Congratulate me. I have just turned 40. No, not my age regrettably, but my years in private practice as an English barrister.
40 years doing the ‘same job’ got me thinking about what it is to be a barrister, how it has changed over the years, and importantly, what tips I can share concerning survival.
As one of the bar’s ‘senior juniors’ – an oxymoronic term used to describe ‘old barristers who have never ‘taken silk’ – I remember the days of drafty court rooms that existed in almost every town, where the judge would arrive at 10.30, to leave for home as soon as a trial finished or collapsed. As barristers, we were a small band of 6,000 – mostly in London, and generally knew everyone who worked on the circuit. We travelled the circuit, appearing at a variety of courts, often in very different cases. It was commonplace to see the same opponent in civil, criminal, regulatory, family and even chancery cases. We did what came up.
Clearly, those days have passed, just as old courts have closed. Today, we are specialists, new entrants to the bar sometimes only experiencing one area of practice.
So that leads me to my first tip.
Experience life outside your specialist field. I accept that the days of general practice have passed and gone, that we are pressed into ever increasing specialisation, but with this comes two fatal flaws to excellence as an advocate. The first is the reduction of transferrable skills. Just as advocates in criminal cases do not gain regular exposure to the need for rigorous intellectual crafting of argument based on complex law, the civil practitioners finds themselves weak when it comes to the art of persuasion. Those practicing in family law (unless they have High Court and appeal practices) are frequently denied both, to wobble around with sentences like “mum says…”…and “wouldn’t you agree that contact went well?”.
Moving between disciplines over 40 years, I have been impressed and amazed at the relevance of transferrable skills between one specialist field and another, enhancing practice in each area and enriching the experience of being a barrister.
My second tip is ‘think condom’. Engaged in numerous high-level police corruption trials and hearings, my advice to the most senior police officers has been ‘protect yourself – prepare and record in anticipation of a public inquiry in 4 years’. Some listened, and survived. Others failed to heed, and were eventually dismissed or discredited. The same goes for barristers. Just round the corner is the surprise challenge, in which someone fails, complains or dies.
To address this it is wise to record the client’s decisions and the reasons for them; and our advice, the known facts on which it was based, and our justification for it. Several times I have been rescued by a comprehensive endorsement of my brief (a document that I contend falls outside client privilege), or a detailed attendance note made and shared immediately after a conference or hearing.
The third tip is ‘always have a plan B’. Just thinking about alternatives prepares our minds to address other possibilities as to approach and outcome. So we are rarely surprised, or worse, floored. More important with clients, the need for a ‘plan B’ focusses on the fact that the law is an inexact art, and advocating an outcome does not mean that the judge will agree. The plan B sometimes involves a simple matter of changing expectations, or alerting clients to the dangers of their case.
My fourth tip is ‘leave your work behind’. If, like me, you work extensively from home, find and preserve a place where you work, and from which you leave for family life. Here, I am thinking more of leaving problems behind, rather than the sharing of some of the more fun aspects of practice at the bar. In my case, my study is solely for work and legal discussion. It has a lock on the door, so I sense the moment when I depart, and return to real life.
My fifth and final tip is to take time out from practice. I have been a master at this skill, away for the summer whilst my family was young, and later taking longer trips involving months away, including sabattical breaks away from work.
Whilst I recall my very first senior clerk say to established barristers “…well, it is your practice, Sir”, and then look accusingly knowing that they would lose their nerve, I have never experienced anything other than continued prosperity, success and fulfilment coming from taking regular holidays and time out. More importantly, should you be lucky like me to survive 40 years of private practice, you will appreciate the enriching perspective that this has added to your life.