I obtained my law degree from a non-Oxbridge institution in London almost a quarter of a century ago. I was born in Nigeria where my uncle, the late Chief Dr Nabo Graham-Douglas, was a senior advocate, Attorney General and Minister of Justice. He was an imposing figure of a man, all six foot seven inches of him. I have a very strong memory of my uncle arriving for lunch – my mother had prepared her customary sumptuous native soup and pounded yam – in regalia fit for ‘black magic’, but with a distinctive magisterial, almost ceremonial grandeur to it. Yes, I am talking about the barrister’s black gown, the wig held in his hand. As I chatted with my uncle, I instinctively felt that law was my calling, even at that early age.

My father also had a deep admiration for the legal profession. He was a stickler for perfection in oral and written English. He inculcated in my siblings and I, the act of writing words and their meanings in an exercise book, which we labelled ‘Vocabularies’. Even in the present age of technological advancement and the veritable accessibility of Google, I still keep a book of vocabularies. It reminds me of a verse from the Holy Book which says, ‘teach a child the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it’.

This journey to the English Bar has been an exciting and challenging odyssey. Exciting because I now have a mixed, mostly civil and criminal practice, with the former being the most dominant in recent years. Challenging because I could have quit if I did not have the perseverance to keep my nose to the grindstone. 

Although I had a Master’s Degree in Law and always felt relatively confident in my oratorical skills, the Bar was dominated by people who did not look or sound like me. I have read articles where it has been suggested that in order to succeed at the Bar, an advocate needs to cultivate the ‘Received Pronunciation’ style of speaking. Luckily, I decided very early on that my diction was good enough. To some this may sound trivial, but there are many advocates who can identify with this plight, primarily because the overarching presumption, perhaps mistaken, was that a ‘plummy’ accent was more acceptable or even more persuasive to judges and tribunals of fact. This had in it a discouraging feature for which some have quit the Bar or not even bothered trying. It took perseverance to shake off that often self-imposed perception and limitation. To its immense credit, the English Bar has increased its acceptance of people from all backgrounds with different accents, without diminishing or diluting the core value of eloquence and excellence.

Even in those days, the gold dust known as pupillage was extremely difficult to come by. I would celebrate invitations to interviews in a way reminiscent of Liverpool fans winning the Premiership after 30 years of trying. I prepared for every pupillage interview as if my life depended on it.

In the early days of the Online Pupillage Application System (‘Olpas’), applicants were only allowed to apply to 12 sets, if my memory serves me right. However, one could make as many non-Olpas applications as one wished. Mine were cumulatively in the hundreds. In fact, a top set of chambers invited me to interview three years in a row and rejected me all three times.

After the third year, the experience was so painful that I telephoned the chambers and begged to speak to the head of the interview panel, who had been at all three interviews. I wanted feedback. With a searingly agonised and deflated tone, I enquired as to what I needed to do to obtain a pupillage and why he thought I was good enough to be invited by the same panel three years in a row but not good enough to be accepted as a pupil. He told me my bail application at the last interview was rushed and that I did not make eye contact with the panellists.

I was quick to take this on board and soon understood why making eye contact can convince one’s audience that an advocate is passionate and believable. Not making eye contact, on the other hand, may give the impression that one is less passionate or that one’s case is confected. The harrowing experience of being rejected several times has taught me a skill I will never forget.

While trying to obtain pupillage I applied myself to helping people who could not afford legal representation. I became a Duty Advocate in court, representing people for free in possession proceedings, hoping this would be a segue way into housing law and honing my skills in the process. After court one day, the usher told me a particular District Judge wanted to see me. What have I done now, I thought? He simply wanted to know more about me, commenting that he had observed me for several months and was particularly impressed by my advocacy and the passion with which I represented the often helpless people whose homes were about to be repossessed. In a nutshell, that conversation led the District Judge to give me a glorious written recommendation which led to a three-month reduction in the length of my pupillage. I could state in subsequent pupillage applications that I already had a three-month waiver, and this in turn was attractive to some sets. A valuable lesson I learnt from that experience is that, as advocates, we are being watched at every turn.

Perseverance also requires adapting and improving one’s skills and strategies in the pursuit of the intended goal. I had never studied employment law, not at undergraduate level, postgraduate level or during my BVC (Bar Vocational Course) as it was called in those days. By sheer force of will, I found out about FRU (Free Representation Unit). FRU offers free representation to people who cannot afford lawyers in social security and employment tribunals, but the work is done mostly by law graduates and legal professionals in the embryonic stages of their careers. All FRU’s representatives were legally trained and supervised by qualified legal officers. 

In order to become a FRU representative, you had to submit your CV and apply, and be granted permission, to write a legal opinion on a legal problem. The Opinion had to be graded as competent before you were accepted as a FRU representative. This was literally my first introduction into employment law. Today, I am pleased to say that employment law is one of my fortes.

Outdoor clerking, as it used to be called, provided an invaluable learning experience for me during my search for pupillage. At the paltry rate of £25 a day, I was sent to court by an agency, and took notes of legal proceedings on behalf of solicitors firms as barristers duked it out. In the process, I got to observe different styles of advocacy and saw what worked and what did not work so well. From jury trials to employment tribunals, the advocacy was assorted. On a particular day, I was sent to Snaresbrook Crown Court to take notes in a jury trial. A defendant was being tried for rape. The barrister I had been sent to meet had his hair woven in braids. Interesting, I thought. But I kept asking myself what gave him the temerity to wear such a hairstyle. When I saw his performance in court, it reaffirmed my innate belief that the quality of one’s performance, and it is a performance, was more important than the colour of one’s skin, provided one persevered. Today, that brilliant barrister is my friend and we have gone on to do a couple of cases together, and I am always his first choice when he makes referrals in employment cases.

Then there is the proverbial imposter syndrome which seems to be prevalent in a lot of professions, the Bar not being an exception. The high quality of advocacy at the English Bar has made it a beacon of excellence envied and admired by people far beyond these shores. For me, pitting my wits against outstanding advocates in court only meant that I had to get better and make significant improvements and adjustments to my advocacy in substance and style. I said to myself that if you take your career seriously, you have no choice but to make visible incremental improvements in your advocacy. Also, that making a fool of yourself sometimes is part of the process. Nobody is born excellent. We all have to fail our way to success in varying degrees. 

The journey may have been fraught with challenges, but that is partly what makes it exciting. There is still a long way to go. The recent inclusive posture of the English Bar is here to stay, and I am glad that I stayed the course. The key is to persevere, adapt and improve one’s skills as an advocate in this intensely competitive and respected profession. The art of perseverance, juxtaposed with life’s inevitable rejections, can often provide incredible advantages if we keep searching for solutions and do not quit.