At 24, Joel Semakula woke up one day in his New York apartment and decided he was changing careers.
He had been an investment banker in New York City, the US, for a few years then. It was a job he’d taken up after finishing a degree in Economics and Political Science at the University of North Carolina.
The money was good and the future looked bright. But Semakula was not happy. He knew by following a career in finance, he was not being true to himself. Deep down, he knew he wanted to be a lawyer. A barrister to be specific. He’d known this since he was 15.
“What is a barrister?” you might wonder. Well, in the UK, there are two types of lawyers: solicitors and barristers. Put simply, barristers tend to practise as specialist advocates representing clients in court, whereas solicitors tend to perform the majority of their legal work in a law firm or office setting. In the modern world, while the two sides have clear separate functions, they often work together as part of a larger legal team to solve their client’s problems.
Throughout school, Semakula was an avid debater. He knew it, his teachers knew it and friends knew it. He never shied away from an argument. He had always been excited by the idea of engaging in intellectual warfare. And why not? He had always been a straight-A student and, therefore, had the brain for this kind of thing.
But sometimes life is like a ship. It needs constant navigation owing to the winds that keep pushing at it constantly. If you look away long enough, you can dangerously veer off course. Semakula had looked away long enough to find himself in the finance world.
“At the end of 6th Form, I turned down an offer to study Law at Oxford (much to the disdain of my Ugandan mother) to take up the Morehead-Cain Scholarship at the University of North Carolina,” he writes in one of his online articles.
Semakula took up a finance job in New York, where he enjoyed developing his financial technical skills and working in an environment that has such a high calibre of colleagues, clients and work. However, the job exerted too much pressure and left little room for life outside of work; it is then Semakula remembered his first love. His time with the finance job had to be cut short.
“It confirmed that the next step for me was the English Bar,” he says.
Such is the way the gifted Ugandan gave up investment banking in New York and enrolled at the University of Oxford to study Law.
At 26, Semakula completed the degree and undertook the Bar Professional Training Course. He made it through all of the necessary exams and qualifying sessions in order to be called to the Bar. And then, something really special happened to him.
At age 27, Baroness Hale of Richmond called Semakula to the bar, a day before she became the first female president of the UK Supreme Court. One of the highlights of Semakula’s year as a student barrister was the ability to develop a relationship with a very accomplished person in the game.
“This was a very big deal to myself and my family because not only did it make me an unregistered barrister, it also meant I was well on the route of getting full rights of audience in the courts,” he says.
At 29 (which was last year), Semakula started his pupillage. This is the final and hardest stage of qualification for becoming a barrister. When his pupillage ends this month, he will become a registered barrister with full rights at the age of 30. A Ugandan English barrister.
“I would attribute this achievement to my ambition, incredible support system of my family and friends, resilience and the ability to pass way more exams than anyone should put himself through,” he says with a spoonful of wit.
Not for the faint-hearted
For a smart man like Semakula, you’d think he has had it easy on his journey to become a barrister.
“It took me three years, 45 applications, 30 first round interviews, 18 final round interviews, seven reserve spots and 41 rejections to get pupillage,” Semakula says.
Pupillage is the final hands-on training before a solicitor becomes a barrister. It is not for the faint-hearted. Neither is it for the knuckleheads. You must have a sumptuous measure of brains and resilience working in concert or you won’t handle. Semakula has more than enough of both.
“Very strong academic credentials are a necessity for becoming a barrister because our role is very intellectually demanding. Had I not excelled in school, I am very sure I would not be where I am today. This hard work also prepared me for the demands of working for my clients. When they pay for my work, they expect the best and these high expectations were drilled into me from school (and at home),” he says.
Semakula adds that it is not uncommon in the profession for applicants to try and fail for multiple years prior to securing that coveted pupillage.
“There are many talented people that give it their everything every year and never make it across that threshold,” he says.
Some of those who never make it as barristers switch to the other side of the profession and qualify as solicitors. Others find alternative work in the Law or leave the field altogether.
Within this split profession, the barrister relies on the solicitor for work. When the solicitor comes across a complicated or highly contentious case that may require the barrister’s specialist skills, the Bar is where he or she turns for assistance. The solicitor will pay top dollar for this service. The barrister thus has two clients: the solicitor who is his professional client and you and I, who are his lay clients.
In his short legal path, Semakula has worked in Shell International’s global litigation team, providing legal support to various Shell entities on a range of legal matters across a range of geographies. He has also worked as a judicial assistant to Lady Justice Gloster, who, at the time, was the vice president of the Court of Appeal (Civil Division).
“I thoroughly enjoyed these roles and found that I thrived in them. I am just starting out as a barrister and was very excited to receive an offer of tenancy in July to join Landmark Chambers as a full member at the end of my pupillage,” he says.
Asked if he’s just a natural at this legal thing, he says: “I think it is too early to say whether I am a natural. I do really enjoy being a lawyer - it suits my brain and aligns with the impact I want to have on the world. I definitely have ambitions of becoming a QC (Queen’s Counsel) one day.”
Semakula moved from Uganda to the UK when he was one. He’s an only boy in a family of five children. His parents are teachers and so committing to excelling in school and attending university was never an option. He grew up in East London in an immigrant community.
“Growing up where we did, life could have gone quite a few ways. And not all were desirable. I knew if I was going to ‘make it,’ I was going to have to work incredibly hard and chart my own path. Despite some setbacks along the way, I am really happy with how it is all working out,” he says.
Semakula believes he is where he is today because his family has always been so supportive of his big dreams. They sent him to fantastic state-funded schools where he was able to meet and learn from some of the best teachers by his admission.
“I have a lot of family in Uganda and regularly return. As I develop my legal practice, I am hoping to be a contributor to the East African arbitration legal market. Uganda is one of my homes and that is why I have been so happy to do this interview,” he says.
Semakula’s biggest passion outside of work is comedy. He has been performing as an improv comedian for more than five years now, across the UK. He is hoping to dabble more in the world of stand-up over this coming year.