Academically, I was never a high achiever. Having been given every opportunity to excel, I simply couldn’t align myself to the commitment needed to shine at school; a sentiment clearly shared by my headmaster who penned a daunting letter to my mother dated 8 January 1990. It read (in part): ‘I hope I made it clear that we feel that we have exhausted all our possibilities with Nneka. I expect to see a vast improvement in her attitude and academic performance in the next five weeks.’

I scraped through those five weeks but ultimately left school with barely any qualifications worth mentioning; even then, I didn’t care. The bright lights of London were calling me, seemingly a million miles away from the leafy Hertfordshire suburb in which my mother had worked so hard to bring up her family. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t want or need any qualifications. The ignorance of my age told me that all I needed was the excitement of living independently, completely removed from parental pecking and family rules.

But I needed qualifications…

When we are young, we are led by a sense of immortality, so it took about three years for me to realise that I had, in fact, done nothing but make life much harder for myself.

It was circa 1995 and I was living in a bedsit in East London working long hours in the West End with barely anything to show for it. This was not me living my best life; I knew that I needed to make myself more employable, because long trips home on the night bus could not be my future.

I thought back to my headmaster’s letter and decided I needed to act. I started an access course, then an LLB in Law and Politics and then the Bar Vocational Course at Cardiff Law School.

Timing was never my strong suit, and I had my daughter halfway through my degree. What I was told, and no doubt this has been heard by others whose path may include obstacles, was that my ambitions were unachievable. What I said to myself then, and what I would repeat to my older self now is the same: ‘Don’t listen.’

What was fundamental to me by that stage was not to have a life where I would be living hand to mouth; I needed to prove to myself and this child who had suddenly entered my world that I could achieve something. I wasn’t quite sure what it would be, but I needed to make her proud of me. I needed to be proud of myself, too, and that meant focusing, studying and finishing what I had started.

It is okay to be you…

By 2002, I had my academics in the bag and vocational training done. Next stop: pupillage. Pupillage was tough, especially with an energetic two-year-old. Mercifully I had a very understanding pupil-master who, I suspect, secretly insulated me from some of the more challenging tasks that the other pupils endured. Sure, I was covering mentions during my second six along the length and breadth of the country, but that wasn’t always accompanied by the intense mountain of paperwork that some had to undertake.

Despite being deterred unilaterally against going into crime, there was no other area of law that appealed; addressing a jury, donning a wig and gown held a definitive sense of fascination for me. I would not change the fact that I am a seasoned criminal practitioner, especially now: I am proud to stand in solidarity and shoulder to shoulder with my colleagues at the Criminal Bar as we continue our action against the woeful underfunding of our criminal justice system.

In the early years, however, I felt that I lost myself to a certain extent. I had got so far, and understandably wanted to fit in. I’ve always been a sucker for an elegant high heel, and some well-meaning female tenants would suggest I didn’t wear certain shoes or jewellery. I was told that being so outgoing could – and likely would – be taken the wrong way. I was told that it was probably better to be seen and not heard, which is most unlike me.

What I absolutely love and admire about the young women joining our ranks today is that they are unapologetically themselves. These young women, of all ethnicities and backgrounds, have the benefit of knowing that they are entering a profession that is striving to be more inclusive. They are fearless: when they see something that is not right, they call it out. It is exciting to see that these young women who embody female empowerment will invariably be tomorrow’s tenants, leaders, silks and judges.

No dream is too big to achieve…

In 2019 I joined what I consider to be my forever chambers. My daughter had already vacated for university, and it seemed that my career trajectory had accelerated at the perfect time.

While unfathomable at the time, I was told unequivocally by my colleagues to apply for silk within three years. I hadn’t even considered applying, but what is so awesome about camaraderie at the Bar is that you have people around you, who you know you can trust to give you the unvarnished truth about your strengths and weaknesses. I knew very little about the application process, save for the incredibly intimidating form that had to be accompanied by a not insignificant fee. Emboldened by the encouragement of senior colleagues whose views I trusted, I put my head down and marched gallantly into the detail of my silk application.

In my career, I have always been consciously kind, courteous and respectful to everyone with whom I cross paths. Ours is a stressful line of work, and I believe a positive attitude goes a long way in this environment. Thankfully, my attitude garnered the support of the required 36 referees, 12 judges, 12 practitioners and 12 solicitors, all of whom stepped forward with enthusiasm when I asked them to act as my assessors should they be called upon to do so.

Being a great advocate is rightfully anchored in integrity, yet my own journey has shown me that integrity and kindness are of equal virtue.

These pillars of behaviour have stood me well over the years, and I credit my elevation to QC to those I have met along the way – those who have shone their light on my path and pushed me further ahead. No woman or man is an island, and no dream is too big to achieve.