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From Bombay HC to London’s Royal Courts of Justice: Karishma Vora’s long journey to become an English barrister

Karishma Vora
Karishma Vora

Scores of Indian lawyers have made the transition from India to become English solicitors. However, Karishma Vora’s path to becoming a barrister in the UK from the Bombay high court is much rarer and more arduous, taking her three years. Legally India asked her how it’s done.

Vora started her career in Mumbai after graduating from GLC Mumbai in 2006, worked at the chambers of senior counsel Janak Dwarkadas, at Wadia Ghandy and the chambers of counsel Zal Andhyarujina.

However, after moving to London in 2009, it took her the better part of three years to qualify as a barrister in London.

Unsurprisingly, the experience of the Indian Supreme Court’s senior counsel Harish Salve, who will be fast-tracked to the English bar with the help of Blackstone Chambers, is atypical.

Vora explains that while it is indeed possible for an Indian lawyer to become a barrister in the UK, the massive bottleneck in the English system is the availability of traineeships – called pupillages – and workplaces for young barristers.

“It was an extremely tedious process,” she says. She had applied as a “transferring barrister” from another Commonwealth jurisdiction, which exempted her from the one-year Bar Professional Training Course (or Bar Vocational Course, as it used to be called).

To benefit from the exemption she had to produce detailed career and case references right from the very beginning, demonstrating her litigating and specialised experience, and a character certificate from the Maharashtra bar council, which she had to pick up in person from Mumbai.

However, exemption from the Course also meant that unlike traditional English barristers-to-be, she had to cram for the qualifying exam without any tutelage.

Ironically, the ancient ritual of dining at Inns of Courts came to her rescue. Budding English barristers are required to go for 12 dinners, literally, at one of the four Inns of Courts in London.

“Friends at these sessions helped me through the exam, and they would pass their notes to me, various test exam papers, and the syllabus.”

The system is often decried as archaic, but Vora says that “it’s actually very useful”.

“I’m totally for it - I would encourage a system like that in India as well. Bookish knowledge is one thing but you do really learn from your seniors. Life is too short to make all the mistakes and learn from them.”

And also the advocacy training is very rigorous, she explained. “At Middle Temple there is a [two day to] two week advocacy training course, which is compulsory to pass in and do well in.”

Her Indian qualification also shaved six months off the length of pupillage, which normally takes one-year. And the Bar Council of England & Wales also waived the requirement to apply for a pupillage one-and-a-half years in advance during a three week window that chambers advertise. As such, she was allowed to approach and apply to chambers directly.

But this would prove to be the hardest part of the ordeal.

“Getting pupillage is actually almost impossible,” claims Vora. And in fairness, that’s the case even for the stereotypical commercial barrister, who is still more often than not a white male with a public school education from Oxbridge.

She recounts a speech of the under-treasurer of her Inns of courts, ceremoniously congratulating the batch on getting called to the bar, then adding that everyone should keep an “open mind” because “95 per cent of you will actually not make it as a barrister”. “My family attended the ceremony and was shocked,” says Vora.

“It is much easier to qualify as a solicitor than as a barrister. They [solicitors] have to do something called the training contract but of course there are so many more solicitors than barristers, probably 20 fold or more. And therefore it is much easier to get into a solicitors firm than a barristers chamber.”

Her experience is backed by the Bar Council’s figures. A total of 2,865 wannabe barristers applied to only 444 pupillages in 2011 – a success ratio of only 16 per cent. Out of those, more than 55 per cent went to men, at least 78 per cent of pupils were white and more than a third came from Oxford or Cambridge.

Though she concedes it might have been easier if, instead of aiming for the commercial bar, she had opted to become a barrister in a less competitive area, such as criminal, immigration or family law.

Nevertheless, Vora got a lucky break, at least partially, in a pupillage at Fountain Court Chambers, which she calls “England’s leading set in banking and financial”. However, that offer did not include an offer of tenancy – in order to practice, all barristers after pupillage must work in a chambers of barristers in order to be allowed to appear before court.

“I was told about that before I started my pupillage – but of course I had to take chances, because it’s impossible to break into the system otherwise.”

She was advised to apply for a so-called “third six” pupillage, traditionally for those who did not secure tenancy directly after the first pupillage. “I would look at least every week for a third six pupillage. But for the first seven months I was looking, there were no third sixes. Just two – including one in Liverpool.”

As far as Vora recalls, during her avid networking about the process she didn't bump into any other Indian qualified lawyers who had managed to make the transition to tenancy, although she remembers three who scored a pupillage but failed to secure tenancy. One eventually moved to an international law firm in Singapore, two others returned to Mumbai.

Vora, meanwhile, joined the litigation department of English law firm Fladgate as a foreign-qualified lawyer for just over a year until finally, in August 2013 after continuously applying for a tenancy to complete her transformation to barrister, she was accepted as a tenant at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square Chambers.

So far she says she’s had some good experience in London.

Her first cases have included a construction dispute, and on the advice of her heads of chambers telling her it would be useful, representing the UK government in appeals against visa rejections in order to gain valuable experience.

“The quality of advocacy is very high and that of course is because it’s just so hard to get in, and there’s so much training we have to go through and so much advocacy training that is compulsory before we can just make our first appearance.”

And for the most part, the quality of judges has been “phenomenal”, according to Vora. “They know the changes in law and are aware of the latest judgments. They don’t need to be explained from scratch – they get straight to the point and straight to the law.”

To be fair, compared to Bombay, the work load of a London judge is very different. Having shadowed a Court of Appeal judge before her tenancy, she recounts that he had only four matters on board that week with only two full reading days.

So, at the end of one path and the beginning of another, would she do it again?

“I would have never left Bombay, if I had a clue,” she admits about the arduous process. “I would have never left Bombay, because I just really enjoyed the Bombay high court and the camaraderie – it is a great court to be at.”

So why did she go through all this pain? “For the love of advocacy actually,” says Vora. “It’s been such a high to feel the pressure in preparation before going into court. And the fight. And interruptions from the other side. And just making it. You just get the high.”

Note 29 January 2018: This article was updated to reflect Karishma Vora having changed her name.

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