Social mobility advocate: Gemma De Cordova
25th September 2019
Gemma, tell us about your background and why you decided to become a barrister.
I grew up in Bristol, the third of four daughters. I attended state schools and was part of the first generation in our family to attend university, our parents having come from Jamaica as children. We were raised with a strong work ethic and the belief that we could achieve anything that we put our minds to.
I have always loved advocacy, however, a career as a barrister was not really on my radar until relatively late in my education. From a young age I knew that I wanted to go to university but I was not settled on any particular career. I studied Law and German at the University of Surrey and thought that I would try to get a training contract. It was not until I was encouraged by a lecturer (who was also a barrister) to attend the national pupillage fair that I began to learn more about becoming a barrister. As part of my degree, I undertook a work placement at a law firm in Cologne, where they have a fused profession. Each week I was given a list of court hearings that the firm was involved in and could attend court as often as I wished. It was during these visits that I realised I really wanted to become a barrister.
Did you face any obstacles along your journey to becoming a barrister and how did you overcome them? Have any of them persisted since becoming a barrister?
There have been many obstacles on my journey and indeed many persist. I recall being told repeatedly how difficult that it would be to qualify as a barrister. I was encouraged to “go the solicitor route” to enjoy things such as regular income, paid holiday and paid maternity leave. I recall the owner of a law firm laughing at me when I said that I still intended to qualify as a barrister rather than follow his suggestion of qualifying as a solicitor and then converting to the Bar. I knew that I wanted to be a barrister, so I could not see the sense in that.
I remember being advised that I shouldn’t even consider taking the Bar course unless my father had won the lottery. I was often encouraged to practice in areas where the numbers of women and ethnic minorities were higher, namely crime, family and employment. I recall a particular conversation early in my career when a senior property barrister told me (without any experience of my work) that he thought I would be “good at family and employment”.
I was able to secure an offer of pupillage and invested a lot of time in putting my applications together and preparing for interviews. I undertook a third six pupillage with my current chambers, before being offered tenancy.
I believe that there are still challenges around fair and equal access to work and opportunities; and unconscious bias. I believe that people can make judgments based on what theythinkyou are capable of, founded not on your merit or expertise, but on their own personal experience. This is by no means unique to the Bar. I have had to become extraordinarily resilient and devise strategies to improve my prospects of progression and growth, by seeking out development opportunities and ensuring I have people I can approach for advice and encouragement.
What opportunities, support and encouragement did you receive along your journey to becoming a barrister?
As a student and during pupillage, my Inn provided numerous opportunities to interact with barristers, which for someone like me, was a really useful means of getting to know my way around the profession. My family and friends offered a lot of encouragement. Otherwise I had to create my own opportunities. For example, after seeing an article displayed in my university’s law department about Dame Linda Dobbs becoming Britain’s first black High Court Judge, I contacted her. She had studied Law and Russian at Surrey and I felt excited and inspired. She kindly invited me to the RCJ where she was very generous with her time and advice. She later put me in touch with her former clerks in chambers and I was invited to spend some time with the barristers there, which was fantastic.
What is the most rewarding thing about being a barrister; has life at the Bar met your expectations?
I am privileged to have two of the best jobs in the world; being a mother to my two boys and being a barrister. There can be a lot of tension between the two, as both are very demanding on my time and I am working on (and most likely will forever be working on) achieving a sense of balance. On the up side, being a barrister offers a lot more flexibility than other jobs, which means that I can usually organise my work commitments around sports day and assemblies. Also, the financial reward of my work means that my children will enjoy many opportunities that I did not.
The job satisfaction is the most rewarding thing for me. This comes from knowing that you’ve done the best for your client. The satisfaction is even greater when your efforts are acknowledged by your client, or on occasion, by the judge or your opponent. The icing on the cake is when I can use my experience at work to inspire, encourage, or teach my children. Last year I was involved in a High Court trial alongside very experienced members of the Chancery Bar. I was by far the youngest advocate (and the only female). My eldest son (then 4) did not want to go to football because he was worried about racing against some of the older boys at his new football club. I talked to him about being brave and that sometimes in life we have to compete with people who are older or bigger than us, but that did not mean we could not be as good. I told him that mummy also had to be brave at work because in my case I was the youngest too and all of the other barristers were older than me and then I showed him pictures of my colleagues! That made him laugh, he felt better and went on to have a great session at football.
How do you use your experience of coming to the Bar from a non-traditional background to support those seeking to do the same, and/or why is it important for barristers to contribute in this way?
I am young, black, female, a mum of 2, from outside of London, non-Oxbridge, I attended non-fee paying schools, I’m part of the first generation in my family to attend university and I practice in chancery and commercial work. There are few barristers like me and therefore it is very important for me to be visible and to educate, encourage and inspire others. This is not always easy, but is one reason I am so keen to participate in this campaign. Some of my efforts include:
- In Chambers: I sit on the pupillage committee; I supervise students during Bar Placement Week; I aim to supervise as many students attending chambers for mini-pupillage as I can.
- Bar Council: I was an elected member of the Bar Council for 2 terms; I have assisted the Young Bar Committee; Education and Training Committee; and the Equality & Diversity & Social Mobility Committee.
- Chancery Bar Association: I have assisted the Academic Liaison subcommittee, which established the very successful ChBA pupillage fair, which helped educate students about practising at the chancery bar and dispel myths; I currently sit on the Equality & Diversity subcommittee.
What are the challenges facing today’s aspiring barristers, and how could they be addressed?
The decreasing number of pupillages and the increasing costs of qualification are problematic. We need to find ways to fund more pupillages. Hopefully changes are on the horizon to reduce training costs. It is positive that today, information about training for and working at the Bar is more accessible. There are more networking opportunities and initiatives designed to increase access to the Bar and attract students from a broader range of backgrounds. We need to remember that talent comes in different forms and ensure our recruitment processes do not stifle diversity. We also need to continue efforts aimed at addressing progression and retention of those from non-traditional backgrounds.
What advice would you give to someone from a non-traditional background, seeking to succeed at the Bar?
Work hard; aim for academic excellence; believe in yourself; take advantage of opportunities that come your way and do not be afraid to create your own opportunities; identify your unique selling point; identify and sell your strengths; improve on your weaknesses; network – become comfortable around barristers; do ask for help; and don’t give up!
Published on the Bar Council website on the 25th September 2019