Considering applying to law as a mature student? In this case study, we speak to Mukhtiar Singh about his decision to study at the University of Law, pursue a career at the Bar and the importance of social mobility and diversity in law.
I joined the police two years after leaving school aged 16. I stayed in the force for just over 20 years, attaining the rank of Detective Inspector. But in 2004, I started to think about studying for a degree.
Having attained an extremely high mark in my inspector’s exam, I reflected that perhaps my school teachers were right in that I was wasting my academic ability. Also, my wife and I were starting a family and I wanted to be a good role model. Further, I thought studying would enhance my role as a detective as well as provide wider employment opportunities at the conclusion of my career.
How did you balance your time between your job and studying to become a barrister?
Serious discipline and planning. I studied my undergraduate law degree and my BPTC part-time. When you’re studying part-time and paying out of your own pocket, you make sacrifices. Most of my time was spent studying, including annual leave (yes, that included Christmas Day!) and during the journey to work.
I still had to find time for all of the other things necessary for pupillage – including mini-pupillage; pro bono work and making applications. Changing career and studying in your own time is extremely challenging, but your study is focused as a result. You learn how precious time can be and through careful planning, many things can be achieved.
Did you face any challenges along the way and how did you overcome them?
During each year of study, something significant happened in our lives. We had kids, we bought a house, my father passed away and then I was plagued by medical problems. During my BPTC, I developed complex regional pain syndrome in my hands, which eventually became too much to manage. The pain may well have been caused by an old injury: in my police days, I broke my back jumping over a 40’ wall whilst pursuing criminals. My arms are in constant pain and I have to restrict their use in order to manage it.
My tutors at the University of Law were very supportive and I was able to defer my second year. After learning to manage my condition, I was able to complete my studies and now rely heavily on dictation software and a note-taker in court.
Could you tell us about your experience of securing pupillage?
I made around 50 applications over three years. In the first two years I came very close on a number of occasions and was invited to a number of second round interviews and was placed on a number of reserve lists.
For health reasons I then had a year off. During my year off, I became more philosophical and was able to put things in more rational context: what was there to be nervous about? I was able to develop a far more assured and persuasive advocacy style, which I successfully displayed during interviews.
What are the advantages of pursuing a career in law in later life?
The greatest advantage is having life experience to enhance your judgement. On top of this, interpersonal and time management skills helped me build my practice quickly and predominantly on my own. There are many other advantages – although of course there are some disadvantages too!
Tell us about your passion for diversity at the Bar.
I have a particular interest in social mobility. Coming from a working class background can be a real advantage as it brings a fresh, humble and practical perspective to practice and law.
With diversity comes difference in perspectives, credibility, and a better understanding of equality. We are rightly proud of our legal systems and principles, not least the rule of law, but imagine what could be achieved if the law makers and practitioners were selected from the whole and not the few.
An argument resisting change is that diversity would have an adverse impact on quality, to which I say: quality is undermined by only selecting from a few; diversity brings quality: many at the Bar accept they would struggle to obtain pupillage now, and such elitist arguments only highlight the urgent need for better quality.
The Bar is determined to broaden its diversity. This is not just an aspiration, it is happening and I guess I am a good example: Sikh, working class, called to the Bar aged 40, and slightly disabled.
What attributes do you think you need to succeed as a barrister?
First I would say I am too junior to be qualified as a success, but any success is substantially owed to having three brilliant pupil supervisors: Simon Taylor, Gordon Menzies and Mark Beard.
From what I have learned, the following are necessary: courage; humility; quick-thinking; dispassionate commitment; intelligence; good judgement; empathy and analytical thinking. Finally, and above all, the ability to identify and seize upon the numerous opportunities to learn that are presented to you every day.
What would be your top three tips for anyone considering a career change into law?