Day in the life: at the helm of the Northern Circuit

Almost 50 years after being led by the great Rose Heilbron, the Northern Circuit has its second female Leader, the indefatigable Lisa Roberts QC describes a formidable life in the day running Circuit

Ask any criminal practitioner what question they get asked more than any other and they will say that it is, ‘How do you defend someone when you know they are guilty?’ For more than 25 years I have given various answers which have oscillated between bleeding heart evangelism and waspish cynicism. Since I became Circuit Leader, however, there are now two questions. The first, ‘Are you mad?’ (from those in the know) is easy to answer – yes. The second, ‘What exactly is that?’ (from the uninitiated) is a little trickier.

As Leader of the Northern Circuit I appear to have taken on a role which is an improbable mash-up of the following: chief executive of a large organisation, ambassador (sadly minus the Ferrero Rocher), pastoral care giver, after dinner speaker, shop steward, accountant, historian and, above all, diplomat. I feel like I am Jack of all trades and master of none. I am hoping that the former will diminish with a combination of delegation (never my strong point) and prioritisation and that the latter will improve with time and confidence.

Life on Circuit is much more of a ‘thing’ outside London. You Southerners have the Inns on your doorstep; we don’t. Your Specialist Bar Associations are your go-to resource. You have the wealth of events and training that the Bar Council has to offer but minutes from your Chambers. Are we envious? No, because we have Circuit. We have Mess several times a term, we have Circuit social and sporting events, we have on-Circuit training. And we have each other. Nearly everyone who practises in the North West is a member of the Northern Circuit – at the last count over 1200 members, stretching from Carlisle to Chester and all points in between.

Prior to my new role I was the Circuit’s Attorney General. A title rather grander than the reality which was after dinner speaker at Mess, committee member and self-appointed right-hand woman to our former Leader, Michael Hayton QC. I was the first woman to hold the post because, let’s face it, women aren’t funny and they don’t make great speeches, right?

The only female leader our Circuit has had was the great Rose Heilbron QC who led our Circuit for a year before her appointment to the High Court Bench. That was 1973. I figured that 47 years was a long enough recovery period for Circuit to steel itself for ‘yet another’ woman at the helm. And so, dear Reader, I said yes. After all, how time-consuming could it be?

I am used to juggling life’s plates. Those of us who have children, a busy practice and take the primary role in domestic management will know what I’m talking about. My family call it control freakery, I like to think of it as super organisation, but whatever it is my micro-managerial skills are put to the test immediately. I set up a dedicated email address so that the occasional Circuit issue that arises can be kept separate from my practice. ‘Occasional’ turns out to be about 20 issues per day. Because I have the same approach to relaxation as Monica off Friends, I can’t leave an email unanswered for longer than it takes to boil the kettle. My super efficiency will be the death of me. Either that or caffeine.

I have an 8.30am dial-in conference with the other Circuit Leaders. Four of us are new in post, all six of us are enthusiastic. Our discussions focus on court sitting days and fees – in short, not enough of either. We talk and email each day and meet up when we can.

Today’s emails from members on my Circuit focus on funding – for an event at which our very own Baroness Hale will be speaking, for a dinner for women lawyers, for an event we jointly host each year with the Irish Bar… The sums are significant, and I decide that a thorough trawl through the accounts is the best way to determine whether such pleas can be met and, if so, what course of diplomacy needs to be steered to meet the demands of others. Tempting though it is to run Circuit as a benign dictatorship – hey, it works at home, so why not? – I know I must (and do) consult the Treasurer; and then I get on top of all the financial information to hand before I make any decisions. Then to Flexible Operating Hours and liaising with those on Circuit who are monitoring how this is working (or not) in practice. Watch this space. I am arranging a retirement Mess for two of our most beloved judges which, after some understandable to-ing and fro-ing, is finalised with the help of my trusty Junior. My attention then turns to finessing the guest list for Mess this term but I am thwarted in my efforts because, apparently, the High Court judges have better things to do than prioritise my Mess calendar. Who knew?

I hurry to a meeting where I consider a plea to save a much-treasured Circuit organisation. I discuss it with the trustee and, later that morning, a High Court judge who must be consulted. I ply him with coffee and a chocolate brownie. That should work. Then to lunch with a young Circuiteer who has professional difficulties; I take phone calls from three other women who raise the same serious issue. I escalate the matter later that day to those who need to know, which is an awkward but necessary conversation. I get good news from the Bar Council: an issue I had raised over training is being treated seriously and things will change. I have confidence that our new Chair is the kind of woman who will deliver. I hot-foot it to London for a meeting about fees. I am surrounded by impressive people in an impressive building. Back to Manchester in time for dinner with the High Sheriff where my only disappointment is that the dress code says nothing about Maid Marian. It’s Mr LR QC’s debut gig as ‘Leader’s consort’ – a term he considers to be a marginal improvement on the one I gave him: FLOTUS. He plays a blinder at the dinner and will be an invaluable wingman for the next three years.

Somehow, the skeleton argument for the police misconduct hearing gets done; the advice on the workplace fatality is sent to my solicitors and the return journey to Manchester provides the ideal opportunity to mug up the law on hedgerows. It’s a far cry from the near constant diet of sex and death that I had as a junior, but life in silk continues to delight and exhaust in equal measure. It’s just that now I seem to have added a rather fancy title and some rather grown up responsibilities to the (highly) organised chaos that is my life. With one child at university, and the other one heading there this Autumn, I am a woman in need of a project. Two months into my three-year term as Circuit Leader and I can see that I am going to be very busy. Which is just how I like it.

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Lisa Roberts QC

Lisa Roberts QC practises criminal and regulatory law at Lincoln House Chambers in Manchester. She took silk in 2015 and became Leader of the Circuit in January 2020.