I think a lot of criminal barristers are probably failed actors or wannabe actors. Amateur dramatics was always part of my childhood. There was a natural progression on to becoming a barrister. Also, my teacher, now a friend, was a magistrate at that time, so part of my work experience was seeing what magistrates do. I thought it was an interesting job where you’re in control of your own time and your own diary.
This has its pitfalls but it’s also quite exciting to be able to plan your week as you want to. Those really were two of the main reasons why I wanted to be a criminal barrister. I wanted to do a job I thought mattered – looking after people’s lives and livelihoods.
One of the best aspects of the job is meeting different people. Every day you go to a different court, in every case you meet a different person, you get to know them. I love working with different people, so that’s pretty special. There aren’t that many jobs where you get constant interaction with the public and with that comes reward. I wouldn’t say winning defines success, but more when your client thinks you’ve done a good job. Sometimes a good result doesn’t mean getting the right result for your client. However, if they think you’ve fought their corner well then that can be rewarding in itself.
One major challenge is time pressure. For example, you might pick up a brief at 8pm the night before and you’re in front of a court at 9am the next morning. You need to learn to burn the candles at both ends. Also, the financial rewards aren’t great. That’s been in the press a lot. I remember my days as a pupil criminal barrister and just about having enough money to pay rent. It’s extremely challenging for a younger Bar member.
One of the main crossover points is that when you’re doing criminal law, you’re looking after people who are in very stressful situations. They could lose their liberty and you’re representing them. As I mentioned, you’ve got to earn your client’s trust quickly. If you think about the rugby pitch, you’ve got 15 people who you might meet an hour before the match. Then you’re making decisions that affect their careers and livelihoods. They’ve got to trust that you’re making the right decisions, so it’s about building those relationships quickly.
Whether it’s giving a penalty in front of 80,000 at Twickenham, or making a snap decision to ask a certain question to a witness, you’ve got to trust your instinct a little bit. People may think the two are not related, but there’s a huge crossover. The advocacy I use in the courtroom is very similar to the chat I have on the rugby pitch. That’s all down to preparation. When you think about being on a rugby pitch, you don’t want something to jump out at you that you’ve not considered before. Preparation is particularly important in both cases. A barrister is never under-prepared!
You manage your time by juggling! I’ve got a very understanding wife. I’ve got a little daughter who doesn’t see her Dad as often as she should. But now that I’ve made the switch from self-employed to employed at Fulcrum Chambers, I have more control of my diary, rather than waiting for a case to come into the Crown Court. I know that if I need to do 15 hours a week or 20 hours a week, I can do that from home. Or I can do that on an aeroplane on the way to New Zealand to referee a match. I’m in control a bit more.
But sometimes you don’t spend enough time with your family or concentrating on a case. You’ve just got to make sure you’re aware of how you manage your time. Eventually the rugby will finish and I’ll go back to Fulcrum Chambers, doing this for more than the 15 or 20 hours I’m doing at the moment.
One of the skills you learn very quickly is how to be succinct. You might have to pick up a lever arch file of papers and be able to summarise that for a judge the next morning in a paragraph. That’s one thing that I learned very quickly. If you start going off on a tangent the judge will quickly pull you in. As you gain more experience, you’ll learn how to get to the point if you’re reading a 30-page witness statement. You’ll need to understand the key points and questions for cross-examination.
Another skill you’ll need, which is often overlooked, is building relationships. You may go down to a cell twenty minutes before a hearing – and this might be the first time you meet a client. You’ve got to get them to trust you pretty quickly, and convince them that you’re doing the best for them.
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