Bar journey: from quad to quad to quad

But not the usual quadrangle – a rounded route to the Bar, insights gained, and finding improv as a creative outlet outside the intense world of law. By Joel Semakula


My first quad was the patch of grass between the road and car park to my council block in Stratford, East London. At its busiest, there were six of us living in that two bedroom flat. I studied for GCSEs and A levels on the top of a bunk bed and with the support of an amazing family and a great school, it somehow worked out. I credit St Bonaventure’s with allowing me to believe that a student with a background like mine could become an English barrister.

My year 10 statutory work experience was spent as two weeks as a clerk in a criminal set. Beyond my basic clerking duties (which 15-year-old me took very seriously), I read and analysed case papers and accompanied some of the barristers to court. I remember sitting in a murder trial and watching in awe as counsel conducted a devastating cross examination. I knew this was what I wanted to do, but realised it had to be in an area that made me much less squeamish.

At the end of 6th form, I turned down an offer to study Law at Oxford (much to the disdain of my Ugandan mother) to take up the Morehead-Cain Scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). The tiny town of Chapel Hill was quite an adjustment for a young East London boy – I even considered returning home. However, that experience was one of the most formative of my life (and the quad was beautiful). Over four years of the Morehead-Cain experience, I taught in South Africa, conducted research around rehabilitation programmes for human trafficking victims in Southeast Asia, studied German in Berlin and interned for a global investment bank in New York. As a pupil, the range of clients I have come across has reminded me of the diversity of the characters and geographies I encountered during this time.

UNC was a fantastic place to be an undergraduate. It was also where I got a real taste of what it was like to be an advocate (and where I was introduced to improv comedy). The university is unique in that it has a completely student-run disciplinary system, where student advocates represent those charged with a violation of the disciplinary code before a panel of their peers. Over three years, I acted in around 20 cases before the university disciplinary board, in which the subject matter ranged from plagiarism to drink-driving (where a possible sanction was expulsion). I handled witnesses, worked closely with clients and did real advocacy. The itch had been officially scratched.

After UNC, I moved to the concrete jungle where dreams are made, armed with my Political Science and Economics degree, and assured there was nothing I could not do. My first graduate job was as an investment banker in New York. The lessons from training have stuck with me – under promise and overdeliver, anticipate your client’s needs and check, check and check again. It was a high pressured role with a steep learning curve which left little room for life outside of work. It also confirmed that the next step for me was the English Bar.

Two years later, I returned to the UK. At the age of 26, I finally fulfilled my mother’s (and my) dream of sitting in an Oxford quad. I graduated with a Law degree from Mansfield College. Here, I finally found the courage to audition for an improv troupe (think: Have I Got News for You). While I watched a lot of improv at UNC, I had been too scared to get on stage.

Success as an improv player requires great listening skills, foresight and the ability to adapt quickly to what my teammates do and say.

I have now been improvising for over five years. When I started, it was about having a creative outlet outside of the intense world of the law. In an unexpected way, I have found it to be a perfect complement to being at the Bar. Success as an improv player requires great listening skills, foresight and the ability to adapt quickly to what my teammates do and say. Success as a team requires us all to pay particular attention to detail to ensure our scene persuades the audience to accept the new reality we attempt to create on stage. When it goes really well, it can feel like magic. When it does not work out as planned, the best players know when to stop and try something different.

I secured pupillage the year after I completed the BPTC, while working as a Judicial Assistant to Lady Justice Gloster DBE (as she then was), former Vice President of the Court of Appeal (Civil Division). A highlight of this role was attending the pre and post hearing meetings with the justices sitting on appeals. I left the year much less intimidated about being in front of a judge and with an increased understanding of the judicial decision-making process.

Prior to pupillage, I worked in Shell’s Global Litigation Team, providing legal support to various Shell entities on a range of legal matters across a range of geographies. I adjusted quickly from the detailed legal opinions I wrote as a JA to the sharp and commercially focused legal advice sought by my business clients. Sitting in an in-house litigation team helped me better understand what commercial clients want from counsel – and how they determine who gets the brief.

I often reflect on Call Night. I was called to the Bar by Baroness Hale the day before she was announced as the first female President of the Supreme Court. It was an honour to introduce my family to someone who had made it to the top of a profession in which people with backgrounds like hers had been traditionally excluded. In her own words, she was different from her peers because she had not gone from ‘quadrangle to quadrangle to quadrangle’.

My route to the Bar has involved a number of non-conventional quads in pursuit of that 15-year-old’s dream. Every experience has increased my skills and adaptability, making it easier for me to thrive in the next role. This has proven to be just as important as a pupil starting second six in lockdown and facing some uncertainty about what practice will look like in a COVID-19 world; in this next virtual quadrangle.

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Joel Semakula

Joel Semakula is a second six pupil at Landmark Chambers. He is currently in his public law seat, having completed seats in planning and property law.