It might have taken ULaw alumna Rebecca Keeves a little longer than most to achieve her teenage dream of a career in law but her determination paid off. She now works as both a barrister and judge. We caught up with Rebecca and spoke about her route into the legal profession, the difficulties she faced and what advice she would offer students looking to become barristers themselves.
I’ve wanted to be a barrister since I was 13 years old; however I have taken a slightly unusual route to get where I am today. I was advised against doing a law degree and I loved history, so I completed a BA(Hons) in History and Psychology, the GDL (now the PGDL) and then the BVC (now the BPC), being called to the Bar in 2010.
I wasn’t having much success with pupillage applications and so completed an LLM in Legal Professional Practice (Commercial Law). I still wasn’t able to secure a pupillage so completed an LPC MSc while undertaking the work necessary to become a Fellow of CILEX. I also completed my Higher Rights of Audience in criminal and civil law. I was therefore able to be admitted to the roll without the need for a training contract and then obtained a full exemption from pupillage.
I commenced tenancy at Cornwall Street Barristers in May 2018. Having achieved my goal of becoming a barrister, I looked at what was required to become a judge. I applied for the role of deputy district judge in 2019 and was appointed in 2020. I wouldn’t want to give up my practice as a barrister and I am so pleased there is the option of being a part-time member of the judiciary. I always thought I would want to take silk (become a QC) one day, but that has become slightly less of a focal point for me.
The roles of a barrister and judge are very different. It’s extremely important to remind yourself of the role you are playing in a particular hearing. It’s especially important with so many hearings now being remote as you don’t have the reminder of where you physically are in the court room. It’s necessary to fight the urge to step in, as you would as a judge, when you are the advocate.
Being a barrister is very independent. We advise the client, if they instruct us to do so, but the decisions are ultimately theirs as to how they wish the case to proceed. I put their case forward as strongly as I can, while remaining firmly within the ethical requirements, even if it conflicts with my personal views. It is then for the judge to make the decision.
As a judge I must listen to all the information carefully, bear in mind the time restraints, control the room (not so easy with remote hearings) and reach a considered and reasoned conclusion. I also carry out ‘box work’, which is work a judge does without a hearing.
When I finished the BVC, I was completely unaware of the range of work the County Court sees. In 2010 I became a solicitor’s agent and would appear on all types of cases in the County Court. Examples would be landlord and tenant disputes, contractual disputes, commercial disputes, personal injury, clinical negligence, consumer rights, and debt collection. There are enforcement matters as well as trials and various applications.
As a barrister I have time to prepare and research; as a judge new information and law is often coming at you moments before, or during, the hearing and you must adapt and absorb the information quickly.
I was accepted at three institutions for the GDL, but ULaw impressed me the most on the open day and I can still remember the sample lecture. I wanted to go to an institution that was specialised. I was so pleased with the quality of study, I completed all my future qualifications (except the Professional Skills Course) with ULaw.
To be honest, looking back, I’m not sure how I managed working full-time and studying. I studied the GDL and BVC full-time, while working full-time hours in a call centre. It was really hard. There is no doubt in my mind that it had a negative impact on my overall grades, and I’m sure that impacted my ability to gain pupillage. I achieved a pass and a competent, but these were not reflective of my academic ability. It was a difficult two years. I would say a support network is really important, as is taking time out to relax. Also, keep the end in sight. It isn’t a long period of time. It may be hard but it isn’t hard for long.
Between working and studying I had very little time to explore matters outside of the course. I worked with the pro-bono unit which was great, and a brilliant way of getting some real-life experience. ULaw has a range of employment assistance available. What sticks in my mind is the way the courses are taught: it isn’t just the academic information but how it applies to realistic scenarios.
Yes, there were setbacks. It felt like at every turn I was faced with ‘no’. Obviously, the biggest hurdle was not being able to obtain pupillage, but I overcame that. The finances were also a real challenge and I took risks with loans etc., but it paid off in the end.
It’s difficult to pick the proudest moment of my career so far. I am genuinely pleased every time I’m able to do the job in a way that gives someone a voice who wouldn’t otherwise have had it. I do particularly enjoy mentoring and was most proud when four students I had jointly mentored performed a moot at the Supreme Court. They had come so far, and it was fantastic to be able to pass on what I have learnt.
As a barrister, I am self-employed and this can make it more difficult to maintain a healthy work/life balance. You don’t have mandatory annual leave, and you are often working in the evenings and at weekends. Outside of work I enjoy (but am not very good at) playing the piano and the ukulele. I love to read, although don’t do that as often as I should. A favourite hobby, which has increased during lockdown, is board gaming.
I also take part in amateur dramatics and dancing. I started ballet at my local dance school when I was around three years old. It had close connections with the local amateur dramatics group and I was an active member until I left for university at 18 years of age. After I finished my GDL and BVC I sought out a local amateur dramatics group and I’m still a member today. The pandemic put a stop to all this but I am pleased to say we are treading the boards once again.
You’ll need to be hard working to become a successful barrister. You’ll also need the ability to work independently, with strong research and organisation skills. Confidence (or at least the ability to pretend you’re confident) and oral presentation skills. Finally, you’ll need to have objectivity. It is a steep learning curve but the resources are there.
My advice to students keen to become a barrister would be to try and get mini-pupillages, particularly with Cornwall Street Barristers, but then I’m biased. Cornwall Street Barristers is keen to have people who know our chambers specifically and understand our ethos. Also, students now have the benefit of social media so follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also follow individual members of chambers. We host various events. Always keep an eye out and come to what you can.
You can do it. You are the only person who knows what you can achieve. Don’t take criticism from someone you wouldn’t ask for advice. Ask for help when you need it. It’s normal to think you aren’t enough. Don’t let your fear hold you back. Most importantly, don’t let someone else tell you that you won’t make it. Not everyone can be a barrister but you know yourself best, so consider what is required. If you have the qualities you need to succeed don’t let someone else make you feel like you can’t.
If you’re contemplating a career at the bar, consider studying the BPC with ULaw.