By Dorcas Baah
"We may not be where we hope to be, but we have made progress worthy of celebration"
If this article provides nothing but my quirky wit, I hope this undeniable truth will resonate with you. No matter how competitive and saturated the legal profession is or will become in the coming years, you bring something unique to the table. Any law firm, barristers' chambers or organisation would be lucky to have you; it is time you started acting like it.
Now that I have your attention, hello, everyone. I am honoured for this article to be featured for International Women's Day 2023. As an ode to my Ghanaian culture, which emphasises honouring pioneers and elders, I begin by paying homage to inspirational women like Lady Hale, Helena Normanton and Carrie Morrison, respectively, the first female Supreme Court President, practising barrister and solicitor in England and Wales. Being the first in any endeavour is an incredible achievement, but being the first woman is awe-inspiring because I can only imagine the barriers they have overcome on their journeys. I have no doubt that these women walked so I could run.
So, 'who is Dorcas Baah?' I hear you ask with bated breath. I moved to Scotland when I was seven, although my Glaswegian accent has an identity crisis these days. I blame my relocation to London – or perhaps my accent is just temperamental like Edinburgh's weather? Some other fun facts about me are that I am a believer, creative (poet), education enthusiast, and deeply passionate about diversity issues. I was the African Caribbean President, co-Founder of an anti-racism and racial literacy campaign at the University of Edinburgh, and an Ambassador of the Robertson Trust Scholarship. I am currently part of the Bridging the Bar Mini Pupillage programme. Also, I work part-time at the Law Society of England and Wales after completing my internship last year as part of the 10,000 Black Interns programme.
I have taken a unique journey to the Bar and am still en route at the time of writing this entry. I graduated with my LLB from the University of Edinburgh and completed my International Law LLM at UCL. I am currently doing the Graduate Diploma in Law (conversion course) at City Law School in London. At this point, the law and I are in a long-term relationship, and I am waiting for the Civil Procedure Rules to pop the big question. While I wait for that Instagram-worthy proposal, I have more law to keep me company as I look forward to starting the Bar Course in September. Still, I am optimistic about the future, and the end is in sight.
Growing up in the East End of Glasgow, access to the Bar was far from my front door, so I stumbled into my ambition of becoming a barrister. I decided to do a law degree after listening to a solicitor at a school careers' day say that lawyers needed to enjoy talking, have confidence and be intelligent. He also mentioned that every day would be different, and the job was what you made it. He had me at enjoy talking. After completing my LLB in Scotland, I had to find opportunities to gain exposure to the Bar even though I had no family in the profession. The onset of remote/virtual events from the pandemic worked to my advantage as I could access ones previously limited to in-person attendance, which were invaluable for mini-pupillage applications.
My experience thus far is why I am so vocal about issues like the Bar's accessibility, social mobility and diversity. While initiatives like the 10,000 Black Interns programme, Women at the Chancery Bar Mentoring Scheme, and Bridging the Bar are making some great strides, more work must be done to cultivate a genuinely inclusive culture at the Bar. Moreover, this is one of the reasons why I am excited to share some of the lessons I have learned on my journey. I hope my advice will demystify the legal profession to encourage the next generation of diverse future lawyers to pursue their ambitions and persevere in their careers.
1. Stay the Course
No pun intended. Excelling in a legal career requires some stamina, perseverance and patience. Law can be unforgiving, and it can knock your confidence and humble you in the same breath. Amid a sea of high-achieving individuals, it can be all too easy to feel like a fish out of water. Your contract law exam can feel like a breaststroke race where you have flapped frustrated fins to get to the finish line, but everyone is already there when you arrive. You adopt Dory's mantra to 'just keep swimming', but by the first semester, you are already losing steam. When you receive your First-Year results, you quickly realise that you are not in Kansas anymore because everyone in the magical land of Law School is glowing with straight A's – and you are not quite there yet.
Studying a law degree or conversion course can be very demanding. You may face hurdles, including academic (like failing an exam), financial (struggling to pay fees), and emotional/mental (struggling with your mental health/sickness) challenges. While you may feel inclined to click your ruby slippers and return home, I encourage you to stay the course. This means sticking with it when the going gets tough. It means reevaluating your strengths and weakness and finding innovative ways to study that play to these strengths. It means stopping the comparison game with every Harvey Spectre, Annalise Keating, and Elle Woods archetype you see walking down the Old College grounds. It also means having the end in sight. Have a vision for the life and career you wish to build from your degree, and make concrete plans to realise these once you graduate.
2. Celebrate the (big and small) Wins!
I am unsure what makes law students allergic to positive self-talk, but we must desperately overcome this tendency. It may stem from all the imposter syndrome and comparison that has been flying around since our first law school exams. Whatever the root cause may be, I know so many law students who excel but are too quick to move on to the next thing without celebrating their accomplishments. One inspirational woman I admire is Vee Kativhu. Vee is an education activist and a UN Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Vee is big on celebrating your wins. In fact, I am sure she celebrated graduating with her degree with two different family parties! We should all be like Vee in that we should often pause to reflect and give honour where honour is due – including to ourselves!
To illustrate, I was awarded the Dame Joyanne Bracewell Gray's Inn GDL scholarship last year. I was proud of myself for a moment but quickly moved on to the next goal. Some of my close friends probably do not know I got this award because I was not very vocal about it even though it was worthy of celebration as one of the most prestigious Gray's Inn Awards. If I could go back, I would have taken time to metaphorically pat myself on the back because I know all too well that rejection is endemic on many legal journeys, so moments of breakthrough deserve to be cherished and commemorated.
3. Know Your USP and Lead With It
What I really want you to take away from this section is "be yourself", but I thought I should grab your attention with something punchy before rolling out any cliches. In marketing language, a unique selling point (USP) describes the essence or features of a product/service that makes it different to or better than its competitors. Essentially, your USP is something only you can bring to the table. My short stints being an interviewer and hosting informal CV and personal statement sessions for several years convinced me that everyone has a USP. The tragedy is that most people do not know what theirs is. Yet, the oversaturated and competitive pupillage and training contract market demands that you not only know your USP, but you also lead with it.
Ideally, you should be able to summarise your USP as an elevator pitch anytime. If you would struggle to do this, why not pause, reflect and even ask trusted friends and family to tell you some of your unique qualities? Not only will this offer great encouragement, but it will offer good practice for that pesky 'tell me about yourself' interview question.
So, in practical terms, what does it look like to lead with your USP? For me, it has looked like adding an excerpt from my poem about the interaction of law and social action into my UCL personal statement. Additionally, I wrote my own legal judgment using TWAIL (Third World Approaches to International Law) in my LLM dissertation. I lead with these elements of my USP because they help me stand out from the crowd and give me confidence in any professional environment I enter. Yet, remember that your USP is not limited to your academic abilities so make sure to show up as your authentic self boldly.
4. Rebrand Your Failures
I would hate to leave the impression that I am exclusively a first class LLB, distinction LLM, ACS President type of graduate. I am also a girl who did not get into my first-choice university, failed an exam in my first year and got some questionable grades in modules that shall not be named. In addition, I have applied for several academic and work experience opportunities and received unsuccessful outcomes.
In the real world, rejection, failure and setbacks are more commonplace than we realise when we are in the cocoon of university. I guarantee your role models have failed before and probably more than once. Almost everyone I spoke to during my internships and job has told me about failing at something, pivoting, and discovering their dream job or project somewhere along the line.
Here is the rebranding part. Your story does not end at rejection; sometimes, rejection is simply redirection. You must evaluate what each failure taught you – such as resilience, better timekeeping, your weaknesses, etc. – to identify the positive skills and qualities you have developed since the setback. You must learn to view failures merely as semi-colons and commas and not full stops because there is always more to your story. You will have a successful legal career if you persevere.
5. Being the First is Overrated if No One Comes After You
I am unsure if this was my archetypal last-born syndrome, but growing up, I was obsessed with becoming the first in some grand endeavour. I wanted "Dorcas Baah" to be attached to a news headline that read "the first [insert achievement here]". As I pursued my legal career, my passion for diversity inherently became linked to this endeavour. I wanted my culture, faith and local communities to be proud of my achievements and champion me as a good example of representation.
I am fortunate to work in an organisation like the Law Society, where such firsts are becoming increasingly common. More women, ethnic minorities, and people from social mobility backgrounds occupy senior-level positions, which is encouraging. I even witnessed the first Black president of the Law Society, Stephanie Boyce, pass on the baton to the first Muslim President, Lubna Shuja, completely in awe of how fundamental this moment was. In that baton pass, I realised that being a pioneer is meaningless if you do not leave your position more accessible to those who come after you.
I encourage law students to aspire to leave a legacy that makes the legal profession more diverse. We should wedge the door open for the historically excluded, create seats at the table for the marginalised, and ensure tangible improvement for the next generation of lawyers. One of my favourite poems by Rupi Kaur, “Legacy”, captures my sentiments aptly: “I stand on the sacrifices of a million women before me thinking what can i do to make this mountain taller so the women after me can see further”.
Ultimately, I hope this article motivates you on your legal journey regardless of the challenges you may experience. There is more than enough room for each of us to forge formidable legal careers and establish outstanding legacies. We must believe in ourselves and commit to excellence. Although barriers undoubtedly remain on our road to diversifying the legal profession, we cannot grow discouraged. Initiatives like the First/Next 100 Years should remind us that radical change often begins in unexpected places and genuine transformation is possible with tenacity, strategy and hope. We may not be where we hope to be, but we have made progress worthy of celebration.
We set our minds above,
towards the future our ancestors could only pray for.
We claim that reality with a righteous stamp,
unwilling to lose -
for those after us are hungry too.
“Dandelion” (excerpt) – Dorcas Baah