James Keeley

James Keeley SMA

Tell us about your background and why you decided to become a barrister.

As a result of some bad luck, from the age of 11 until I went to university, I was brought up in abject poverty. For a week or so we had to effectively squat in the council flat that we used to occupy. Furniture was provided by the Church and our gas and electricity was paid for by slot meters. In the last two days before my father received his state pension there would be no money to pay for electricity and heating. I clearly remember studying in candlelight. At one stage I became anorexic, feeling my life was out of control. However, I obtained good O-Level results and went on to study A-Levels. I will never forget the day of my A-Level results, which resulted in an offer to study Law at Kingston. Unfortunately, my father, whose ill health deteriorated considerably while I was doing my A-Levels, died during my first year at university. It was a difficult time as I was an only child and had to support my mother. However, we survived and I graduated. Getting into the Inns of Court School of Law, which was the only Bar course provider at the time, was not easy with a 2:2. However, I managed it. I was called to the Bar on 14 October 1993 - a wonderful day that will stay with me forever. Then followed the long hard road to obtaining pupillage and tenancy.

I have been very fortunate in that I have enjoyed a very successful career at the criminal Bar. I have always tried to fight for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. I hope I have given some sort of voice to the voiceless.

Did you face any obstacles along your journey to becoming a barrister and how did you overcome them? Have any of them persisted since becoming a barrister? 

Putting aside any financial problems, I initially found difficulty in coming from my background to entering a profession where there were very few people that I could relate to. However, the Bar is a very welcoming profession full of extremely hard working, decent and wonderful people.

What opportunities, support and encouragement did you receive along your journey to becoming a barrister? 

Throughout my career I have received encouragement and help from the Bar and the judiciary. Middle Temple gave me financial assistance by way of scholarships.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a barrister; has life at the Bar met your expectations?

Every day, in some way, even when I am tired or feeling stressed, I get to change the world. Whether this be defending or prosecuting cases involving some of the most vulnerable people in society. Always doing my best to ensure that they are treated with courtesy, integrity and respect. Having the courage to stand up and be counted. Above all, meeting friends and colleagues old and new. Most days I still cannot believe how lucky I am to do what I do.

How do you use your experience of coming to the Bar from a non-traditional background to support those seeking to do the same, and/or why is it important for barristers to contribute in this way? 

Through Middle Temple I give mock interviews to people trying to get pupillage and devote a lot of my time giving advocacy lessons. I have served on the scholarship committee and have run the London Marathon on three occasions to raise money for this fund.  In the past I have worked with the Citizenship Foundation and have judged moots at Bar School. I am an elected member of the Bar Council, serve on the Bar Council Equality, Diversity and Social Mobility Committee, am a co-opted member of the Criminal Bar Association Executive Committee and Vice President of Middle Temple's Hall Committee. I am Vice President of a charity for young people called Endeavour. I give speeches at schools about my journey to becoming a barrister. Whenever I can, I offer young men and women the chance to accompany me to court. It is vital that the fight for greater diversity at the Bar continues; I passionately believe that the more open and inclusive the Bar becomes, the better that justice will become.

What are the challenges facing today's aspiring barristers, and how could they be addressed?

Key challenges are money and connections. When I went to university and Bar School my fees were paid and I received a student grant. Even then I was substantially in debt. I am appalled that student grants are no longer given. The cost of tuition both at university and Bar School is unjustly astronomical. Therefore, the scholarships that the Inns provide are a life line to enable those from disadvantaged backgrounds to have a chance of a career at the Bar.

What advice would you give to someone from a non-traditional background, seeking to succeed at the Bar?

In terms of financial assistance, get involved with an Inn as soon as possible - Middle Temple's Access to the Bar Scheme is a very good initiative. Also, research what schemes the Bar Council offers. You might get much-needed financial assistance and also get to meet members of the Bar.

And to the young men and women who may be reading this thinking of the many obstacles in their way, I would like to say this: I am nothing special, I only had the nerve to dream. I have been let and put down many times in my life; however, I have always fought on. Nothing is impossible. Believe in yourself. Knock down the barriers. A life at the publicly funded Bar is not easy. However, after 25 years, I wake up virtually every morning with hope in my heart wanting to do the very best for my client. To me, it still is the best job in the world.

Never stop thinking you can change the world and in some way you will.