Courtney-Leigh: A journey from acting to discovering my love for criminal law
Completing your final year at university is bittersweet, as it leaves you simultaneously excited for the future yet longing for what you have left behind. I have recently finished studying LLB Law at the University of Greenwich, and the realisation that my time at university is over has prompted me to reflect on how far I have come in my personal and career development over the years.
I grew up in a working-class family living in a council flat in Essex. My mum, Sarah, was a teenage mum and a single parent juggling working and childcare, which caused those around us to have low expectations for me. My mum was often told that I would ‘follow in her footsteps’ and amount to nothing, even by members of our own extended family. Sounds pretty harsh, right? Like many people from working-class backgrounds, I did not have the luxury of attending private school, receiving tutoring, or having a wealth of industry connections. Nobody in my family has attended university and I suspect that they were shocked when I made the decision to be the first of us to do so.
In writing my story I hope to inspire prospective and current law students struggling with imposter syndrome or facing obstacles to their career development no matter what those obstacles may be. I was flattered and somewhat surprised when I was asked to write this piece as I am nowhere near the end of my legal journey, in fact I am at the very beginning. But everyone has a story to tell and if mine can help others in similar situations, then I am happy to share it.
Discovering the love of the law:
As is true of most law students, I did not leap out of the womb sporting a curly wig and drafting skeleton arguments. My dream as a child was to pursue a career in the performing arts. From the ages of six to twelve, I performed on West End stages and attended theatre school on weekends. My family worked incredibly hard to make my dreams a reality and funded my musical theatre escapades using every penny they could scrape together. Although it may have meant eating cheesy beans on toast for dinner most nights (a delicacy, may I add), my mum taught me very early on in life that I am valued and my dreams are valid. We may not have been the wealthiest family, but I never went without and I was always cared for.
At secondary school I struggled with bullying quite severely and lost my confidence. I quickly went from performing in front of thousands of people to dreading leaving my home in the mornings. However, this pushed me into truly caring about my education as I studied harder. I found I had a real flair for written subjects such as English, history and religious studies, and my teachers began to encourage me to pursue a more academic career. That was when it was first suggested to me that I possessed many of the key skills to succeed in a legal career. My religious studies teacher had previously practiced as a solicitor and would stay behind with me after class to discuss the profession with me. Fortunately, my experience at secondary school improved somewhat towards the end.
My teacher’s belief in my ability encouraged me to study law at sixth form, which was undoubtedly one of the best choices I ever made. I studied five AS levels: law, psychology, religious studies, medieval history, and English literature. At A level I reduced these subjects to the first three and picked up an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). By day I wrote my EPQ on sentencing theory in the criminal justice system, and by night I became addicted to true crime novels and documentaries. The more I studied law and researched crime, the more invested in entering the profession I became. Baroness Helena Kennedy was my greatest inspiration through A level study – a hard-working woman from a working-class background who went on carve an awe-inspiring career as a barrister. I looked up to her as my role model and I still do to this day.
My law tutor at sixth form pushed me to excel in my studies and even suggested that I apply to Oxbridge. After an arduous interview process, I received an offer from the University of Oxford to read law at Mansfield College. Through some odd twist of fate, I had been allocated to the college at which Baroness Kennedy was the residing principal. Reading that letter was one of the proudest moments of my life and, although a mix-up with my results led to the difficult decision to attend the University of Greenwich, I realised on that day that you are not defined by your background. I had always believed that Oxbridge and similar reputable institutions were for the elite in society only, but I was wrong. There is no doubt that higher education institutions must go further in increasing diversity and accessibility, but you create your own opportunities through hard work and not being afraid to go for it even when you are convinced that you will face rejection.
Life as a university student:
My passion for the criminal law blossomed during my time at university. I excelled in my studies and was involved with numerous law-related student groups, including the Miscarriages of Justice Society. Within a year I had been elected as the publicity officer, and the following year I was elected president. Organising events on wrongful convictions and topical legal issues increased my motivation to work within the criminal law and make a difference. Another significant part of my legal journey at university was volunteering for the Innocence Project London (IPL) where I worked pro-bono on the case of Conroy Smith (a joint enterprise murder case). I gained practical experience of creating bundles, drafting submissions to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and analysing legal documents. Pro-bono experience is possibly the best way to determine if an area of the law is right for you. There is no financial motivation; you simply work pro-bono because you care about your clients and you enjoy the area you are working in. Also, it is important to utilise the employability services offered to you by your university and engage with student-led groups. Most universities, if not all, employ subject-specific employability officers. Reach out to them and take advantage of the range of guest lectures, work placements, employability schemes, mock interviews, mini-pupillages, moots, workshops, certificates, competitions and other available vacancies or opportunities. Most students start university with a fairly unimpressive CV devoid of legal experience. Enhance your employability by making the most of the personal and career development opportunities at your fingertips.
Volunteering for the IPL and undertaking other similar roles revealed that I had a deep interest in the doctrine of joint enterprise and inspired my final year dissertation. I wrote my dissertation on the imposition of the gang narrative in joint enterprise cases, which was a challenging but greatly rewarding experience. I would advise that all students write an extended research essay at some point in their studies even if their course does not require this. Researching and writing my dissertation improved my legal research and academic writing skills drastically and I believe this is something all students could benefit from. My other final year subjects included the law of evidence and advanced criminal law. When choosing your final year options, it is important to consider three things: the area(s) of law you are skilled at, your chosen career path, and, perhaps most importantly, your interests and passions. I may seem a bit bonkers for limiting myself to purely criminal law based options, but my choices reflected the above considerations perfectly. If you study something you love learning about, you will excel in it.
I am expected to graduate university with a first class degree and I am extremely proud of myself for my academic achievements. I suffer from a long-term health condition which meant that attending university and maintaining high grades was at times a struggle. If you are dealing with health issues, or any other concerns which may impact your studies, do not keep silent. This was a mistake I made for a long time because I didn’t want to ask for help and it impacted my performance in my second year. It is really important to reach out to a trusted staff member at university, such as your personal tutor, no matter how scary it is. My other advice for achieving the best grades you can would be to revise harder for the subjects you do not enjoy as much. It sounds fairly obvious, but many students tend to ignore subjects they dislike and will see a dip in their performance as a result. If you struggle with a subject, do not give up. Persevere at it and the results will show. Perhaps you could visit your tutor in their office hours and bring sample essays for feedback or find a more accessible textbook from the library. As an example, I really disliked equity and trusts at the beginning of my final year despite having a fantastic tutor. He provided a wealth of resources and explained topics well, yet I did not feel myself connecting with the subject and was worried that I would fall behind if I became disengaged. As a result, I worked twice as hard on those assignments and participated more in seminars, and I went on to achieve an 80% average. Now, I even find myself enjoying revising the topics. Sometimes an area of the law is not for you – and that is okay! You just have to remind yourself that studying is not a chore. You are putting the hours in because you want to excel in your degree and it will all be worth it at the end.
It is important to remember that, although it may not feel like it at times, you are allowed to have a life at university. These will likely be the best three years of your life and I really encourage you to make the most of them. Of course it is important to maintain good grades and gather experience in your chosen field, but do not do this at the expense of your happiness. Joining a sports team or a non-academic society can be a fantastic way to unwind after a long day of studying. I found myself becoming burned out so I joined my university’s cheerleading squad, the Mermaids, and it had a positive effect on my mental health. I gained 5 hours of extra exercise a week, a new group of friends, and the opportunity to represent my university by competing regionally and nationally. Also, take advantage of extra-curricular and social opportunities which may present themselves. University groups benefit from extraordinarily cheap travel abroad. I have visited Strasbourg, Barcelona, Rimini, and Amsterdam with student societies and sports teams which I would not otherwise have been able to do. These experiences shaped my time at university and allowed me to bond with my peers. Even the smaller things, like trips to local theatres or comedy clubs or going sightseeing, can really make a difference to the student experience.
Looking to the future:
Now that my time at university has drawn to a close, I am facing the terrifying question that every graduate must answer: What on earth do I do now? I have spent the last few months job searching for paralegal or legal assistant roles in criminal law firms, but in truth it has been a difficult search. These jobs are like gold dust and seem very hard to come by without prior paralegal experience. I received an offer to study the LLM in Criminal Justice at Queen Mary University of London which is very exciting. However, I have made the decision to apply for the Bar Practice Course (BPC) with a combined LLM at BPP University. I have been holding myself back from applying to the BPC due to financial concerns but writing this story has convinced me that I must take my own advice and go for it. During lockdown, I have been continuing to engage with employability opportunities, such as developing my LinkedIn presence and attending webinars.
Despite the obstacles in my path, my family and friends have backed me unconditionally and I could not be more grateful. I would not be where I am today if it was not for my loved ones and their unwavering support and encouragement. My mum is my biggest cheerleader; my stepdad my anchor; my partner my rock; and my grandparents my champions. I am grateful to my friends for proof-reading my work, and to my tutors and mentors for always believing in me. I think more than anything it is important to thank the people that got you to where you are today, including yourself. You are the driver of your own success, even with the support from the people that made it possible, and you should give yourself a pat on the back for that at every opportunity.
My mum’s mantra is “if you can dream it, you can achieve it” and reflecting on my story I know that is true. Of course your struggles can impact your progression, and everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) experiences failure and rejection at some point in their life. However, it is important to never lose faith in yourself and your ability to make your dreams become a reality. So yes, I may be a working-class girl in ill-health, but I am so much more than my background and struggles. I am the daughter who makes her mum proud, the successful student, the aspiring barrister, and so many other things... But so are you! You are more than what others perceive you to be. We are lucky to be living in a time where the need for social mobility and equal opportunities is being recognised. YOU write your own story, so make it one that you can look back on and feel proud of yourself for.
Take care and keep chasing your dreams,