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BLOG #1 – Gemma Noble

My decision to become a criminal barrister didn’t start with perfect GCSEs and tactically chosen A-Levels in order to bag a place at a top tiered university. I grew up bouncing from country to country. I was an international school child with a patchy educational record. I had my sights firmly set on becoming a newspaper journalist by the time my family came back to the UK in time for my A-Levels. Due to some difficult family circumstances at the time I obtained, in comparison to most Bar hopefuls, pretty poor results (BBD in English, Media Studies and French).

Not particularly phased by my results, I went off to study a BA in Journalism at a virtually unknown arts university. At this point, I didn’t really know what a barrister was, let alone aspire to become one.

After taking a ‘law for journalists’ module, taught by a local criminal solicitor, my interest in law peaked. I sought out some work experience from the teacher and ended up clerking a two-week trial at Winchester Crown Court. I spent my time with a couple of barristers and, despite only half understanding what was going on, I fell in love with it. The language, the confidence, the intellect and – I confess – the wigs.

Conversion courses and BPTCs are not cheap wherever you seek to study them. I was lucky to have a family able to help me, albeit not able to completely cover it. I applied for a scholarship from Middle Temple and was lucky enough to win a major award for both my GDL and BPTC years, which helped ease the pressure and avoid me getting into much more debt than I was already in.

The GDL is a tough year, there is no getting around it. For me, it was perhaps more challenging because I came fresh from a non-academic degree and hadn’t sat a formal exam in four years. However, I was determined to gain as much experience as I could to try and bypass my academic background. I joined as many pro bono and voluntary activities as I could and filled the holidays with mini-pupillages. I also worked part-time to help with costs, perhaps to my detriment. Unsurprisingly, my coursework slipped. I scraped through the GDL and came out with a ‘pass’. At this point, I really did think my chances of even getting a pupillage interview were basically nil.

I sought advice, tried different areas of law, and explored other career paths, but I was already hooked. With encouragement from my long-suffering parents, I went on to do the BPTC. I put the work in, and despite not performing well in exams in the past, I managed to obtain a ‘very competent’. Needless to say, I was over the moon. But passing the BPTC and being called to the Bar was only the first hurdle in a very long slog to obtaining pupillage.

I didn’t give up. With the idea my background was holding me back I applied to do a Masters’ degree at Cambridge and got a place. Before accepting, a barrister advised me that it wasn’t just about the educational background. It was about experience.  He recommended I save myself the money and get a job in law, so I did just that.

I found myself a job as a paralegal in a large London based criminal firm of solicitors. I became an accredited police representative to gain even more experience. This gave me a grounding in all areas of criminal law and real client experience; far more beneficial than another degree. This was the boost my applications needed to get pass the paper sift. The experience served to help me not only obtain the interviews but it provided me with knowledge to draw upon in the discussions.

It’s no secret that getting pupillage is a struggle and for many a dream that never comes true. I was acutely aware that I was not from the “traditional background”. I didn’t attend a respected university nor did I take a traditional degree. I did not excel at the GDL and I got merely the required result on the BPTC. The pupillage application process is notorious and difficult. Few lucky ones secure it during the BPTC or even the GDL. For me, it was two years post-BPTC, and I am by no means an exception. The rejections over this length of time test your confidence and will cast doubt on the very expensive life choice you have committed yourself to. I will never forget one notable rejection that came to me with some feedback, stating that I would not be a good barrister. A little bit too late, I remember thinking to myself, with a strong drink in hand.

Two years on when the phone call came that I had a pupillage, I couldn’t quite believe it. There comes a time for many applicants when they simply must give up. Years in limbo begin to take a toll and sticking it out at low paid paralegal roles whilst applying for pupillage was not a sustainable option for me much longer. But had I not stuck it out, I highly doubt I would have managed to obtain pupillage. More than two years after that phone call I am now a tenant in the Chambers that gave me that opportunity. I don’t regret a moment of it.

It shouldn’t be about where you studied or the grades you obtained, but often it is, at least to get the all-important interview. For those aspiring to the Criminal Bar without the prior attainment, there are other ways to prove yourself. It’s about showing you have the aptitude to juggle the demands of multiple clients whilst running around a Magistrates’ Court on a Saturday morning, or to deal with a 10am trial when the papers came through just an hour before. Anyone hoping to pursue this career choice who did not follow a traditional route I can only offer my encouragement. It may not be easy, but it can be done.

Gemma Noble

3 Temple Gardens

June 2020