Life at the Thin Edge of the Wedge – The Grim Reality of the Independent Junior Criminal Bar

Posted: May 27, 2013 in Uncategorized
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When asked what I do for a living, I often hesitate momentarily before changing the subject. Despite feeling immensely proud and privileged to have made it into the illustrious world of the purported legal ‘elite’, the words ‘criminal barrister’ do not roll off the tongue with the ease I’d expected such achievement would ultimately engender. You see, experience tells me that once a new acquaintance hears the ‘B’ word, their reaction will invariably range somewhere between curious disgust right up to the unfettered revulsion you might feel if you found out you’d just mistakenly cleaned your teeth with the old toothbrush reserved for scrubbing under the rim of the toilet…

Over the months, I have gleaned with an increasing sense of incredulity (mainly through the projection of typed vitriol from anonymous members of the public who have contributed to the various comments pages in the national press) that people don’t just dislike criminal barristers: they actively hate them. It would appear that such detestation stems from a single unqualified and hitherto unchallenged belief: that criminal barristers are contemptuously rich, upper-class, cash-leaching parasites, who take pleasure in feeding off the misery of an already-downtrodden society, by plundering a bottomless trough of public money in order to fund endless rounds of golf in the Caribbean; invariably with a bunch of cockroach-headed criminal barrister chums. I have come to the sad conclusion that far from being viewed as a respected, time-honored profession necessary for the protection of a safe and fair society; the general public currently ranks criminal barristers (and indeed solicitors) somewhere between paedophiles and pond algae on the food chain. It is no wonder that the recent ‘Reforming Legal Aid’ proposals (colloquially known as ‘Butchering Justice’ to those who work within the profession) have generated at best public apathy, and at worst, public support.

Whatever your television drama-inspired preconceptions about the elusive world of the Criminal Bar, I invite you to suspend your judgment for just a few minutes. This article seeks to shatter and correct the inaccurate ‘fat cat’ stereotype, which seeks to do the vast majority of my outstanding, hardworking colleagues a gross disservice. Whilst focused upon the plight of the junior Criminal Bar, most of what is written applies equally to criminal counsel and solicitors of all levels. The views and experiences are my own and they might offend. Hey ho.

Schizophrenia, 5am Trains and Chipmunks

Being a barrister is not a glamorous job. Each case is a random selection from a veritable smorgasbord of child rape, animal pornography, domestic violence and death. Each working day requires a strong stomach, a bottomless overdraft, a thick skin and the ability to survive on a petrol-station-food diet. Despite Maxine Peake’s convincing portrayal of the elegant Martha Costello QC in the popular ITV drama, Silk, the reality of life as a junior criminal barrister is nowhere near as alluring or straightforward. Whilst Martha, red lippy neatly applied, glides elegantly into court within walking distance of her chambers just before the case starts, I am often seen resembling a slightly deranged, irate scarecrow wrestling a large suitcase, part-read lever-arch file and unruly umbrella on a windy, rain-soaked railway platform at a time when most people are in deep REM sleep. With many a 4.30am start and 2am finish, I have neglected those I love and have thus so far foregone having children, buying a property or obtaining a pension in pursuit of my career. I have pondered the subject of untimely chipmunk death more than is healthy. I have cross-examined psychopaths, received death threats, been shouted at by judges and have lost so many hours of sleep that my family tell me I have aged ten years in less than three. There is something deliciously masochistic about being an independent criminal barrister: the unenviable pressures of work, you might think, could only be rewarded by a handsome remuneration. So, what do I do and what am I paid?

A Day in the Life…

Nothing can emotionally equip you for the day that you are sitting alone in a cell with someone accused of having sex with a child, having to go through graphic details of their alleged perversion. God forbid that you are required by the court to grade haunting child pornography pictures. I recall with a sense of nausea the day in which I prosecuted a solicitor-advocate who demanded that the court re-classify a photograph of an 8-year old girl shackled on her hands and knees to a bed, from a level five (bestiality and Sadomasochism) to a level four, as ‘the presence of a dog’s head near her genitals did not indicate that she would have gone on to be forced to engage in sexual relations with the animal’. As much as I wanted to walk out and be sick, as much as I wanted to clear my mind of this awful vision; my professional duties meant that I remained on my feet, wigged and gowned, appearing to be ever the unwavering professional to those baulking in the public gallery. I later went home and cried. Becoming a criminal barrister, I learned, does not make a person an emotional automaton. You just become incredibly adept at maintaining a poker face and a cool head. What would you have to be paid to view an ever-haunting image such as the one I have described? Could you forget it? I can’t.

It is worthy of note that I prosecuted the aforementioned case: my job is as much about looking after witnesses and victims as it is representing those accused of crimes. I frequently spend my lunch hours sitting in the witness suite, not being paid for such, explaining cases and procedure to those who have been burgled, attacked or sexually abused. I frequently sit with women who have been beaten by their partner for the twentieth time in front of their children, who wish to retract their statement but may be prosecuted themselves for doing so, in a bid to guide them through the law. Sadly, the press chooses to ignore such efforts, as ‘fat cat’ is much easier to type.

Further, unlike many other professions whereby it’s relatively easy to turn up each day and turn in a standard, often-rehearsed performance, being a criminal barrister means that most of your life is spent living on your nerves. No two days are the same: the criminal law is constantly changing and unlike civil practitioners whose cases are often decided on paper, the scrutiny of the public gallery, press and fellow practitioners is enough to give you cold sweats on a daily basis. The English Criminal Bar is revered the world over as a centre of excellence: simply put, any practitioner who is judged as less than outstanding would find it very difficult to be briefed, let alone be respected by colleagues and judges alike.

Being a junior criminal practitioner affords you no concessions: once you stand up to make your submissions, no judge, jury or journalist will look upon you with sympathetic consideration. If you forget to ask a crucial question, dry up or your interpretation of the law is woefully wrong, your chambers and instructing solicitor will hear about it on the grapevine before you even get back to the robing room to cry in the toilets. Being a self-employed, independent practitioner means that your learning is instinctive; through osmosis watching senior, more accomplished barristers as well as through rigorous ongoing self-learning. In the early days, self-esteem plummets to make way for superficial confidence necessary to do the job; before incremental benchmarks of competence are reached. I have found this to be a necessary process which serves to keep me switched on, focussed on excellence and grounded. But an easy process it is not: in the early days, I am not ashamed to say that the pressure and politics of pupillage, the unpredictability of travelling the length and breadth of the UK on cases received the night before and the stress of working 70 hours plus each week was enough to put me temporarily on anti-depressants.

Whilst my training and education took many years, costing tens of thousands of pounds; at no stage was I ever taught to recognise or deal with signs of Schizophrenia, personality disorders or other mental health problems; an increasingly common situation which besets me each week. I frequently sit in front of clients in conference rooms, who have self-harm injuries, a history of suicide attempts or drug and alcohol abuse problems. Bear in mind that unlike social workers or police officers, who have managers and co-workers with whom to discuss difficult cases, an independent criminal practitioner generally works alone, with only their sense of judgment for company. Reasoning with an agitated, unmedicated, violent Schizophrenic who has been locked in a cell overnight requires patience, understanding and unparalleled communication skills. To then stand up in court and articulate your case to a judge requires tenacity, adaptability and poise. Are these skills not important? Would they be more important if it were your son or daughter in the dock or witness suite?

Fortunately, the majority of criminal barristers whom I have been fortunate to encounter during my short career thus so far, are best described as well-spoken social workers in wigs, who care immensely about doing a truly outstanding job. To say that anyone can do this job would be to suggest that the average person is an indomitable, fearless, perfection-oriented workhorse who strives constantly to be better than they were yesterday, in the pursuit of justice and fairness: hardly ubiquitous characteristics in today’s disposable, convenience-obsessed world. It therefore offends me when it is suggested by those who have no idea what I do and for what financial reward; that my contribution is worth very little to society. You might be surprised to learn that what I earned last year couldn’t be construed as a ‘living wage’ – i.e. enough to sustain my already frugal standard of living. Whilst many in other professional roles or indeed civil barristers can easily make a few hundred quid from a few hours’ work, junior criminal practitioners are at the coal face of abuse, violence and neglect every day of their working lives, for a relative pittance.

We work incredibly long hours borne out of sheer personal passion, professional pride, the love of the struggle, and because the vast majority of us actually care about what we do. Contrary to popular misconception, criminal lawyers are not self-serving robots: we may have woefully failed on the public relations front; however this isn’t because we have nothing to say on the subject. We are simply too busy working 70-hour weeks on behalf of our clients and victims to have regard to correcting a misaligned stereotype largely perpetrated by lazy, selective and often downright inaccurate journalism designed to sell newspapers rather than educate the masses.

Many will not be persuaded that I am an ordinary working class woman with a lovely dinner-lady mum and a huge, ever-increasing overdraft. As people watch me sweep, raven-like through the court foyer in my billowing Batman-inspired fancy dress, I see the envious pounds signs reflected in people’s eyes, as I secretly worry whether I can afford to buy my instructing solicitor a vending machine coffee… So, let me tell you what I get in return for my efforts.

What Does It Cost to Be in Practice?

To be in practice costs hundreds of pounds every month. For every pound that I earn, I must pay out the following:

  • Chambers’ rent (around £400 – £500 per month)
  • Clerks’ fees (7% of what I am paid that month + VAT)
  • Tax at 20%
  • VAT at 20%
  • Train fares (I work all over the country between Carlisle and London)
  • Parking (city centre weekday parking, so always double figures)
  • Fuel and vehicle running costs
  • Practising certificate costs,
  • Professional liability insurance
  • Practitioner texts (published and replaced each year at a cost of £900 per annum)
  • Legal database subscription fees
  • Data controller fees (another government tax designed to steal from hardworking people who dare to send work emails)
  • Compulsory continuing professional development courses and seminars

This list fails to mention all of the other countless expenses associated with being a self-employed barrister, such as clothing, stationary, accountancy fees, computer costs, dry cleaning of suits, (etc.).

Now let’s look at what I don’t receive:

  • Holiday pay (typically 4-6-weeks per year for many employees)
  • Maternity pay
  • Sick pay
  • A pension
  • Company car
  • Expenses such as travel, parking, fuel (etc.) I pay for it! It is not reimbursed by the expenses fairy, in case you were wondering…
  • Pay towards my ‘uniform’ (my wig and gown cost a mere £800; loose change to me, obvioulsy)

Remuneration

So, the question on everybody’s lips: what do I get paid? If I told you my annual income after deductions for the last financial year, you wouldn’t believe me just yet. Let’s build up to it by taking an ordinary day last month. It involved the sentence of a young man (let’s call him James), who suffered with severe mental health issues including Schizophrenia. He had pleaded guilty on advice to an offence of Actual Bodily Harm. James had no parents or siblings, having been orphaned following an abusive childhood which had left him with severe learning difficulties. Stuck in the care system, he was a youth to which many outside ‘the system’ will have little regard: he is by all reckoning a socially invisible individual by virtue of him being completely unloved. Sadly, I meet many clients like James a lot. I sat with this bewildered, frightened young man in the cells for probably the longest period that anyone had spent with him, for no good reason other than to chat to him, in a long time. Having prepared the case the night before, I had already spent around two-and-a-half hours researching the relevant law, reading his psychiatric report and case papers and drafting my oral submissions. I drove two hours to court, liaised with the court clerk, the consultant psychiatrist, my opponent who represented the Crown and my instructing solicitor in advance of the hearing, as well as making a few trips up and down to the cells to explain the developments in the case to James himself. Finally, I presented the case in court, questioned the psychiatrist in front of the judge and made my closing submissions, which were to have a far-reaching and life-changing impact upon whether this young man was ever released from a psychiatric setting. Those in the public gallery would have seen me bewigged and gowned, looking very much the traditional courtroom barrister. How much would you assume that I got paid for that ‘brief’? £1,000? £2,000? More?

The psychiatrist and I chatted in the lift as we made our way out following the case. He told me that he had billed over £2,000.00 for his day in court. I was paid £84.50 (yes, you read that correctly: eighty four pounds and fifty pence). The psychiatrist was paid expenses; however, after I had paid out my £12.60 in parking, £15 in petrol, chambers’ rent, clerks’ fees, tax (etc.), I would have earned around £30. For the ten hours’ work, excluding the four hour commute, I was paid approximately £3.00 (yes, three pounds) per hour. Whilst the doctor walked away with enough money to buy two weeks in Mexico, I could barely afford a sandwich.

I knew what I would be paid in advance, but fortunately, my conscience and sense of public justice overrides any desire to trade in my executive 2004 Toyota Yaris for an Audi Quattro. You may be surprised to learn that many cases which I prosecute or defend pay fees equivalent to those cited in this case. Whether I travel to Birmingham, Ipswich, Newcastle or Manchester; I am not paid travel expenses. When the £84.50 fee is less than the £145, eight-hours-long, return train fare, I still know without reservation that I will always, always, always do my best for the client. Even, as happens with increasing regularity, if I am paying out of my own pocket to be in court. With my financial self-interest often diametrically opposed to my client’s best interests, I can only say that the Criminal Justice System is lucky to benefit from publically funded lawyers like me, who work tirelessly to their own and their family’s financial detriment in the name of justice.

Today, I spent five hours researching and drafting grounds of appeal against sentence for a 71-year old client who was sent to prison for an offence he committed following the nursing of his wife through terminal cancer. I know that I will not get paid to draft an advice on appeal. I did it because my conscience tells me that it’s the right thing to do, not because I am financially incentivised. If I only worked when such work remunerated me to a decent standard, I would not work very often. In fact, I would not work at all. Criminal barristers are not paid for written work; however it must come as no surprise that we do a fair amount of written work throughout the week. In fact, when we are not in court or reading a case, we are writing our submissions, drafting attendance notes or preparing advices; all in the spirit of doing ‘the right thing’.

The ‘right thing’ is a noble concept, often lost on profit-driven companies like G4S, Eddie Stobart and Serco. I wonder with trepidation how clients like James will be treated if Chris Grayling pushes through his catastrophic plans which derive, in my opinion, from personal greed, arrogance and an almost psychopathic career-oriented need for self-advancement, rather than an altruistic attempt to save money or help the already-stretched Legal Aid system. Many others have eloquently written about this subject; therefore I shall simply say that for every reason Grayling could proffer to legitimise his ludicrous, ill-thought out schemes, I could find you a thousand criminal lawyers and a dozen reasons to rebut him. Such lawyers will talk not of their already diminished fees which have been reduced significantly over the last fifteen years, but of the risk to ordinary people like you. The risk is this: in the event your husband is arrested for a historic rape allegation allegedly committed during his university days, or you are arrested and remanded in custody for death by careless driving after running over a drunken pensioner who stepped out in front of your car, you will be allocated call-centre, wholesale ‘justice’; namely, a non-specialist lawyer whom you have never met nor chosen, who is contracted potentially to a firm more commonly associated with tachographs and haulage (yes, lorry drivers) on the basis that they were the lowest bidder. I am sure that I need not say more on this subject.

Working Twice the Hours of a Non-Lawyer, for a Quarter of the Pay

So, what is all of this worth to the Government and society? What was I paid in exchange for the time, money and effort I invested over the last ten years of relentless study and hard work?

Last year, for twelve months’ work, averaging six days and between sixty and seventy hours per week, covering thousands and thousands of miles all over the UK, I was paid a grand total of £20,429.75 after VAT but before before tax and expenses. After estimated deductions of around £10,000 for the expenses, travel costs, chambers/clerk’s fees I have detailed earlier, I would, quite literally have been better off on benefits and would ironically qualify for tax credits and Legal Aid. If money is the barometer by which society measures value based upon a person’s skills, qualifications and experience; mine, it appears, is worth less than minimum wage. So, should I continue to break my back to go that extra mile for complete strangers, as I descend deeper and deeper into debt and stress? When the alarm goes off at 3.30am, do I feel incentivised to drive the six hours to Ipswich, knowing I will be sixty pounds out of pocket for the privilege? Last time I did this, the Judge said prophetically: ‘I know that you have driven a long way to get here. You do know that you won’t be paid for today, but you should look on this experience as character building’. I wondered whether my bank manager would accept payment in character towards my burgeoning loans, as I made the lonely seven hour trip home just minutes after hearing that my case had been adjourned; something everyone else knew before I even awoke at 3am to make the trip… Would you work a 16-hour day and pay for the privilege? Non-criminal lawyers might be shocked, but my junior criminal practitioner colleagues can match my story over and over again without batting an eyelid.

For those wondering about my background, I am three years into practice having been called to the Bar in 2009. I am 34-years old, with an accomplished former civilian career in the police, having paid for university and postgraduate education from my own pocket. Part of me regrets giving up the chance of a pension, job security and the stability of predictable, steady work in order to chase my lifelong dream of being an advocate. It pains me to say that at this rate, I will end up bankrupt before I am able to confront the issue of being to take time out to have a family. The reality is that I can barely afford to pay the utility bills, let alone take a six-month unpaid maternity break or pay for full-time childcare.

What many outside the profession refuse to entertain, let alone comprehend, is that criminal practitioners often work for free: gratis, sans payment. We are not paid by the hour, we are not paid expenses and sometimes, we are not paid at all. The bitter irony of being a junior criminal practitioner is that for the vast majority, we have some excellent dinner party stories; we just can’t afford to have a dinner party. The general public has benefited from the efficiency, industriousness and good grace of a profession, whose junior practitioners work twice as many as hours as other professions for a quarter of the pay. This is unacceptable, exploitative and disenfranchising for the talented, dedicated people who give up so much of themselves to do what can only be described as an incredibly challenging job.

Conclusion

Speaking with an ex-criminal barrister yesterday, we both agreed that our profession can be a masochistic, all-consuming, expensive adventure with occasional moments of triumph. The truth is that there are rarely winners in any criminal case, irrespective of the result. Lives are ruined, relationships and reputations destroyed, whole families torn apart: no barrister delights in the misery of others, no matter the result. We are rarely thanked and often criticised by the press. Our work is taken for granted by the public, who unknowingly demand excellence in exchange for peanuts.

After three short years in practice, I am mentally, physically and financially drained. But, I can think of no other vocation which would fill me with the fire, passion and tenacity to push on in the face of adversity, in the way that this noble profession does. It might not nurture me financially, but I will continue to fight to the bitter end to do the job that I love in order to protect the system of justice for the public. I will continue to feel fortunate to work in an arena where I can be a solitary voice for those who are often at their most vulnerable and frightened when I meet them.

You might not fully understand what we do or why we do it, but one thing is clear: as in the case of bin men or those who work processing raw sewerage, you would undoubtedly notice and start to value Legally Aided criminal practitioners if we downed tools and stopped doing what we do, without question or complaint, every working day of our lives. If you found yourself on the wrong side of the law, or indeed the victim of a terrible crime, you might be surprised at just how quickly you would come to appreciate our unwavering dedication to justice, tenacity to maintain standards of excellence and sheer hard work: hallmarks of the work of the junior Criminal Bar; most of which is poorly paid, if paid at all. The Government has already taken advantage of the goodwill of the Criminal Bar for too long:  the junior end simply cannot and will not weather any further cuts.

Criminal practitioners allow ordinary people to turn a blind eye to the atrocities happening daily within our society by frequently dealing with the detail which the press refers to as ‘too distressing to print’. When a person is convicted or acquitted, our revered, unparalleled legal system reassures people that miscarriages of justice are rare. It is through the tireless and often unrecognised efforts of criminal practitioners, alongside judges, interpreters, the police, prisons, the Probation Service and Youth Offending Service, that people are afforded the freedom of a civilised society. It would be a travesty if the profession became the province of profit over common sense, convenience and targets over justice and parity. I only hope that I am able to remain in the profession long enough to see it saved from Grayling’s slippery grasp, as junior criminal barristers like me are quickly being priced out of the Criminal Justice System, sadly becoming relegated to the category of endangered species.

A junior criminal practitioner, 2009 Call, Lincoln’s Inn.

27th May 2013.

Comments
  1. I’m a NQ criminal solicitor and having read your blog can only echo the praise and empathy of the comments above, from both “codes” as it were.

    It really fills one with a sense of growing rage when you compare and contrast it with Grayling’s latest interview in the gazette a couple of weeks back. A young barrister friend of mine sent me her thoughts in admiration of this blog after reading it also, and it reminded me of a comment she made over a drink after a conference we did last year – something to the effect of “the public don’t know what it’s like to be at the coal-face, Joe!”

    Hard to get them on board in opposition to grayling when they must find our world both esoteric and alien.

    Anyway, long story short – damn fine blog, I await the next one with baited breath, and truly hope you have the strength to keep on keeping on.

  2. Philip Myerscough says:

    By way of background I studied Chemistry and , being a lousy practitioner of the subject, became a Chartered Patent Agent and enjoyed the study of Intellectual Property. Throughout my Professional career I was fully aware of the need for an evidence based approach to any and all of the problems that I was faced with. What seems to be conspicuously lacking from so many of this Government’s initiatives Is evidence for what is proposed. This is particularly so in tha case of Legal Aid where the consequences of what is proposed are dire. Savings that are claimed will be illusory and the law of unintended consequences will take over. The already disadvantaged will suffer disproportionately, the Courts will be unable to deal with Litigants in person, and he Criminal Bar will be, let’s not pussyfoot, be buggered.

    • Thanks for your comment Phil. It is clear from your own reasoned opinion that even non-criminal lawyers can catch on pretty quickly to the groundless reasons cited by the Government in order to justify a need for ‘transforming’ Legal Aid. If ‘transforming’ is actually a euphemism for butchering, it would all make perfect sense! By the time the system is in meltdown, Grayling will have longe since left his post, leaving misery in his wake. Hopefully, this is a nightmare which will never become reality. Thanks again!

  3. […] YES, my concern is for myself and my “greedy pig of a husband” – as is the case in most other pairings. However, I do occasionally give a fleeting thought to other greedy criminal lawyers, like this one. […]

  4. GF says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. This should be printed in all national dailies.

    I’m similar call, similar age, in a very similar situation. Regular Crown Court practice, modest background, first in family to go to university, no connections, still renting, debts up to eyeballs, car has been to the moon and back.

    People ask “why do you do it?” when they finally hear the truth about our remuneration. The reason, of course, is that I bloody love the job and I’m bloody good at it (so I’m told!)

    As a publicly funded vocation, one expects never to be rich or particularly well off, however it would be nice to have enough to survive on without an independent income.

    As in days of old, there will always be someone (with a trust fund or who has “married well”) who will be willing to do the job as a hobby. I would!

    Question is, whether client would really be best served by a hooray Henry with no real empathy or experience, or someone who has seen it all before?

    Let’s dispel the myths once and for all- we’re worth more than £3 per hour!

    • I am both gratified and saddened that there are so many of us having the same experiences of junior criminal practice. To get this far, we must be good enough, and our continued efforts depite low fees, long hours and inpredictable UK-wide travel mean we are clearly passionate enough. I only hope we can survive the next few years, as the whole situation pushes many to the limit. Thanks for reading and commenting – I wish you all the very best with your career and future.

  5. I simply want to tell you that I am just new to blogging and actually loved your blog. Almost certainly I’m going to bookmark your blog . You amazingly have good stories. Appreciate it for revealing your webpage.

  6. FRS says:

    I ended up on this blog because it was linked from a newspaper comment posting. Very glad I did press the link. Many thanks for the excellent blog. It is also good to see comments that underline the deep problems of your profession and the demands of your job and the threats of future “reforms”. I do not fully comprehend, but nonetheless tip my hat at your ability to keep going. The “coal face” of your profession seems extraordinary grim. Nevertheless, it is also encouraging to be told about the rewards of being a junior criminal barrister.

    In the light of the fact that the legal profession has a lot of public exposure in the UK it is telling that that exposure seems not to reflect the reality of many practicing professionals. There is a public perception that does not align with the reality; and the perceptions often are stubbornly entrenched. For somebody who is an outsider both in terms of profession and nationality this blog has been really insightful.

    I sadly have to add that much of what you write about your experiences sound eerily familiar to mine, in my profession as an academic in the humanities. Except that in our field far less is at stake than in the criminal justice system that depends on overworked and underpaid “public servants”.

    Keep up the good work, and keep writing.

  7. […] Life at the Thin Edge of the Wedge – The Grim Reality of the Independent Junior Criminal Bar | 50 … […]

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    read stuff from. Thanks for posting when you have the opportunity,
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  9. VL Pomeroy says:

    Same in New Zealand. But the gray is taking over the senior bar and dissolving the backbone; the hard bits to dissolve they smash out.

    Two quotes spring to mind:

    You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.
    Winston Churchill

    “We hope that, when the insects take over the world, they will remember with gratitude how we took them along on all our picnics.”
    Bill Vaughn

    • Fredric Greene says:

      Having commented on this before I am still saddened by what I see as a very sad state of affairs but unfortunately it is no different really to the plight of the corner shop, people are happy to make their own lives easier with little or no thought as to the consequences for those around them, the bar is just the latest casualty of a changing world. People are far more interested these days in their own affairs and care little for the huge knock on effects that their actions have. One day we will all work for Tesco and cash will have been abolished so there will no longer be a need for anyone to actually work at the bank, just a series of large computers, I fear the opportunity to turn back the tide may now have passed.

  10. mark mywords says:

    speak to an accountant (not for long though you will nod off) id guess that the list of expenses could be cut a great deal through professional expenses , cleaning of gown etc. and can be backdated. A fair balanced blog but im afraid you arent alone ,all workers are having it tough

    • mark mywords says:

      Throwing bankers in to the mix is unfair as I know “ordinary” bank workers who are trying to earn a living as you and I are, Mp`s? I would say that anyone expressing the wish to be an MP should automatically be disqualified from holding the office , for reasons which i am only allowed to think! As someone who has been in the legal profession for 25 years I would not say that Barristers are perceived badly at all?. do you really care what the press write? they cant even write a story without fleshing it out with what someone wrote on facebook or tweeted on twatter because they arent investigative journos anymore just internet searchers! I bet half of them dont even own a trenchcoat. I do agree with all you say in general but if you asked all the people you say get professional respect in the press how they felt i would suggest they may actually feel the same way you do. Could be worse you could be wondering if you are in green ,blue or la la land like your former colleagues at GMP. If it helps you have my respect.

    • Science graduate says:

      Just discovered your blog from a website link. Thank you for correcting my wrong ideas (learned from press & TV of course) about criminal barristers. The only lawyer I’ve met socially is a retired QC (civil law) with a £million house and Jag – the press would have us believe that he is typical.

      You comment ‘I only hope that it isn’t too late to seize back the ideals which once made this country great, yet which now sadly, have been allowed to slip away in favour of profit’. I am by no means a left wing radical, but by 1981 I’d grown to hate Margaret Thatcher for destroying everything which made this country great. The ideals you refer to, and which I share, have not been ‘allowed to slip away’, they were deliberately destroyed. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those, such as yourself, who do everything they can to keep those ideals alive.

  11. Peter says:

    Thank you for the insight into your hard work, physically and mentally draining and financially crippling. The grass always seems greener on the other side but after that read I am happy with my lawn.
    I have never fell the wrong side of the law, or been a victim of any illegality but the changes / reforms in legal aid really has me concerned “what if ” crosses my mind? Could I end up in a court without the means for professional advice and guidance?

    I wish you good luck with your career and may the red bull give you wings ;)

  12. “The ‘right thing’ is a noble concept, often lost on profit-driven companies”

    This is one of my worries about privatisation & outsourcing. See http://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/why-propriety-matters/ on “Why propriety matters” which looks at wider privatisation of the legal system.

  13. Great blog and yes a very sad indictment of the ‘value’ given to criminal defence work….

    Of course on the flip side, the prosecuting barristers are paid handsomely…

    A fine imbalance, deliberately engineered to create inequality at arms and another breach of common law principles of parity at arms.

  14. john miles. says:

    Okay, so you in effect earning McDonalds wages now, but will you still be earning 20k a year in five years time, one of my friends at your old chambers Mr. Grant appears to be doing very well these days, I guess he must be somewhat more personable to the people that are instructing him, after all nobody likes a moaner.

    • Jon says:

      how I sympathise you having to confront the extremities of working levels demand, can I offer my voluntary services to help you wilth travelling or doing some case research for you? as I am free at this time and would be love to help you without the need of consideration in return.

      kind regards

      Jon

  15. anon says:

    am finding some of the consultation responses that have been shared interesting reading:

    https://skydrive.live.com/?cid=c9cf3340d60f0176&id=C9CF3340D60F0176%2120326&authkey=!APR5vGN4fRtmnZc

  16. worried about the future of uk justice says:

    If you feel strongly about maintaining access to justice sign this petition:

    http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628

  17. vegemite sandwich says:

    We’re facing similar issues here in Australia – particularly Victoria. We are faced with a legal aid commission who is seeking to build its own (in-house) empire with complete disregard for the independence of the bar. Horrendous. Recently legal aid told us that instructing solicitors were no longer required during trials as they served little purpose. Funding for an instructor was limited to two half-days. It took the matter going to the Court of Appeal to have instructors reinstated, although legal aid have indicated this reversal of their decision is only temporary – goodness only knows what they’ll come up with next!

    We are just waiting for our Attorney-General to put legal aid out to tender so our version of Eddie can jump in and run a law practice out the back of his trucks as well.

  18. Monica Lentin says:

    As a sole practising solicitor of over 30 years in criminal defence work, I can vouch for the fact that everything you say is true and also applies to this side of the profession. Your excellent exposé should be published in the national press, to disabuse the public of their illusions
    about criminal practitioners and the conditions under which they really work. I would suggest that newspapers are more effective than the internet in reaching more of the people who need to know.

    Monica Lentin, Solicitor, Cambridge

    • Alan Heward says:

      It is not unsimilar here in New Zealand, several years a go there was a report commissioned by the government to look into the criminal bar and its activities. Some negatives of a few practitioners came to light which the government pounced on and duly reacted to punish the whole profession. Other matters that were raised in the report like how little Barristers were recompensed for their toil was strangely by passed in the rush to change legislation. It appears politicians world wide have discovered that bashing the Criminal Bar is a vote winner because Criminal Lawyers are akin to their clients. This attitude has extended to the law and its application. There are now more and more laws being passed for the Police to charge the public and gather more revenue and more and more legislation being passed removing peoples rights in their defence of charges. It appears that those that make the laws feel they will never be subjected to them because they have the resources to pay counsel where those that are unable to pay for counsel do not deserve it and are obviously guilty because of their station in life. I am a proud advocate who never shirks from the question “what do you do” because I see my role as the champion for those who are unable to raise against the machine which is the state and its limitless resources. Even then it is an uphill battle as the wealth of our developed principles from hundreds of years of experience are not being applied evenly through the Court system from bottom to top. Sir William Blackstone espoused the principle that “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” . This along with “beyond reasonable doubt” is slowly disappearing into the mist of time with expediency and revenue gathering momentum and becoming the new principles of Justice. The quality of policing has diminished with the lowering of the quality of evidence required for a conviction to be gained.
      Woops where did I go. as you may have gathered my opinion is that the more that wealth is pooled in the hands of the few the more the rights of the many will be trampled on, we have been there before just read Dickens “Bleak House” or the history of feudalism.

  19. Conor Maguire says:

    I want to leave some kind of profound, perceptive impactful thought/comment but am just jaw dropped at what I have read and can’t think of anything to say other than thanks for what you do. I am a civil solicitor – public law – and have just finished working for today thinking I had it rough and feeling just a little bitter about it all. Having read this I think that tomorrow it will be that little bit easier to get out of bed and face it again.

    • thegazzler says:

      @50shadesofaffray – I cam across this blog when it was posted in the comments sections of an article on The Guardian website. I must admit I am absolutely shocked by the demands of your job and that you make of yourself. I am not in the legal profession but there are two reasons why I chose to read on.

      The first, was because I got kicked in the head a few times a week after my 22nd birthday a few years ago and broke a bone in my neck but did not see any compensation (I’m living in Ireland and it happened on the street not on a premises). This, rightly or wrongly, gave me a dim view of those in the legal profession. Your’e blog challenged me to changed my preconceptions, and I really admire what you are doing.

      The second reason, is because I am moving to Shanghai in October, and a close friend is due to take criminal law exams (he has a masters in economics and law) so that he can then study for four years and enter the profession aged 30. He does not want to do this, he is not passionate about law – but is under pressure from his father to give it a go but he would rather live and work in Shanghai. Needless to say, I have forwarded him the link to this blog – it really does take a certain type of person to deal with the pressures you deal with.

      Finally, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope you look after yourself too. Don’t neglect your own mental health – not even for your passion – because you only get one crack at this life. I sincerely hope you take the time to stop and smell the roses when you can. There are some amazing things to do and see and while i have nothing but praise and respect for what you do, I hope the good things in life don’t pass you by. It took a serious injury (from which I have now fully recovered from) to teach me that.

      Anyway fantastic blog and great username!

      • Hi Conor, thanks for your kind comments and information on your experiences of the leal system. I think that most people, myself included, shared your view of the system; however a few years of personal insight ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak, has really made me see things in a different way.

        Shanghai sounds like a fab move! What are you planning to do out there? The very best of luck with it! I have no idea what the legal system is like out there, but if it’s anything like the UK, your friend would be best advised to do a few placements before investing six demanding years at law school. Many of my friends are still struggling to get into the profession as it is so competitive and oversubscribed. If you follow your passion and heart, rather than the expectation of money, you can’t go far wrong. Thanks again and best wishes for the future.

  20. LukeSpencerWindfield says:

    As a student who aspires to a career at the criminal bar, you have given me a lot to think about. Your tenacity and motivation to help get justice for whoever you represent is admirable. Cheers, for this. LSW

  21. Julia L Smith says:

    I am working on a big article to put across your (and other barristers’) side of the story in the national press. You can contact me at my email (if it is available to you, I’ve entered it) or if not via Twitter on @jullewellyn. You can speak anonymously, if you prefer. Hope to hear from you asap. Thank you.

  22. Hill says:

    I wonder if the hostility to the criminal defense arise from over dramatization found in the cinema and tv?

    Considering that there are too many innocent people found guilty, we should all hope that if ever the need should arise, that we are lucky enough to have a great defense team.

    Case in point, Of too many people who were not so lucky, please see the Innocent project in the US. http://www.innocenceproject.org/

    Great and interesting article. I found your site by chance.

  23. […] critique of life at the Bar — had gone viral. The critique recalled two recent blog posts — see here and here — by junior criminal barristers about how it is basically impossible to make a decent […]

  24. kclsoc says:

    Reblogged this on Kent Critical Law Society and commented:
    A grim reality indeed!

  25. Kathryn says:

    I always find difficulty with the argument against Grayling’s proposals that just because the lawyer is working for a conglomerate company that they cannot have any of that “fire, passion and tenacity” that you have spoken about in your article.

    These anti-reform articles always seems to argue that lawyers currently do their absolute best for their clients, and do plenty of work for which they aren’t remunerated appropriately or at all (as a barrister, I understand the reality of this.), and then go on to suggest that if Grayling’s proposals come through the general public won’t receive proper, caring, legal advice simply because the lawyer who represents them is paid by G4S. To suggest invariably that every lawyer who would work for these companies cannot be filled by the “fire, passion and tenacity” you have seems to be very unrealistic.

    The argument is always that G4S lawyers won’t be driven to give sound legal advice because they will be getting paid the same whether the client pleads or contests the charges. Well, quite frankly, our pay at the moment is so tripe that it is clear many of us are not in this for the money. If we will be the lawyers working for G4S, and if money has never driven us, why would our moral compass change just because the name on our pay cheque has changed?

  26. Simon says:

    I am sympathetic to the core argument here. But barristers’ case would be better made by looking at career average earnings, not the first few years, which are no more an indicator of the career’s viability than those of other jobs like civil servants, accountants, teachers or nurses (though there are social mobility implications if only the wealthy can take the hit of early low income). Is there also a question here for how we structure legal practice? Civil and corporate law seems very well remunerated. A combination of specialisms would level out pay.

  27. […] those at the junior end of the profession, who are already scraping by on little more than the minimum wage, the government's proposed reduction in legal aid income could mean game over — unless they have […]

  28. Amen. For some unknown reason, I thought I was the only one who later cries over what I’ve seen and heard.

    And Simon, they say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert – in any field. You can’t “dabble” in Criminal advocacy and expect to be good enough to do that job.

    As for the people who think we should just go to work for G4S or the Stobarts – guess what? They will want their slice. If my pay from the Government now means I’m effectively working for free, by what analysis do people think I’ll be better remunderated by Messrs Stobart?

    Wake up, folks. It’s fun to barrister-bash – until your son is named Sam Hallam or Gary MacKinnon.

  29. […] anonymous Lincoln’s Inn barrister who writes this blog says she took home about £10,000 last year, bitterly concluding: “I would quite literally […]

  30. […] anonymous Lincoln’s Inn barrister who writes this blog says she took home about £10,000 last year, bitterly concluding: “I would quite literally have […]

  31. crimbazza says:

    This is the best and most accurate article I have ever read about what its like to be a criminal barrister.

    As a reformed govt Australian criminal lawyer I can identify with and admire your tenacity.

    Your references to the trauma of exposure to the horrific subject matter that criminal cases really ring true for me. I quit as a result of mental illness stemming from this constant trauma and was relatively well paid by comparison (although calculated on an hourly rate I would have been better of labouring- which I have also done and enjoyed).

    Perhaps in the future we will see a raft of litigation centered around the liability of employers for this vicarious trauma. Until then no doubt alcoholism, depression, relationship breakdown and cynicism will continue as constant features in the culture of the profession. For the self employed there will sadly be no such recourse.

    It is great to see industrial action taking place and a line in the sand being drawn.

    It would be great to see some of the other issues being dealt with also though.I never wanted to be anything but a criminal lawyer and I grieve for the lost opportunities that might have existed in a less broken system.

    Eg
    -Why does the legal profession not look after its junior members (the judge with the character building comment)? It seems that those who ‘make it’ seem to simply forget what it was like to be scraping by financially or to deal with the constant trauma or struggle in Court (A few years ago a young practitioner in another State killed herself after an unnecessarily personal and sustained attack by a Magistrate)

    -why are there so few support structures in place for those in the profession that deal with violent and sexual crime?

    -why does the profession not use its voice to identify the positive features of our contribution (I dont mean individuals conducting their own marketing after a successful trial

    -why has the profession stood idly by and let such huge disparity grow between the remuneration of commercial lawyers and other professionals and that of criminal lawyers.

    -why have we let ourselves work ridiculous hours when we aren’t paid on an hourly wage- engineers and other professions seem to have that sorted out.

    I applaud your continued contribution to society and firmly believe that barristers such as yourself are the very cornerstone of a civil society.

    It is unfortunate that it generally takes a tragic event such as the rape or death of a loved one, or on the other side being falsely accused of a crime for members of the public to realise this.

    Lastly I’d gently suggest that your own mental health must come before your service to others, not least because your ability to continue depends on its maintenance. Without boasting, I had a stellar career for about a decade that eventually brought my life crashing down around me because I ignored the warning signs.

    Please don’t make the same mistake.

  32. Jenny says:

    We’re always given the excuse for doctors’ high pay of having studied for many years (and paying for some but certainly not all of this. Oddly government attacks barristers’ pay when most earn very little. Let’s see a list of what we (the NHS) pay the highest-paid doctors and what exactly we get for that money.Might the doctors’ union (the BMA) be better at lobbying and more powerful than the Bar (Association?) or is the phrase we hear so often ‘serving the people’ used in discriminatory fashion? We are told that those ‘serving’ us (NHS, fire fighters and police) are heroes and angels but lawyers (including those employed by the state) are never spoken about in such a gushing way, why?

  33. Alexandra says:

    Many thanks for creating the effort to discuss this, I feel strongly about this and enjoy studying a great deal more on this subject. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your weblog with a great deal more information? It’s really beneficial for me.

  34. […] servants, I think that there would have been riots by now. If you read nothing else about this, take a look at the junior Bar in their own words for a sense of what that means in real […]

  35. Sarah says:

    As someone with a young family and a keen interest in starting a career in criminal defence work, I read this with a strange mix of fear and envy. Firstly, thank you for such a well written and balanced description of your vocation (and it is definitely a vocation). I used to work as a Crown Court caseworker almost 10 years ago and recognise some of my own clients in your article. The people who need a voice the most are those who are going to be denied it, and I don’t think as a government that is forgiveable, but that’s an argument which is much better outlined by yourself above. The fact that I still would give almost everything to work in this profession is testament to the fact that our justice system is upheld by people like yourself. It also gives me hope that it is not the old boys’ club that it used to be, and that there are definitely members of the bar who are there for all the right reasons. Hopefully it can continue.

  36. […] and barristers as ‘fat cats’ making millions at the taxpayer’s expense. This blog from an anonymous Lincoln’s Inn barrister sets out some of the eye-watering costs involved in […]

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