Inspirational Woman: Jessica Powers | Barrister, New Square Chambers

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role:

My name is Jessica Powers, and I am a barrister at New Square Chambers specialising in insolvency, company and commercial work.

I grew up in a small town just outside Birmingham. My parents both left school to enter vocational careers (my dad in engineering, and my mom in catering), although my mom later went to college for tertiary education after my sister and I were born. My only real insight into a legal career came from my mom being a magistrate. I undertook work experience at the Magistrates’ Court and the Crown Court in my early teens, and then went on to work as a paralegal during my gap year and to gain more Bar-specific work experience. I studied English at the University of York, before moving to London to undertake my GDL (law conversion course) and BPTC (Bar course). I secured pupillage at a Chambers in Inner Temple during my GDL year. I started pupillage in 2012, and developed an interest in insolvency and commercial law. I moved to New Square Chambers in 2018, and have continued to build a practice with a focus on insolvency, company and commercial law.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I decided that I wanted to be a barrister at a very young age for the classic reasons: I was a voracious reader, I loved a debate, and I liked what I saw of the profession on TV programmes. To that extent my career was planned: I knew what work experience I needed to obtain throughout my teenage years, and university studies, and researched how to become a barrister. Every step I took was self-motivated: I didn’t have the benefit of knowing any barristers or judges, or having any “inside information”.

I certainly did not intend to end up doing the type of work I do now. I applied for pupillage intending to undertake employment and public law work. Frankly, I knew nothing about corporate structures, insolvency, or commercial deals until I started pupillage.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

I consider myself to have been extremely lucky in reaching where I am. Perhaps it is just looking back with rose-tinted glasses, but I have always been backed by my family and friends (perhaps because they didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into!), and have been fortunate to receive significant financial support from Inner Temple, the law school which I attended and the Chambers where I obtained pupillage (essentially meaning my legal education was free).

I don’t think that the challenges I have faced have been any greater than any other person trying to obtain pupillage and forge a career at the Bar.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I think my biggest career achievement was probably succeeding in an appeal to the Court of Appeal in 2020 in a case which considered a fairly significant point of insolvency procedural law. It was my first time appearing in the Court of Appeal, with the added stress of it being the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I made sure that I had time to spend days meticulously researching the law and preparing my submissions. Perversely, I very much enjoyed the experience of being tested by some of the finest legal minds on the Bench, and it was, of course, wonderful to achieve a fantastic outcome for my client.

I am also proud of the changes and initiatives that I have implemented in the last few years to help others from socially mobile backgrounds to realise their dreams of a career at the Bar. It is all too easy to be selfish in this career, with your focus entirely on the next case, the next billings target, or the next career achievement, particularly when you are already struggling to have a healthy work/life balance. Ensuring that I can help others, just as I was helped, is fundamentally important to me. I feel a particularly strong obligation to not pull the drawbridge up, and to give a helping hand to those who otherwise wouldn’t view the Bar as a realistic career.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Absolutely failing to recognise that there are any limitations on what I can achieve!

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

Mentoring is incredibly important, especially for those who have no other way into what can be perceived as something of a “closed-shop” profession. I have formally mentored a number of students over the past few years through the Inner Temple mentoring scheme, in addition to providing ad hoc support and advice to anyone who asks for it. The mentoring I provide involves giving general career advice, as well as more specific assistance, such as reviewing CVs and applications and conducting mock interviews.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

Eradicating gender-based assumptions, whether they be about who should shoulder the burden of caring responsibilities, the suitability of someone for a particular case or piece of work, or anything else.

The Bar is perhaps renowned, sometimes undeservedly, for having a very “traditional” attitude. There have been a number of reports in recent years looking at the female experience at the Bar, and noting, for example, that women are paid less across the board, and are less likely to be in senior positions at the Bar or on the Bench. I think part of the reason for these discrepancies is gender-based assumptions: you still hear stories of clerks assuming that a female barrister won’t return to work after having a child, or of solicitors using coded language (such as “aggressive”) to request a male barrister for a big trial.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Everything happens for a reason. Generally, things will turn out fine in the end.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

In the very short term, having my first child in July and taking four months off work to learn how to raise a small human!

In the longer term, continuing to raise my profile, and take on higher value, more complex and more interesting cases. I do have aspirations to apply for silk in the future, and might also consider applying for a part-time judicial post.

I also intend to carry on the work I am doing to help increase social mobility at the Bar and have a few ideas that I will hopefully have time to implement in the coming years.

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