How to be exceptional

Not for the likes of me? Don’t hold back. Counsel asks a cohort of atypical barristers to share their thoughts and experiences of going against the Bar grain – and how they made it work

Being registered blind at the Bar

Kelly Cronin
"I think the key to coping is proactivity and being willing to offer solutions to any problems. This tends to help the interviewing set relax; often you are the first disabled person they have interviewed..."

I have been a tenant of Zenith Chambers since December 2017, having successfully completed a common law pupillage with them. I am also registered blind.

What does being a blind barrister mean for me? In practical terms, it means I am accompanied to court by my guide dog and also by my personal assistant. Having secured funding from Access to Work, I recruited my assistant prior to starting my second six. Her role involves converting papers into an accessible format as well as assisting with describing visual evidence such as CCTV and photographs. At court she assists with orientation as well as tracking down elusive clients.

I rely on speech software on a laptop to read documents and for accessing legal databases. In this technological age many documents are now accessible, but there are still those that are handwritten or badly scanned for which I need assistance. My assistant and I have developed a close working relationship and have learned to be efficient, due to the fact that she needs to ensure that papers are ready for me by the close of business each day so that I can prepare my cases before a hearing the next day.

Applying for pupillage was a daunting experience. During the application and interview process, I did not have an assistant. I therefore had to approach each chambers I had an interview with and try to pre-empt the reasonable adjustments I would need. I found all of the sets I applied to very accommodating in this regard. I then had the challenge of getting to my interviews, which were often in unfamiliar cities and locations. Adding this extra worry to the regular stress of the interview meant for a few sleepless nights before the day itself. However, I am very organised and tried to cover as many eventualities as possible. Luckily for me, nothing too terrible happened and I got through all of my interviews without major incident. One thing I did find was that having my guide dog was a great icebreaker and gave me a ready-made discussion point. I think the key to coping is proactivity and being willing to offer solutions to any problems. This tends to help the interviewing set relax; often you are the first disabled person they have interviewed and they want to help; they are just not sure how to. Nonetheless, there is still an element of taking a brave leap into the unknown – a skill that, incidentally, continues to be required in practice.

Pupillage itself was difficult, as it is for everyone. Chambers did its best to assist until I got my assistant for the second six. They provided access to Westlaw, Lawtel and LexisNexis so that I could access cases and an administrative assistant converted documents for me. This had to be done quickly and she did not have the time to format everything properly as my own assistant does, but it was an invaluable help until I could employ someone myself.

Chambers has been extremely supportive and I consider myself lucky to have found such a friendly and open-minded set. The clerks do their best to obtain papers for me as early as possible. They have also made adjustments, such as not requiring me to undertake sessions work where I would be expected to prepare five to ten magistrates’ court prosecutions, only having received the papers the night before. Even with our efficient working strategies, the time it would take for the papers to be made accessible so that I could prepare the cases would make it impossible for me to act competently. Beyond this, I consider myself to be very independent and try to allow my disability to interfere with the cases I undertake as little as possible. I have found that I do just as many as my sighted contemporaries, albeit sometimes it requires me to be more proactive and forward-thinking in order to ensure I am properly prepared.

There is no doubt that I often have to put in additional hours to ensure that I am up to speed on a case. However, to me that is just part of the personal circumstances I happen to have. In terms of disclosure, unless a specific case requires it, we do not disclose to clients that I am visually impaired and thus far it has not posed a problem. In fact, I have been pleasantly surprised at how little clients, other legal representatives and the judiciary have been phased by it.

Life at the Bar has its challenges. However, with the support of chambers I have found it to be a rewarding career that is more than worth the effort it requires to undertake. As long as you are prepared to work hard and go the extra mile, I would encourage anyone with a desire to become a barrister to try, whatever your background.


Being a dyslexic pupil

Reanne MacKenzie
"In my experience chambers, like other professional environments, have moved far beyond outdated attitudes of seeing dyslexia as meaning you are ‘slow’ or that you ‘struggle’"

When applying for pupillage I was never sure which to box to tick when it came to the question about having a disability under the Equality Act 2010. I certainly did not feel my dyslexia satisfied the definition of ‘disability’, but equally I wanted prospective chambers to know that I was dyslexic. I therefore would tick the ‘no’ box, but add in a line to explain that I was dyslexic.

In my experience chambers, like other professional environments, have moved far beyond outdated attitudes of seeing dyslexia as meaning you are ‘slow’ or that you ‘struggle’. Indeed, many members of chambers have children with dyslexia, and thus recognise and understand that having dyslexia just means your brain is wired to work in a different way: it does not mean you are somehow less intelligent or less capable and it can offer advantages, including more lateral problem solving.

For me, dyslexia means there is a mismatch between the speed at which I can read and comprehend information and the speed at which I can put this information onto the page. The former is much faster than the latter. It is therefore vital that I take the time to proof read my work so that I can marry up these two speeds.

When applying for pupillage, I built in my own deadline so that I had sufficient time to proof read each application to ensure it was word perfect. I also proof read in different formats, including word, PDF and hard copy. I have adopted this strategy throughout pupillage. This has turned out to be boon as perfect documents demonstrate your care and commitment to the case, both to your clients and to the court.

For those commencing pupillage, or any current pupils, my top tip would be to make sure that chambers are aware of your dyslexia so that it can provide the full range of support available, including any reasonable adjustments you may require. If you aren’t comfortable speaking to your supervisor or head of pupillage, there is an equal opportunities officer whose role is specifically to deal with issues relating to equality and diversity. Most pupils are also given a designated confidential adviser, whom they can speak to in total confidence: nothing will be escalated further without the pupil’s consent. Dyslexia need not be an impediment to pupillage nor, indeed, to a successful career as a barrister.

Pupillage and dyslexia: access all support

Pupil barristers are akin to employees for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, therefore reasonable adjustments can be made for pupils with dyslexia, or indeed any type of specific learning difficulty. With your permission, members of chambers will be informed of your dyslexia and will be made aware of any support you may need in completing your pupillage work.

Depending on the type of dyslexia a pupil has, chambers can offer assistive technologies such as screen reading software, dictation and recording devices, as well as coloured screen filters or printing using coloured paper. If there has been a significant gap between a pupil’s dyslexia assessment and the start of their pupillage, chambers can also organise and pay for a new assessment to take place in order to ascertain what reasonable adjustments, if any, would be of assistance in the work place environment.

There are also different support streams available within chambers where a pupil can raise any issue relating to their dyslexia. There is, of course, a pupil’s supervisor as well as the head of pupillage. There is also an equality and diversity or equal opportunities officer whose role is specifically to deal with these kind of issues. Finally, most pupils are also given a nominated member of chambers that a pupil can speak to in total confidence: nothing will be escalated further without the pupil’s consent.


Surviving the Bar as a single parent

Amanda Weston QC
"As I recently said to the group of sixth-formers attending the inclusive Inner Temple Schools Day, it is in all our interests to raise functional human beings who get enough of their parents’ presence – mental as well as physical"

Coming to the Bar as a young single parent in the nineties was rough. Less so I hope on my son, although the choices I made and the lines I drew then made me unpopular with clerks, judges and leaders. Not with clients, interestingly.

So what I am about to say may be of limited relevance to many whose chambers’ diversity policies are robustly applied today. Certainly, the climate for those with caring responsibilities seems far friendlier. My own child having now grown, I very much hope that the pressure to put my child behind the convenience of clerks and senior colleagues does not feature greatly in the practices of colleagues with younger children.

As a pupil and very junior barrister, the assumption was frequently made that my priorities were at the bottom of the list. I fear that may remain the same in many chambers. As a pupil supervisor, my advice to conflicted new parents is that pupillage is for them not chambers. If they feel they will not get the most out of it, in terms of balancing a child’s needs with the need for huge capacity for absorbing information that pupillage demands, deferring it might be a better option. This is the kind of adjustment that a chambers committed to diversity, by supporting talented women and men with childcare responsibilities, must offer.

But my key plea is not to clerks and colleagues – it is to the judiciary and the courts. Most practising barristers to my knowledge – civil, family and crime – spend many hours each week undertaking unpaid work as a professional commitment to and respect for the system. From teaching and training, contributing to consultation documents, reviewing draft legislation, supporting unrepresented litigants, undertaking unpaid tasks to assist the court, taking necessary steps which are not covered by legal aid, contributing to committees, disciplinary, diversity and other matters – it is a long, long list. We are trusted by the system to take these steps often without being asked. We undertake these tasks conscientiously and carefully in the best interests of those who need to access the law and for the convenience of the courts and our colleagues. Why will the system not permit me to carefully and conscientiously decide when my child requires my presence? As I recently said to the group of sixth-formers attending the inclusive Inner Temple Schools Day, it is in all our interests to raise functional human beings who get enough of their parents’ presence – mental as well as physical.

My advice to pupils (which is different to advice I might give tenants who are in a different position) is as follows:

  • Familiarise yourself with the diversity policy of chambers.
  • On accepting an offer of pupillage, make some positive comments in writing about being reassured by the terms of the diversity policy that, should caring responsibilities be in conflict with chambers’ expectations of pupils, chambers will ensure that a reasonable accommodation is made.
  • Be frank about difficulties – don’t suffer in silence. Tenants may be facing similar issues.

For tenants I would say:

  • Make common cause with other tenants and pupils to keep the effectiveness of diversity policies under review and ensure that practice management provides opportunities for predicting and resolving problems.
  • Don’t underplay the importance of caring – secure, safe and happy families, children and vulnerable adults are in everyone’s interest, and not just women’s responsibility. Don’t apologise for your caring commitments.
  • Call out discriminatory failure to accommodate practitioners with caring responsibilities – wherever you see it – in courts, chambers, meetings.

Joining the Bar as a mature pupil

Catherine Urquhart
"Heck, for two years at The Times, my boss was Michael Gove so I was used to robust workplace argument. If I could survive all that, surely I could survive a fast track trial in Romford County Court?"

The call came at 8am on my second day on my feet: go to Croydon employment tribunal immediately for a case management hearing. I had the 30-minute train journey to skim the bundle but could not focus for nerves. Seven years on, the details of the case elude me, but I recall that it went just fine: the judge treated me as though I knew what I was doing.

There are certain advantages to being a mature pupil. Clients think they’ve got a bargain compared to the callow youth appearing for the other side (even though said youth may win). Common sense takes you a long way at the Bar and I had more of it at 42 than 22. Male judges and barristers did not patronise me as sometimes happened to younger female pupils.

But while I found those early cases in pupillage stressful, being able to draw on past experiences – and recall that I had survived them – was a help. In my previous career as a journalist I had got into scrapes including being charged by an elephant and having to land a light plane. Heck, for two years at The Times, my boss was Michael Gove, so I was used to robust workplace argument. If I could survive all that, surely I could survive a fast track trial in Romford County Court?

So here are my tips for others who find themselves contemplating pupillage later in life:

  • You need the energy levels of a 20-something. Being older won’t stop you getting last-minute briefs and an early start in a distant court.
  • You are now at the bottom of the pile. No one is interested in the success you made of your previous job, so don’t drone on about it.
  • Nor does anyone care how your infant approval in Slough panned out, so it may be some time before you have decent war stories to entertain the clerks down the pub.
  • Live as close to chambers or your local station as possible.
  • It can be hard to keep up with friends from your past life, who are likely established in careers with good salaries, while you have effectively reverted to student life and a lower income as you re-qualify.
  • My supervisor’s best advice: take it one day at a time. Monday’s difficulties are invariably resolved by Friday, and indeed often by Tuesday.

If you are an atypical student:

The Bar Council provides the following advice to pupils with atypical backgrounds and/or a disability – and naturally some of this will be useful to any pupil/new practitioner:

  • Identify your goals and any limitations that might be placed on achieving them.
  • Identify (as best you can) what support and assistance you need to achieve your potential.
  • Speak to your Inn and others eg DWP at the earliest opportunity and see what (if any) assistance they can provide.
  • See if your Inn, chambers or specialist Bar association can provide you with a mentor (with experience of your situation) who can provide you with advice.
  • Communicate with your pupil supervisors, clerks, chambers’ equality and diversity officer (and if necessary your professional clients) – explain what you need.
  • Be as flexible as you can.
  • Accept you can’t do everything all the time; manage your own and others’ expectations.
  • Be positive.
  • Be proactive about your diary and practice management.
  • Think ahead – what does a trial in a distant court mean for you and what assistance might you need?
  • Have daily/regular communication/updates on workloads.
  • Invest in your personal relationship with your clerk.
  • Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to work you can’t do. Be bold and clear about defining your work parameters with clients and colleagues. Set boundaries and be clear on how much work you are willing/able to take on.
  • Have a contingency plan.
  • Ring the Bar Council’s confidential helpline: 020 7611 1426 if you (or your chambers) need any further advice or support.

Chambers’ ambition: Bar Council advice

Chambers’ ambition should be to ensure all pupils (and tenants), irrespective of their background or life-stage, feel included and are given an opportunity to flourish. To support this you need good policy, practices and great communication.

Navigating reasonable adjustments and providing the right type of support for pupils or tenants with a disability may be perceived as difficult, especially for chambers who will rarely have human resources support or experience of supporting a range of disabilities.

The key factors to consider with respect to pupils/tenants are as follows:

  1. Start with the right attitude and be open minded, often we assume things must be done in a certain way – they rarely do.
  2. Ask the individual what they need to practise or to do their job – don’t make assumptions (then seek assistance from an occupational health adviser/GP, if necessary); establish if government funding is available to support the individual (eg Access to Work).
  3. Agree who needs to be told in chambers and the level of confidentiality; individuals can’t expect some reasonable adjustments to be made without a degree of disclosure to those affected eg clerks or pupil supervisors.
  4. If the individual discloses a specific condition (eg dyslexia) it is always worth seeing what guidance or support is recommended by the relevant charity or organisation supporting those with a condition.
  5. Ring the Bar Council’s confidential helpline (020 7611 1426) as we can help individuals or chambers. We will be able to provide advice or put you in touch with someone via our Disability Panel who may be able to assist (often because they have experience of managing a similar condition within the profession). It is also worth checking guidance available here.
  6. Remember: all chambers are required to make reasonable adjustments and offer flexible working for staff under the Equality Act 2010, and for pupils and members under the Equality Rules of the BSB Handbook (for reasonable adjustments see rC110(3)(m)).
  7. For BSB guidance on reasonable adjustments, see s 12 of the BSB Handbook on Equality Rules. Further advice can also be found here.
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Author details: 
Kelly Cronin

Kelly is a barrister at Zenith Chambers and is developing a practice in crime, civil and family law, and Court of Protection.

Reanne MacKenzie

Reanne is a barrister at Henderson Chambers where she is developing a practice in commercial litigation, group litigation, property, environmental and EU law.

Amanda Weston QC

Amanda is a public law Silk at Garden Court Chambers with particular expertise in deprivation of citizenship, public law and unlawful detention.

Catherine Urquhart

Catherine has a broad practice at Ely Place Chambers in employment, media and general common law work.