‘The head of another chambers recently told me, “I’ll never forget how welcoming it was when I did a mini pupillage in your Chambers. I’ve said to my Chambers: what we need is a Julia.” I was touched and surprised. But it’s true that many barristers have done mini pupillages with us over the years and often are now in senior positions elsewhere.’

This is Julia Hornor, Chambers Director at Blackstone Chambers for the last 31 years. She has just announced her retirement. The low profile she has cultivated over the years is in inverse proportion to her status as a Bar legend. She has been prevailed on by others to agree to our interview. ‘I am my own worst enemy for self-promotion, but any achievements of mine are the result of a team effort. There is a great team here. Don’t make it about me. And I couldn’t have done any of it without the support of my husband and children.’

How did it start? ‘2 Hare Court, as Chambers was then, had got in a recruitment consultant and decided they needed a “Chambers Director”. They advertised in The Times. I was then a solicitor in a City firm. I had two children. I was the first female solicitor to return to work full time after each birth. Despite the firm’s encouragement I began to see the prospect of becoming a partner as less and less enchanting – more management, less law and less work/life balance. I thought I would get better balance if I moved elsewhere. Then I saw the advert and thought, “That’s interesting.” My husband said why not apply. I gave my CV to the head hunters. Things moved rapidly. I was interviewed by the then Head of Chambers; about a dozen other members had fitted themselves around the room to observe and question me. The offer came quickly and I started in September 1991.

‘Chambers had already had someone in the job for a short time before me, but it hadn’t worked out. They were brave to advertise again. I immediately changed the job title to “Practice Manager”. The word “Director” carried bad connotations, suggesting that I was coming in to tell everyone what to do. (It’s alright now because people know me – but they didn’t then.) The senior clerk and his team were young and more accepting of the change. They didn’t quite welcome me with open arms but they were amenable to my being there. At about that time the prohibition on advertising by chambers had been lifted. This led to the production of brochures, marketing – a sea change. A number of chambers were deciding that they ought to “get someone in”. Mostly the arrivals failed. Either they were too rigid in seeking to regiment the Bar or they couldn’t cope with the challenge of herding cats. 2 Hare Court thought that my background as a litigation solicitor meant I understood better than others what the role entailed. Despite that, I had somewhat underestimated the challenge.

‘I found that what they really needed was a “people person” to give them warmth and emotional cohesion, someone to help them run the business, someone who wasn’t dictatorial but had sufficient powers of persuasion to get the job done. I could do all that. I have always admired the brilliant people at the Bar. Perhaps their practical skills are sometimes less obvious, and they might not always do what we want them to do. But they are nevertheless fascinating!’

How did she get into law in the first place? ‘My father was in the Royal Navy, so we were peripatetic – several schools up to the age of 11. When I was 10 I read Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge, a coming of age story about a poor Londoner who got himself into Oxford in Elizabethan times. I decided to go there. “Oxford” sounded mystical to me. When I was 16 I did some vacation work with a local solicitors’ office in Sussex, where we lived. I was given to the managing clerk, who did the litigation. We were up in the eaves – papers tied up in pink tape, dust everywhere. He took me to the courts. It was such fun. I was hooked. So I applied to do law at Oxford and ended up at St Hugh’s. Though I did regret not studying English, I was always going to do law.

‘The Bar was not for me – I didn’t think I was sufficiently academic – my tutor would have agreed! I applied to ten solicitors’ firms. Markby’s [now CMS] offered me a place. I took it.’ After qualification she had an enjoyable ten years there in the litigation department, handling a mix of private client, commercial, employment and high-end family work. ‘A highlight? Five days litigating over the custody of a herd of one hundred Jersey cows following the introduction of milk quotas.’ By the time she read that Times’ advert, she had instructed many chambers but never 2 Hare Court itself.

How has the job changed over her 31 years? ‘At first I drew on my experience of employment work. I encouraged people to do employment law; it’s a useful way of training counsel new to advocacy. I pushed towards getting our recruitment on to a structured footing. We attended outreach events and law fairs. This had never been done before. We introduced an assessed mini-pupillage scheme. We looked after our pupils right through their pupillage, from before their arrival. We decided against a practising six. We trained our pupil supervisors. We raised pay for our pupils quite quickly. We were early adopters of OLPAS [forerunner to the Pupillage Gateway] for equal opportunities reasons even though OLPAS had a bit of a rocky start in those days. We exercised tight quality control over the selection of tenants. Over the years this all made a difference.’

Was she ever asked to share this approach with other chambers? ‘In those days chambers didn’t generally share with each other if one had got on to a good thing. You have to remember that it’s a case of chambers v chambers, individuals v individuals. But now good practice is a selling point. Instructing solicitors want to know we take it seriously. And increased regulation of the Bar changed the scene from 2007.’

When Hornor started, Chambers had 33 barristers. Now it’s 121, plus 36 staff. She has worked with nine heads of chambers in her time there. Many changes and many people: a rename from Hare Court to Blackstone and a new location to Blackstone House in 1998. ‘That was complicated enough. We turned the entrance to the building round so that it faced into the Inn. Last year we finished an even more ambitious move when we extended Chambers to take over the whole of Garden Court, a three-year project which was completed in stages throughout COVID. It called on all my emotional resources! And all the time the day job had to go on.’ Over the last five years Blackstone barristers have been involved in the highest number of decided cases, with the highest number of days in court (according to statistics provided by The Lawyer’s Litigation Tracker). ‘Barristers have always been able to work at home. But they don’t get the interaction and brainstorming that comes from being together and they can’t give proper support to their junior colleagues. They need collegiality. The new building has been a pull in getting people to come back post COVID. It’s been interesting for me as someone who has been here nearly all the time watching people coming back into chambers. Many have said that working at home was harder than they thought it would be. They may not have realised it but for me it was like watching a flower open as they caught up with each other and absorbed the life around them. Building collegiality, managing communications, linking people together, helping people to have fun in their work – that’s where I hope I have provided the glue.’

There have been too many changes to the legal world for an article of this size but Hornor highlights the increased concentration on wellbeing. ‘People in chambers work under huge pressure – barristers and staff. If you are self-employed, you feel you have to soldier on alone. But you mustn’t.’

One ambition in retirement is to keep bees. ‘I adore honey. A jar of honey is the way to my heart. I’ve already got the beehives. I just need to get the bees. And join a network of beekeepers who look after each other’s bees when someone is away.’

I can’t resist asking: any difference between barristers and bees? ‘Bees sting more obviously.’