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‘If At First You Don’t Succeed, Just Give Up’

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Accepting you’re not going to get a pupillage can take more courage than blindly persisting with your barrister dream, writes Gemma Amran

This year was going to be a different. I could feel it.

I had been working in EU criminal justice policy at the European Commission in Brussels for the last year. After three years of applying for pupillage, having achieved accolades from my Inn and during my legal studies, interned at human rights NGOs and at the UN, done mini-pupillages, volunteered at legal advice centres and worked for legal charities, surely this was my time…

My road to pupillage began in 2006. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and felt the law tug at me. I was always keen on human rights: I remember thinking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the best thing since sliced bread when I first came across it at the age of 14. Eight years on, I decided that I wanted to work in this field – and for me the best way to do so was to become a barrister.

I conjured up romantic fantasies of me standing up in court, fighting fearlessly for my client. It was not just the courtroom drama which excited me. People who I found inspiring, like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were once lawyers, and look at what they did for human rights.

This year, I had arrogantly convinced myself that my favourite human rights chambers would at least give me an interview (two of them had done so in the past) and that I would finally nail it. I felt at my most confident. But it wasn’t to be. Still, after submitting 15 pupillage applications, I at least managed to get one interview at another set.

I realised I had nothing left to lose. For this single interview I dared to be different. I answered questions true to my convictions rather than saying what I thought the panel would like to hear. I even wore a smart red dress rather than a sombre suit. Although the panel did not entirely agree with my arguments, I felt that they at least respected my judgement. For what it’s worth, they complimented me on wearing something other than black. I came out of that interview proud of myself.

I didn’t get the pupillage.

Along with the knocks of failure comes clarity. After over 40 pupillage applications and five previous interviews, I have started to accept the possibility that I may not become a practising barrister. My road to pupillage may be coming to an end but that does not mean that my dreams of living a fulfilling life end with it.

There is quite a lot out there about barristers successfully changing direction in their legal careers or leaving the law altogether. However, there is very little on those who never practised in the first place. I know they exist – I am one of them – and I know they are not in the minority. I would like to know what they are doing now and whether they are pursuing enjoyable careers, whether within the legal field or outside? Hopefully, for people in my position our chances to have great careers do not end just because we did not get pupillage.

I was once told, “If at first you don’t succeed, just give up”. In an age where we are indoctrinated to keep trying, to keep persisting and to keep fighting, this mantra is hard to swallow. Yet sometimes, it takes more courage to give up and move on than to hold on to something which perhaps was never meant to be – and which could be preventing me from following my true path.

Gemma Amran is a national agency desk officer at the department of education and culture of the European Commission