A conversation with Joel Semakula on pursuing the UK Bar

Joel Semakula is a UK based Ugandan Barrister who works at Landmark Chambers, specialising in property, planning, environmental, public and commercial law. In this interview, Joel shares his experience and advice on pursuing the UK Bar. Here’s how the conversation went…

Q- Tell us about your educational background. Where did you study for your undergraduate and postgraduate studies?

A- I grew up in East London and went to a Catholic school called St. Bonaventure’s in Forest Gate. At 18, I got a scholarship to study in the USA and did my undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I majored in Political Science and Economics and graduated in 2012. A couple of years later, I went to the University of Oxford where I completed my law degree at an accelerated pace over two years. I completed by studies with the Bar Professional Training Course at BPP University, London.

Q- How did you find the BPTC?

A- The BPTC (now BPC) is a professional training course, which is different from the academic courses many of us are used to. Its focus is on the practical skills that are necessary to succeed in the profession. It has a lot of exams but I found it completely manageable if treated like a 9 – 5 job. My advice to students would be to choose a provider that allows you to type your exams, exhaust all scholarship/funding available (contact the provider rather than just relying on the website and go to your Inn) and remember you do not get firsts for originality on this one.

Q- How did you find the process of getting a pupillage?

A- It is no secret that securing pupillage is one of the most competitive processes that anybody can put themselves through. From the last numbers I looked at, there are roughly 3,000 applicants annually and this year (2020/2021), there were approximately 435 pupillages available. It took me multiple applications over multiple years and coming very close as a reserve candidate on a number of occasions before I secured pupillage. My resilience, work-ethic and self-confidence was tested at a level I had never experienced before. It was a tough process and I’m definitely glad to be on the other side. Good luck to all those still applying!

Q- Would you encourage our members to pursue the bar?

A- I had a career before I came to the Bar and have found the switch to be absolutely worth it. This is definitely the career for me. I want to be in a profession that is intellectually stimulating, allows me to have a real impact on things that matter and provides the freedom to mould my career in the way I want. However, being a barrister can sometimes be a solitary existence. Client demands can be unforgiving and the pressure is intense. That said, those of us who continue to do this job understand that it is a privilege to be an advocate and consider that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. My advice to aspiring students is to do some work experience beforehand so that you go into this with your eyes open.

Q- What makes a successful barrister?

A- I would say three things. First, empathy. Second, intellectual curiosity. Third, brevity.

Q- What is one thing you wish you knew as a Law student before getting into the legal field?

A- This is more something I discovered but failed to initially appreciate. It is important to try to find a mentor or sponsor as you embark on this journey. As a second year law student, I had a silk, Riaz Hussain QC at Atkin Chambers, who took me under his wing and guided me through this process. That relationship has now lasted for nearly five years. He gave me access to his network and generously gave me so much of his time. If, like me, you do not come from a background of barristers/lawyers, somebody like this can really make the difference. So I urge law students to seek this out.

Q- Any other advice for our members?

A- In order to become the person you want to be tomorrow; you are going to have to give up some of what you are today. It is important you understand the importance of delayed gratification.

Your value is not defined by your ability to secure pupillage/a training contract.

Also, twitter is your friend; it is still where I get a lot of my legal news. You can follow me @JKSemakula.

To join our network, click this link: https://forms.gle/eFiJV7haZFyF9Yp4A


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