After graduating from Oxford University in 2016 with a degree in PPE , Alexandra Wilson pursued a career at the Bar. Wilson is now a criminal and family law barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill and is a member of the Criminal Bar Association Social Mobility Committee. She has recently been given a portrait in University College and shares her experiences on her blog, Essex to Oxford.
For those who don’t know, could you sum up your background and career to date?
I’m a mixed-race, 24 (nearly 25 – eek) year old who grew up in East London/ Essex and went to state schools. I read PPE at Univ before doing a law conversion and being called to the Bar. I’m now a barrister specialising in Criminal and Family law. That’s me in a nutshell!
Your portrait was recently added to the Young Univ Gallery. What did that represent to you?
Whilst I loved a lot of things about Univ, it was also really difficult as a student. There didn’t seem to be anyone like me – from my area, my school or from my background. I also couldn’t see any role-models around that looked like me and it really added to my imposter syndrome. Having my portrait in the Young Univ Gallery is surreal. I hope that people see me, and it inspires them to think that if I can do it, they can too.
What inspired you to begin your blog?
I initially began my blog to try and demystify Oxford and to give people an insight into my experience there and encourage others to apply. I left Oxford and remember wishing that I had been better prepared for what to expect and thought that writing a blog might help others who find themselves in a similar situation.
What drives your dedication to promote social mobility? What do you think is the biggest barrier to this in education and the legal profession?
There are so many fantastic people out here with a diverse array of experiences and they are still struggling to enter top universities or the legal profession. I know how tough it can be to break into ‘elite’ institutions, particularly when you aren’t from a ‘traditional’ background. Oxford provided me with an excellent university education and I learnt so much and this opportunity should not just be afforded to those who are born more privileged. The same applies to the Bar, I love my career and people’s unique life experiences bring so much more to the profession than if people are only recruited from certain backgrounds.
I don’t know if there is a single ‘biggest barrier’, there are still multiple barriers. State schools often discourage students from applying to top universities. Young people from particular backgrounds might not have the role models or ‘contacts’ that others do. A legal education is still very expensive!
As a member of the CBA (Criminal Bar Association) Social Mobility Committee, do you feel that enough is currently being done to promote access to the Criminal Bar?
I think more could always be done but the CBA are doing a great job at the moment. We currently get involved with open days for the public and conduct mock trials and have a stand explaining what we do at the Criminal Bar Association. We also get involved with talks at universities and the CBA has strong presence on social media platforms such at Twitter.
I think the next steps are to be more active in encouraging people from a diverse range of backgrounds to consider a career at the Criminal Bar. We could be visiting schools and universities more and mentoring young people. It’s difficult because we are self-employed and these things require people to take days out of their work diary but it is so important for the future of the Bar.
Do you see the profession changing over the next ten years? If so, how?
Absolutely. I’ve only just joined the profession and I have already seen some big changes. Last year my Inn held its first ever Black History month event. I was lucky to be a panel member and I am returning this year for a second time, this time as a tenant! I am also part of the Women in Criminal Law network that was recently established to encourage women across the Bar, from the most junior to the most senior. There is mentoring for students who want to join the profession, as well as mentoring for senior barristers who are considering taking silk or joining the judiciary. These changes are significant and already show the progress being made to improve diversity within the profession.
Increasingly in the media, we are hearing from successful women who still feel as though they are a fraud in some way. Have you ever suffered from imposter syndrome and, if so, how do you combat these feelings?
I have suffered from imposter syndrome and still sometimes do! I’ve recently been taken on as a tenant at my chambers and I am still pinching myself. It really helps to have supportive people around you who not only celebrate your achievements but continue to push you to achieve more.
On the other hand, my family ensure that I stay humble! I come from a very hardworking family and they are all huge inspirations to me. We all support each other and even when I do have my moments of doubt, they are there to remind me how much hard work I have put in over the years.
Some of the coverage of the recent Supreme Court decision (that the suspension of Parliament was unlawful) seemed to focus on Baroness Hale’s broach and her once held position as a barmaid. How did you view this?
It was disappointing that there was so much focus Baroness Hale’s brooch at a time when she was giving judgment in one of the most important cases in British political history. In a similar way, describing her as an ex-barmaid appeared to be an attempt to diminish her achievements but, in my view, had quite the opposite effect. The article showed that the greatest judge of our country once worked as a barmaid and I think that unintentionally the article promoted social mobility. The clickbait headline, for me, just showed that if Lady Hale can do it, why can’t we?
Finally, do you have any advice for young people considering Oxford and/or a career at the Bar?
Don’t ever create your own glass ceiling. There are loads of organisations that are there to help people make the first steps and I would definitely recommend trying to find a mentor who has been where you want to be. You need to be prepared to work hard because both Oxford and the Bar are demanding. There might be set backs along the way but if you really want it, don’t give up. If I can do it, you can too.