#BecomingTheBar Campaign: Robert Povall’s story

January 20, 2021

This article was originally posted by The Bar Council as part of their #IAmTheBar spin-off series, Becoming the Bar

By Robert Povall

1. Tell us about your background and why you decided to become a barrister.

I grew up in a small village in Merseyside and was the first in my family to go to university. My father is a retired police officer and my mother a self-employed carer and childminder. I attended my local comprehensive school whilst caring for my grandmother. I also identify as gay, something for which I was relentlessly bullied. I knew I wanted to do something meaningful with my life but becoming a barrister did not even cross my mind; I did not think someone like me ever could.

As a result, I decided to study languages at the University of Leeds. During my time at university, my confidence built and representation within all professions became a global discussion which is still ongoing today. It is finally being recognised that a more diverse and inclusive working world and media are needed to better reflect the society in which we live, and the Bar is no exception to this. This, coupled with a chance encounter at a local jobs fair, inspired me to pursue the Bar, recognising it as a place where I could explore my love of public speaking, undertake complex problem-solving and make a difference in the lives of others.

2. What kinds of challenges have you faced in your journey to getting pupillage and how have you overcome them?

Competition for pupillage is fierce. Rejection and hopelessness were concepts to which I became accustomed on a daily basis. The majority of applicants held good degrees, experience and accolades. It helped to create a support network both on the Bar course and within my Inn of likeminded individuals that I could speak to whenever times got tough. I look back at that difficult period as part of my training; the Bar has incredible highs but also crashing lows. Once you weather the storm, you will be thankful that you did when the true challenge of practice begins. Another significant obstacle I faced was funding the Bar Course, which can cause great difficulty for many aspiring barristers. I applied to Middle Temple for a scholarship. I had received an Access to the Bar Award earlier that year which really helped. I would advise anybody serious about a career at the Bar to apply, the Inns are very supportive of those from underprivileged backgrounds and the accolade looks fantastic on an application.

3. Tell us about your experience of training to become a barrister and how you prepared for pupillage applications.

I began a crime and family pupillage in September 2019 which I completed over 12 months. My ethos has always been that the best applications start long before words hit the page. I signed up to every pro bono opportunity I could; entered numerous competitions (losing many!); mooted; and networked. In hindsight, I think this helped me stand out. As a barrister I work long, unsociable hours. I have to frequently cancel social occasions when I receive last minute instructions and often work weekends. The pupillage committee who will be interviewing you will invariably have similar, if not busier, practices. Why not start developing and demonstrating that work ethic and dedication to your craft now?

4. What are the main challenges facing those currently applying for pupillage and those planning to apply for pupillage in the near future? How could they be addressed? 

I could not answer this question without addressing the global public health crisis in which we all find ourselves. Many chambers are struggling just to survive at this incredibly difficult time. I think the main obstacle for those applying for pupillage or planning to do so is going to be how to stand out when there may be fewer pupillages available. There will be so many similar applications now speaking about using this time to attend webinars, enter online competitions and so on, all of which, I hasten to add, are invaluable and excellent things to be doing. That said, I would advise always taking it to that next level; asking yourself whether you can do more or how you can go further next time.

5. What advice would you give to prospective barristers from an under-represented background?

I grew up with very little positive representation of the gay community both in the media and in the professions. It is natural to feel that the Bar is a closed door. However, the society we serve comprises people from all different walks of life and the Bar is starting to emulate this. Take a look at outreach programmes such as Middle Temple’s ‘Access to the Bar Awards’, which changed my life. Check out the regional Bar and not just London. Finally, believe in yourself. One of the thrills of this profession is fighting for others so why not start practising by fighting for yourself?

This article has been published in accordance with our pupillage recruitment process.

Our pupillage application window is currently open. For more information on how to apply, please click here.