Job Title: Barrister, 1 Crown Office Row, Temple
Who was your favourite teacher and why?
It’s a toss-up between my three English teachers – the wonderfully theatrical Mrs Smith, the brilliant Booker Prize winner Penelope Fitzgerald, and the delightfully uninhibited teacher of Chaucer, Mrs Odescalchi. But the legendary Miss Swoboda, whose voice I still hear whenever I see a piece of Renaissance art, has to be joint favourite.
Do you have fond memories of your time at Queen’s Gate?
Absolutely! In my day Queen’s Gate took boarders in the sixth form. Like me, most of us were refugees from dull parochial boarding schools. The contrast was electrifying: every other Tuesday evening the school arranged a trip to the theatre (I still remember the first – Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia); we were taken to galleries and taught by intelligent, cosmopolitan and wise women. I loved it.
Looking back, what do you feel Queen’s Gate has given you?
A love for, and appreciation of, London – and some decent A levels.
What do you think Queen’s Gate’s unique selling point is?
You must bear in mind that I was at Queen’s Gate 35 years ago, and it has changed significantly, focusing more than it did on academic achievement. I felt that its central London location was key, contributing to the high calibre of the teachers it was (and is) able to attract.
Are you still in touch with QG friends?
Yes, a few. I see the most of Sara Frith, who did the Bar exams with me in London, and then went on to do the New York and Californian Bar exams and is currently living in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.
Tell us about your university years. What did you study and did you always know that you wanted to be a barrister?
I did a combined honours degree in history and art history. Then I did the one-year, intensive, post-graduate conversion-to-law course at the City University, followed by what is now called the Bar Vocational Course (Bar Finals). No, I did not know I wanted to be a barrister until my second six months pupillage. As with most occupations, one has only the vaguest idea what it is all about until you see it from the inside. For that reason I recommend doing as much work experience, in as many different areas of work, as possible. And spend time with people who have been in the job for about 5 years, not just senior practitioners, who may be out of touch with some aspects of getting started in the profession you are looking at.
Do you have any other advice for those QG girls thinking of Law or the Bar in particular?
The publically funded Bar (by far the largest sector, including crime, family, immigration, etc) is facing unprecedented challenges due to cuts in public spending. It is contracting in size and pupillages are increasingly difficult to obtain. Other areas of law are not immune to major changes in market forces either. Research this carefully before deciding to invest in the required training.
If you decide to pursue a career in the law, do not assume you have to have a law degree. If you can afford it, study a subject you are passionately interested in at university other than law. You only lose one year and there is a lot to be said for making the decision a little later. After all, the American system is designed so that US law schools are for post-graduate students only, and most students are admitted after several years working. Here in the UK the statistics demonstrate that those still practising at a senior level who studied another subject first and then converted to law, considerably outnumber, pro rata, those who studied law at university – you will certainly not be at a disadvantage if you do a non-law degree.
The great thing must be that every day in your role is different, but if you had a “typical day”, what might it involve?
In my early days at the Bar my day would usually start very early, making my way to a railway station, studying the brief on the train and then trying to find the court and the client. I would often receive a brief the night before trial, or sometimes at 1.00pm, to be in court at 2.00pm. Now, having been “in silk” (Queen’s counsel) for 11 years, I spend much of my time preparing for long trials or drafting advice on points of law. A typical day is usually a long one, particularly when I am in court and case preparation has to be done outside court sitting hours. Although practice at the Bar involves more grind than “Silks”, “Judge John Deed” or “Kavanagh QC” might suggest, my day is rarely without interest. There are few other professions in which one is required to learn about such a wide variety of people of all social, educational and cultural backgrounds, and to engage, often in intimate detail, with what they think and feel, and what motivates them.
You have recently been involved in high profile cases acting for the GMC. How did your specialisms come about?
In the early 1990s I was fortunate to become involved in an interesting evolving niche area of work, namely healthcare regulation. As with developing any area of expertise, the key is to find an area that not many people know about, but that many will need to know about, and to spend the time getting to grips with it. Obviously, demonstrating that you have got to grips with it is crucial. In 2005 a colleague and I published what was then the only textbook on the subject (recently updated), and I regularly gave talks on the subject at professional conferences. Partly as a result I have been instructed in cases involving breast cancer surgery, frauds on private insurers, medical research fraud, psychiatry in the context of anorexia, assisted conception, orthodontics, pharmacy education and many other topics.
What is the best thing about being a barrister? And the worst?
The best is the variety and the interesting nature of the work, the civilised colleagues with whom I work, combined with the degree of autonomy that comes with being self-employed. The worst is the long hours, working on holiday and at weekends, and the flipside of being self-employed, that is the lack of security. Combining a career at the Bar with motherhood presents its challenges, but that is a big topic on its own! Suffice it to say that people manage. I have one son aged 16 and several of the women in my chambers have 3 or 4 children. The Bar is better attuned to this issue than it used to be, although the downward pressure on publically funded fees (referred to above) can make the provision of child care uneconomic for the more junior members of the profession.