Ellen Brennan: from a Bristol graduate to Pupil Barrister with the Crown Prosecution Service

Hi, I’m Ellen. I studied LLB Law from 2015 to 2018 at Bristol, where I developed a real interest in criminal justice.

A picture of Ellen, the author, smiling,

Modules such as Rich Law, Poor Law and Jurisprudence encouraged me to think about the practical implications of law and the (in)justice these perpetuate for everyday people

As a student leader in the Human Rights Law Clinic, I gained experience working alongside lawyers on a project to encourage compliance with the UN OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture) on behalf of the African Commission. This developed my interest in using law to achieve positive societal change.

By my third year, I realised that the corporate law path was not for me and that I wanted to use my legal skills to help improve the criminal justice system (CJS). When I saw the advert for the Unlocked Graduates programme, I was drawn to its vision of reducing reoffending by working directly with prisoners, whilst also being able to work towards a fully-funded master’s qualification.

On the Unlocked Graduates programme, I worked as an Operational Prison Officer in a young offender institution with 15 to 18-year-old boys for two years. To date, it was the most challenging and simultaneously rewarding experience of my life. I worked both on a standard wing and the complex care unit with young people who were unable to mix with the main population. This gave me experience working with a variety of different individuals and allowed me to develop some transformative working relationships with the young people in my care. For instance, as a custodial support officer, I was able to deliver interventions with a young person who couldn’t mix with others. Through setting targets and goals, they were gradually able to mix in a group setting and address some of the behaviours which had led to their offending.

Alongside my duties as a Prison Officer, I was able to influence policy through a variety of projects with Unlocked Graduates. I co-authored a policy paper for HMPPS (His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service) on reducing gang violence in prisons and completed a research-based MSc dissertation. This explored the impact of staff practice on young offenders and how therapeutic interventions embedded into landing practice could help better tackle reoffending. This was part of the fully-funded Masters in Custodial Leadership which all Unlocked Graduates complete during their two years on the Programme.

I also completed a work placement with the Criminal Justice Alliance where I collaborated on policy projects within the wider CJS on issues such as diversity, employment for prison leavers and improvements to the Victims’ Rights Act. This really helped open my eyes to the wealth of areas within the CJS which need reform.

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After finishing the Unlocked Graduates programme, I knew that I wanted to utilise both my legal training and frontline experience to advocate for individuals within the CJS.

I decided to apply for the Barrister Training Course and was fortunate enough to receive an offer to study with BPP University. The collection of my experiences both at Unlocked and Bristol enabled me to develop a strong skill set to advocate for individuals, and most importantly reinforced my desire to help change the CJS.

Having successfully finished the BPTC (Bar Professional Training Course), I am due to start pupillage at the end of the month with the Crown Prosecution Service. I am excited to utilise my skills and experiences to work in a different side of the CJS and continue to support individuals in achieving justice.

My advice for undergraduates wanting to pursue a career in Law:

  • Get frontline experience – not necessarily in prison but working with people. I was surprised in interviews for my pupillage by how valued my experience of working in prisons was received.
  • Try it – if you get the opportunity to do policy work, (whether that be on projects at university or as work experience) do it. It makes you think more practically about the law’s impact and helps you develop better decision-making skills.
  • Develop your interests – there is a lot of media out there on a range of CJS and it is amazing how many issues are interconnected.
  • Don’t be afraid of sharing your ideas/ passions – talk about these in interviews. Employers in this field want people who want to make an impact!

Applications are now open for the Unlocked Graduates Programme.

Find more information on the Unlocked Graduates website.

Please get in touch with their Recruitment Officer, Iona, at iona.thompson@unlockedgrads.org.uk if you have any questions.