Case study

Family law barrister — Robert Povall

Robert studied French and Italian at the University of Leeds before completing a law conversion course and a BPTC LLM at the University of Law. He now works as a barrister at Exchange Chambers

Why did you decide to become a barrister?

I wanted to find a job with a healthy balance between intellectual challenge and working with people. I also thrive in stressful situations and enjoy public speaking. The Bar combined all of these aspects and offered me a profession where I could really make a difference in the lives of others.

Tell us more about applying for pupillage. What does it involve?

In general, the first stage will be a written application either on the Pupillage Gateway or by way of CV and cover letter. There will then be interviews before a panel of barristers; most chambers have at least two rounds. The process is gruelling, and you are vigorously tested in your interviews with legal arguments, advocacy exercises and sometimes presentations on unconventional topics. It is a highly competitive profession so you must be prepared to fail before you succeed.

Law is a competitive industry. How did you stand out?

Firstly, I worked hard to attain good grades. Likewise, I think my working-class background and being open and comfortable with my sexuality helped define me as someone who can relate to and speak to clients from different walks of life. After all, the Bar is a place where communication skills are vital and not just with other lawyers but with one's clients, too.

What's a typical day like as a pupil barrister?

Pupillage lasts one year. In your first six months, you will shadow your supervisor and other members of chambers. You will undertake legal research, draft documents and discuss specialist advice. Your second six months are radically different in that you will start doing your own hearings. Your clerks should be identifying what cases are within your skill level and you will probably start covering 'smaller' hearings for your colleagues. It can be frightening at first, but I found that as time went on, I became much more confident. By the end of your pupillage, you will normally be considered for tenancy; a permanent spot in chambers for when you qualify. This decision will usually be based on your performance during pupillage, business needs and how well you fit in.

What three qualities are important in a pupil barrister?

Humility, tenacity and charisma.

What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

No day or client is the same as any other. I like that I wake up each day excited to do my job. It really is a rewarding profession.

What challenges do you face in your role?

Self-doubt. The Bar can be strange in that you can have advocates of all levels of experience in one case. You constantly feel those more experienced must be right (and they often are). It can be hard to trust yourself. Many of the challenges take place outside of working hours; juggling keeping motivated to work through the night with taking care of yourself, having a social life and getting enough sleep. Becoming a barrister is a lifestyle choice and you need to be prepared to make sacrifices.

Describe your job in five words.

  • challenging
  • rewarding
  • stimulating
  • enjoyable
  • demanding.

What more needs to be done to ensure that legal profession accurately represents the society it serves?

Many students and non-lawyers have a distorted perception of the kind of person who can enter this profession. I know plenty of barristers from non-traditional backgrounds. It is critical we instil in the next generation that being different or less privileged is a strength, not a weakness. Many clients are disadvantaged beyond measure and being able to empathise with them is vital and something that cannot be taught or bought.

What are your career ambitions?

I hope to look back at the end of my career at a legacy I can be proud of, one that opened doors for others and changed things for the better.

What advice can you give to other aspiring barristers from under-represented backgrounds?

The Bar has evolved and while it is much more inclusive now, it still is a meritocracy. You should work hard and show your prospective colleagues that you are a safe pair of hands for your clients. Get work experience, such as mini pupillages, and expose yourself to the realities of this profession. It is not all courtroom advocacy and drama, there are long hours and cancelled plans, friends you haven't spoken to in months and people you will let down. You need to be prepared for the light and dark - if you can demonstrate that to a panel, you are off to a good start.

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