining the profession feel supported.

Mentoring at the Bar allows junior barristers, particularly pupils, to tap into the existing knowledge of those with more experience. I had wonderful mentors during pupillage who made a difficult year much less stressful. Mentors outside chambers supported me through the dreaded ‘pupillage paranoia’. Not only can the work be challenging, but many pupils are worried that they will not be offered tenancy and convince themselves that everyone hates them. I can look back and laugh, but at the time it was scary.

Importantly, I also had mentors in chambers who were able to guide me on a daily basis. My pupillage supervisors were always only a phone call away when I had moments of doubt in court. Even now, I know that I can still call my supervisors. I will always have that trusting relationship with them.

Having benefitted from mentorship as a pupil barrister, I know how critical it is. Mentors can give you confidence when you feel uncertain. Pupillage is intense, the learning curve is steep, and you are given huge responsibility early on. Many of us doubt ourselves and mentors can make a huge difference.

Impact of lockdown

The global pandemic has had a significant impact on the Bar, particularly on pupils. Diaries emptied overnight as courts closed. Even once courts adapted to remote hearings, many cases were adjourned until they could resume in person. Work reduced and, unsurprisingly, those at the bottom were hit hardest. Many pupils, particularly in criminal and family law, were either doing occasional remote hearings or sitting at home with written work.

One of the things I found most valuable during pupillage was informal mentorship from chambers colleagues; a chat at the hot desking seats in chambers or over a drink in the evening. Conversations about my cases and work were constructive and taught me more than I could have imagined, helping me to become a better barrister.

We have tried to recreate some of this virtually but it isn’t quite the same. It’s important that we do what we can in these challenging times, but also recognise that current pupils may need a little more guidance and support.

Finding a mentor: the know how

I would recommend joining relevant organisations that may be able to pair you with a mentor. I am a member of Women in Criminal Law, Women in Family Law and the Black Barristers’ Network; all of which have mentoring programmes. I have also recently set up the Black Women in Law network and we are launching a mentoring programme very soon.

You don’t have to go through organisations to find a mentor, however. My mentors outside chambers were mostly a product of attending events, networking with other barristers and asking them to mentor me. Before approaching someone, think carefully about what you are looking for in a mentor, and why and how this person can help you. Many barristers are already mentoring pupils so don’t be offended if they say no; go back to the drawing board and think of someone else.

I’d also really recommend that barristers who don’t already mentor to consider it. I mentor students and it is so rewarding. Mentorship can make such a difference to pupil barristers, particularly at this challenging time.

Jamil Mohammed:

Pupillage is a job interview like no other. It’s like being thrown into the wilderness and, if you’re lucky, you are given a torch and a flask of water. What you need most is a map, and that’s where having a mentor becomes key. A mentor can help guide you through the tsunami. Hopefully you will soon find yourself sailing on still waters; where once you had a paddleboat, now you sail on a mentor(ship).

The cruel twist of fate is that nothing prepares you for pupillage as well as going through pupillage itself. Mini pupillages provide insight, but that’s it. It’s a glance in; there’s little expectation of you and at most it’s a week and not 12 months.

The Bar is an unusual place with its own ecosystem. You may feel like a gladiator in a Colosseum with all eyes on you fighting the battle; some are baying for your blood while others want you to survive and triumph. It’s the latter that are crucial to your survival. Perhaps I’ve hyperbolised the challenge that is pupillage, perhaps I haven’t. The circumstances will be individual to each pupil. However, what can be said is that mentors in this unique profession are invaluable.

Mentors at the Bar come in various forms; it may be your pupil supervisor, it may be someone more senior at chambers, it may be another barrister at a different chambers, or a Bencher at your Inn of Court.

The positive influence that a mentor can have on your career at the Bar can be immense. You’ll soon be comforted by knowing that you are not alone. You can see first-hand that someone else has been through it and has come out the other side. Someone else has made the mistakes, so you don’t have to. If you have made a mistake, they are there to help you identify the best solution. Having a mentor at the Bar provides you with:

  • Support: Pupillage can be challenging, and it can be demanding. A mentor can provide support on those occasions when it feels most gruelling and remind you that you have what it takes; they can be that extra push when needed.
  • Guidance: If someone has done it before, there’s a blueprint. Moreover, there is the benefit of learning from their teachings, aided by useful feedback, insightful discussion and, perhaps most importantly, good advice. This is someone you’ll share your professional and personal concerns with, so ideally you want to make sure they’re someone you get along with.
  • Professional development: Even senior barristers will tell you that they have mentors. The career is such that professional growth is always the goal and the benefits of having a mentor don’t stop when you finish pupillage. Most barristers would agree that you’re never too experienced or high up to learn from others.

Undoubtedly, having a mentor has multiple benefits. The most obvious one is learning about the profession and how to manoeuvre and ascend it. But there’s more to it than that; having a mentor keeps the spirit of comradery alive, the concept of ‘Each One Teach One’ continues. Not only will you learn how to become a better barrister, but you will learn how to become a good mentor too, so that when the time comes and you see a pupil that is fresh wigged and creaseless gowned, you’ll know just what advice and guidance to give them.

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Alexandra Wilson

Alexandra Wilson is a barrister specialising in criminal and family law at Five St Andrew’s Hill. Her book, In Black and White: A Young Barrister's Story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System was published by Endeavour in August 2020.

Jamil Mohammed

Jamil Mohammed is a junior barrister at 33 Bedford Row.