Aspiring barrister from Newham urges young people with his background to consider a law career

PUBLISHED: 07:00 02 April 2018

Joel Semakula

Joel Semakula

Joel Semakula

Don’t let your background hold you back.

That’s the message to Newham’s young people from Joel Semakula, a lawyer from Stratford who is close to achieving his dream of becoming a barrister.

The former St Bonaventure’s student has won a pupillage - a type of apprenticeship which will qualify him to practise independently - at Landmark Chambers and said he now wants to show young people that it is possible to make it to the bar as, “someone from their background has done it”.”

Joel, 28, decided he wanted to pursue a career at the Bar aged just 15 when he did work experience at the Chambers of Wilfred Forster-Jones, a black criminal barrister.

He said: “”My first experience of law was working among people of colour. What it did was make me think that being a lawyer was a realistic possibility, without me necessarily seeing how much impact this had on me at the time.””

After studying at the University of North Carolina, Joel worked for two years at Morgan Stanley in New York before taking an accelerated law degree at Oxford, where he graduated top of his year, and completed the BPTC.

Yet it still took him three years and 42 applications to cement a pupillage, although Joel does not put this down to unconscious racial discrimination.

He said: “The pupillage process is incredibly competitive either way. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but one of the big reasons I wanted to keep going was the fantastic support from Gray’s Inn [an organisation which supports trainee barristers]. They awarded me with three scholarships so I could complete my studies.”

Joel had no connections with lawyers while growing up - his father worked as a teacher and his mother as an NHS community health worker.

He stressed the importance of finding support such as that from Gray’s Inn early on, adding: “”If you are someone who doesn’t have any lawyer in your immediate network, the whole thing seems alienating, inaccessible and difficult.

“So it’s about raising ambition, providing information and providing access. These three things need to happen as early as possible during school.”

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