Joel Semakula

Oxford Law Alumnus

Picture of Joel Semakula

A brief biography of yourself and a summary of your career so far.

I completed the Law with Senior Status course at Mansfield College as a second degree. I am now a barrister at Landmark Chambers specialising in property, planning, environmental, public and commercial law. However, I have had a few jobs in the Law. In the year before pupillage, I was a legal intern in Shell International’s Global Litigation Team. Prior to that, I was a Judicial Assistant to Lady Justice Gloster (as she then was) and Lord Justice David Richards at the Court of Appeal. I also had a career before the Law, as a (now reformed) investment banker with a global bank in New York City.

What attracted you to a career in Law?

As a child, I was always fascinated by the Law. Nine year old me loved “The Bill” and dreamt of being a police officer. My family will tell you that I spent hours, as a teenager (and still do), watching legal tv shows (Law and Order SVU for the win).  While those tv lawyers may have played a small role, my real inspiration was my year ten work experience. I spent two weeks as a clerk in the Chambers of Mr Wilfred Forster Jones: a barristers’ set with a black male Head of Chambers! Beyond my basic clerking duties (which 15 year old me took very seriously), I read and analysed case papers and accompanied some of the barristers to court. I remember once sitting in a murder trial and watching in awe as the barrister conducted a devastating cross examination. I knew this was what I wanted to do, but realised it had to be in an area that made me much less squeamish.

How has your time in Oxford influenced your career path? Have you had the career you planned or has it evolved over time?

The truth is, I left investment banking knowing I wanted to come to the Bar. As I looked at the profiles of most of the sets in which I was interested, I was acutely aware that few of the barristers looked like me and the majority of those that did and had “made it”, had done a stint at Oxbridge. At the time, I felt that this was a necessary part of securing pupillage and carving out a successful career at the top end of the commercial/chancery Bar. Today, I do not feel like that is necessarily the case but I would not blame a student for thinking so following a perusal of new tenants at the top sets. While at Oxford, my tutor nominated me for the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship, through which I secured a training contract and explored the other side of the profession. In the end, my time at Oxford and the tutorial system confirmed that that Bar was definitely where I wanted to be. Having switched from investment banking, to teaching, to working in-house to the Bar, I can definitely say my career has evolved over time.

What has been the biggest challenge in your career to date?

For me, it was securing pupillage. It took me three years to secure the offer although I made it as a reserve candidate (always the bridesmaid) with a number of the top Chambers’ more times than anyone else I have come across (seven). Keeping on going required an ability to bounce back from rejection, resilience to give it another go and commitment to achieving this dream. I am fortunate enough that I received heavy moral support from my Mansfield tutors and financial support from Gray’s Inn, which made it much more possible that I could indeed keep going.

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

Lean into discomfort, as that is when you will learn the most. During your 20s focus on learning around great peers and bosses. There is plenty of time to make money.

If you could improve one thing about the law profession, what would it be?

The lack of diversity at the top of the profession and the judiciary. This is disheartening for those of us coming through the system. The answer cannot be “we are a true meritocracy.”

Anything else you would like to share?

The Bar is a challenging profession to get into. I know this puts many students off, especially when you look at the security being offered by some of the top commercial law firms rightfully looking to recruit top talent. However, if it works out, this really is the most interesting job I have ever had and I do hope more students, particularly from non-traditional backgrounds, are inspired to join me.

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