Extraordinary Working Lives: Chris Daw QC

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Chris Daw QC contrasts two days in the life: a building labourer in a sub-zero winter to a documentary-making Silk for primetime TV whose film went viral on LinkedIn


No two days are ever the same. Nor were they ever.

I remember so many days in so many jobs. Thinking about my day as a Silk in 2018 takes me back to earlier working days. Caddying at Woburn at the age of 12, selling ice creams at the safari park nearby, sorting eggs at a battery farm – we got to keep the misfits and the double yolkers – paper and milk rounds of course, Friday nights frying chips at the local Chinese chippy, tracking down the orders in the Argos warehouse. Sorry if I broke your Walkman as it rolled down the conveyor belt or gave you curry sauce when you ordered chips and gravy.

Of all the working days before I joined this ancient – but bizarre – profession, one day sticks in my mind more than all the others. My dad was a builder, or a waterproofer, to be precise. He helped to build Milton Keynes, which, roundabouts and concrete cows aside, is a pretty impressive achievement. My mum and dad moved there in the late 60s because London was way out of their price range. A three-bed semi in Bletchley, mortgage and all, took them to the land of opportunity; just off Junction 13 of the M1.

My dad was the hardest working man I have ever met. He got paid when he worked and earned nothing when he didn’t – no sick pay, no holiday pay, no pension scheme – sound familiar? So he worked a lot. He would often leave home before dawn and return, tired and cold or hot and sunburnt, according to the season, long after dark. There was always another building site, another job to finish and he was the best at what he did, so more jobs came in. Bills were paid. Food was always on the table.

I must have been around 13 when I first started to work on the sites with my dad; weekends sometimes but mainly school holidays. It remains the hardest work I have ever done. That late return of a trial brief for the following day – midnight oil and coffee while the questions and speech points come together – is like a Caribbean cruise compared to 12 hours of backbreaking lifting, fetching and labouring, come rain or shine, ice and snow.

On this day, there was a lot to be done. A bridge over a dual carriageway to be waterproofed with metre square panels; each one 30 awkward to carry kilos at least, and steaming, acrid bitumen to cover the lot. Hundreds of panels to be unloaded and carried so that my dad could manoeuvre them, one by one, perfectly into position. I had no construction skills at all; just the strength of a teenager and a back undamaged by years of hunching over papers and laptops. It felt like the coldest of December days. Maybe it was.

We started before dark and my job was a simple one. Take the top panel from the stack – taller than me – shuffle it around using the side of the truck, the floor, knees and brute force, to get it balanced in my hands. Then carry it to the start of the bridge, where my dad would do the real work. Back for another one. And another. Not ten reps in the gym, no earbuds and no telly; just repetitive, mind numbing, backbreaking work, in sub zero temperatures. All day.

The only relief was the lunch break. Greasy spoon in a Portakabin. I have eaten in many Michelin starred restaurants but cannot remember tasting anything better than that lunch. 3,000 calories expended in the morning’s labour, maybe more, and all were replaced. Fried eggs, sausages, bacon, black pudding, beans, chips, onion rings, white bread and butter. Unless it went into a frying pan or the deep fat fryer they didn’t sell it. Apart, that is, from the doorstopper slab of apple pie and the pint mug of tea.

Then back to work. More panels, more bitumen, breath steaming, face burning from the cold. Back feeling a bit like it does now after a day in court, over 30 years later. It went dark by four so we rigged up a light to the generator so we could finish. The stack of panels eventually came down to a dozen or so. It must have been minus five and my gloves had long since been penetrated by the cold.

My dad barely stopped working all day, never once sat back and took a break. He rolled his own cigarettes – no filter – and let them hang from his lips while he worked on his knees. The knees were what gave way and caused him to give up this work in the end. He would always step in and do the hardest job if he could make my work a bit easier; my load a bit lighter. I tried to keep up but he was stronger, partly in his muscular arms and shoulders but mostly in his heart and mind. Slacking was just not in his make-up.

As the final panel slotted perfectly into place, like all the other panels, bricks and tubes of mastic he deployed each day, he asked me if I was OK. I looked at him, looked at my filthy old jeans, trainers and sweatshirt, gloves covered in dust and stained with tarmac, and realised that I could not feel my hands at all. They were numbed to anaesthetic levels by the fierce, dry cold. ‘I’m OK,’ I said, ‘but being honest Dad, I don’t think I can do this, every day forever.’

‘I bloody hope not!’ he laughed. ‘If you’ve got the choice you need to do something with your brain, where you can work indoors in the winter.’

And that is the exact moment that things fell into place. I was proud of my dad and what he did. My mum too worked long hours in a host of jobs and went to college as a mature student. Both left school at 14 and went into shop and manual work. They did all of that, partly because of the curse of the 11-plus, clearly to pay the bills, but mainly so that I didn’t have to.

In 2013 my mum and dad were in Westminster Hall when I took the oath to become one of Her Majesty’s Counsel. Chris Grayling’s incongruous presence as Lord Chancellor aside, it was an incredible day. They had previously watched me in court, including defending in a manslaughter trial, which made its way onto my Silk application form. But I think this was beyond what they had expected when I announced, as a cocky 17-year-old, that I was going to do a law degree and become a barrister, having just learned what that was in the school careers centre.

Raising the Bar: social mobility film-making for BBC1

Earlier this year the BBC asked me to make a short film for The One Show, in their Life Lectures segment, compressing my journey from Milton Keynes to Silk into barely five minutes of telly.

The filming day started with an early train from Euston to Bletchley and a taxi to my old comprehensive school, in the middle of a council estate on the outskirts of the town. I had been back there just once in 30 years, when they invited me to present their student awards after I took Silk. As the producer described it, happily from a TV point of view, ‘it’s got a brilliant 70s Grange Hill vibe’. That’s because it was a real life Grange Hill. In the 70s.

The school had gone to a lot of trouble; it was exam time and they had to get letters of consent for over 50 kids, who were to appear in the film. We started filming in the school reception, took in some moody footage in the corridors and I was emotionally reunited with the concrete stairwell of the tower block and my form room on the top floor.

Then I gave a lecture to younger versions of me, now drawn from every race, religion and corner of the planet. The message was – you decide what you want to do with your life and don’t let anyone or anything hold you back; least of all the fact that you were not born with a silver spoon in your mouth. They were incredibly engaged and respectful and gave me a humbling round of applause.

Four hours of filming and two minutes of telly later and it was off to the local café with the small crew. There we met Darryl Laycock; one of my regular criminal clients in the 90s, a major gangland figure in Manchester at the time, now going straight and mentoring kids away from crime. We filmed a short interview with Darryl, right behind the house my parents lived in when I was born.

Then it was into the production car back to London for the final shooting set-up; at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey for the civil amongst you). Miraculously (and thanks again!) we had permission from the Recorder of London to film inside. We were allowed in through the back gate and parked opposite the Mayor of London’s limo.

I am a beginner at this filming thing but I am really proud of the footage we got inside the Bailey; not only the spectacular dome, the historic artwork and the mottos on each wall. Mainly it was having the chance to bring a world, I have lived in and loved for 25 years, into millions of homes and, I hope, bring it to life in a way most people never get to see.

Oh, and my mum and dad were watching. BBC1, Friday at 7 o’clock.

Chris Daw QC @crimlawuk is a Silk at Serjeants’ Inn (London) and Lincoln House (Manchester). His short film has had more than 34,000 views on LinkedIn alone and can be seen at: bit.ly/chrisdawoneshow


Q&A with Chris and the Secret Barrister…

Chris Daw QC, who recently made Raising the Bar, a short BBC1 film on social mobility, and the Secret Barrister, author of Stories of The Law and How it’s Broken, will co-host a streamed online Q&A event for aspiring lawyers on 5 December 2018. Chris will be at Serjeants’ Inn Chambers in London and SB will be... well, that would be telling.

Details of how to join the stream will be available on Twitter from @BarristerSecret and @crimlawuk

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Chris Daw QC

Chris practises from Serjeants’ Inn (London) and Lincoln House (Manchester). His practice includes a considerable body of professional discipline and other regulatory work, in addition to specialist and business crime cases.