In my long(ish) life and career, I’ve been a barrister in private practice, an Ombudsman in five different roles both in the UK and abroad, a Recorder and now an author. If I hadn’t learned anything from all that, what would I have been doing with my life? To paraphrase the great boxer Muhammed Ali, someone who is the same at 50 as they were at 20 has wasted 30 years of their life. Some of this I’ve always believed and practised, but a lot of this I’ve learned from missteps; this is certainly not a counsel (sorry – no pun intended) of perfection. So here goes...

Lean in to what makes you special and unique, and know it has value. Thankfully, the days when all barristers had to be cookie-cutter replicants to succeed are long gone.

Be your authentic self. People often misunderstand this. This is not the self that is feet up on the sofa, in tracksuit bottoms, eating Prosecco and crisps while binge watching box sets (surely that can’t be just me?), but the best version of your authentic self. It’s too tiring and exhausting to do otherwise – plus, ultimately, it doesn’t work.

Have a plan. Some people fly by the seat of their pants, but that’s not me. I truly believe that if you want to accomplish a lot across all aspects of your life, both professional and personal, you have to plan for it. I’ve always been a believer in having five-year plans (or even longer), broken down into smaller manageable chunks. But having said that…

Be prepared to pivot from your plan. Don’t stick to it so rigidly that you miss the unexpected opportunities. I can personally recall at least three such times in my own life: when my novel Without Prejudice was published the first time; when I successfully applied to be the Complaints Commissioner for the Cayman Islands; and when my novel was republished earlier this year which has launched a whole new career for me as a writer alongside my legal career. The opportunities can and do happen for all of us if we are wise enough to spot them and have the courage to act on them.

Have your own personal ‘board of advisers’. This is more than just having a Mentor, although a mentor is definitely a member of this board. Depending on where you are in your career, you should also have a Sponsor to talk you up when you’re not in the room; a Connector to link you to people you should know; a Point Expert – someone who is very experienced in your field or in the field you would like to be in; and of course a Close (honest) Friend to have your back.

Aim for excellence, not perfection. Less beating yourself up that way. Have as much compassion and acceptance for yourself as you would for someone else you care very deeply about.

Up your self-care, whatever that is for you. It will be different for everyone. There is now much greater emphasis on wellbeing at the Bar, including but not limited to mental health. This is welcome and tremendously positive. Audre Lorde, the late African-American feminist writer, described self-care as ‘not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation’. (She also described it as an act of political warfare but you may not want to go that far!)

And finally, reach back and help someone behind you. As an example, I volunteer for Speakers for Schools. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do, how you do it or how great or small the time commitment, just do it. And yes, you do have the time! 

Without Prejudice, Nicola Williams’ first novel, is a gripping courtroom thriller that follows barrister Lee Mitchell as she uncovers the dark secrets of London’s obscenely rich. The book was selected by Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo as part of a Penguin series that rediscovers and celebrates pioneering books depicting Black Britain, and was republished in February 2021. Screen rights have been optioned.