See you at the Bar: are you sure you want to be a barrister?

Posted: 29/01/2012 in Barrister, Jury, Pupil barrister, Trainee solicitor
Tags: , , , , , , ,

There are still days when I wonder if I want to be a barrister. I think that’s healthy. If I didn’t question my own professional worth then I’d let ego or destiny take over.

Ego is easy to give in to. There are moments of sheer glory in your wig. Heart stopping moments when a jury announces a not guilty verdict; when your opponent agrees a consent order; where a parole board releases your client. There are moments when people who you hardly know will throw their arms around you; grown men will cry; people will come up and shake your hand congratulating you for a wonderful performance.

It can be like a drug. After all there’s no doubt that we have adrenalin rush moments.

Can you keep a balance between ego and self-confidence? If ego takes over then you will lose professional perspective. If you lose all self-confidence then you’ll lose the confidence of your client, professional and public.

‘Silk-Cut’ , my mentor, is going to be a QC. He’s brilliant, the legal professional press says so. Clients, professional and public, love him. But even he has moments of doubt, gloom for the future.

But he will always tell aspirant barristers if you want it, if you can do it, you will.

Do you want it?

I won’t bore any of you with the statistics. Becoming a barrister is hard. There are more potential pupils then there are pupillages. There are fewer tenancies than there are pupils. The numbers indicate you’re taking a hard route.

But for the moments I mentioned above it is worth it. If I get a result for a client, I imagine it is the same feeling a doctor gets when he cures a patient.

But, the first thing you must remember is not all patients pull through.

Dead on arrival

Some cases that land in your pigeon hole are dead on arrival. The client has no defence or can not make a claim. Can you accept that? Can you accept that no matter what you do you are bound to fail?

For those going toward criminal types of work, the acquittal rate in the Magistrates’ Court is low. In extradition, I have no idea what the discharge rate is  for European Arrest Warrants but I imagine it is very low.

In immigration, asylum is regularly refused from people who come from countries which we cannot imagine living in.

Brave people are given a cold shoulder by the dispassionate law.

Sleep at night

You have to be able to switch off. I lose sleep before big cases, I dream about trials that will never happen. But after a case, I can generally switch off as if I didn’t I’d never be able to focus on the now and the next case.

So, you have to be in one sense as dispassionate as the law is and on the other hand show your client that you care enough to listen to their story.

Mercenary not miracle worker

Barristers especially get described as being mercenaries, going into battle to fight for a client for money. Factually that’s right, but we’re humans too, honestly.

I remember being in a conference room in my old chambers, one of my first cases which really required proper weeks and months of preparation. My client was a 12 year old boy, who was in tears, who didn’t really understand what was happening. His mother was full of anger and hurt. His solicitor full of outrage that things had got so far. I wanted to take that 12 year old boy home, I wanted to go to his school and sort things out. I couldn’t, it’s not my job. I got that boy the result he needed. But that doesn’t mean I’ve solved all his problems, it doesn’t mean that I’ve saved his life.

If you’re a barrister you cannot cure a person of their drugs problem. You cannot take an abused child away from their parent. You can’t erase their past. You can only help mould a moment of their future.

If you want to be a barrister you have to accept that you won’t be able to do everything for everyone.

It’s a rare case that changes the world

A rare case indeed, that would change the world. But some do. So it’s from one extreme to another. At this stage in my career I doubt I’ll ever be potent enough, clever enough, persuasive enough to hold on to a case which can change the world. There are people in my chambers who have had such cases, real moments in British history. I have unlimited respect for them.

Could you ever be strong enough to shoulder that kind of case? And, if you did, could you remember that the case never really belongs to you but to your solicitor and lay client?

Extreme

You know if you want to be a barrister that hours will be long. You know that your finances will be tough. You know you’ll go from ecstasy to agony in the same month, week, sometimes even day.

You can be the golden boy one day and the next you can be out of favour.

Barristers drink too much. Barrister smoke too much. Some eat too much. Some eat too little. Some trade children for fulfilling professional potential. Some can balance everything, never really having a moment for themselves.

Some change history. Some do little more than earn an average living.

Can you?

Risk several years of your life on your wig? By the time you add it all together it’s a decade long commitment to really give it a go from start to early finish.

You might be spat at.

You might be screamed at and insulted. There have been moments when I have walked across a court foyer with everyone’s eyes on me full of hate or distrust. Shoulders back, head up.

You might be dropped by a solicitor for a single tactical choice that you’d still stick to. You might be dropped by chambers because you forgot to shine your shoes one morning. You might not get pupillage because you answered a single question in a way which the panel didn’t quite like.

Do I still want to be a barrister

I still love my job. If I stop loving it I will do something else.

Tick box exercise

If you’re not sure about being a barrister then please don’t take the risk.

Once you’ve ticked all the boxes

x Don’t mind job insecurity

x Don’t mind financial insecurity

x Don’t mind long hours

x Like travel

x Like the public

x Like the law

Then tick a final box. Can you adopt the mentality of a barrister?

FTD

Comments
  1. As an aspiring Barrister, when I read this I felt as though it was aimed at me personally. But no, I fully understand, these are the warnings that one must be aware of before they embark upon one of the most challenging careers out there. With regards to the checklist: I tick all of them. Although I would be keen to add a few more requirements to that checklist, if I may say so myself.

    Yes it is a risk. Yes it is a gamble. If one aspires to become a Barrister, one must be more than 110% certain that they are aware of what the life of a Barrister entails. Remember one thing: undertake work experience. I have found it invaluable to constantly visit courts, meet Barristers, speak to Pupils, attend open days, undertake a diverse range of mini-pupillages. This is not a profession that can be entered with a blind-eye. If Shakespeare were alive, he would note that: a blind-eye would be the fatal flaw that may possibly cause the downfall of an aspiring Barrister.

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  3. Mike Gleeson says:

    A good read and particularly apt for my own personal situation (having recently left the relative security of the English Bar and re-qualified in New South Wales, Australia).

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