Katy Thorne QC: Day in the law and life

Founder of Women in Criminal Law recounts an average day leading in a murder trial and smashing the glass ceiling – at least being the only female silk in a case gets you noticed...


My alarm goes off for the first time at 6.15. And then the damn thing goes off again at 6.30. I’ve got a third one set for 6.45 which is the one I’m supposed to get up to. And finally, when at 7am my husband suggests that I really do have to get up for work, I roll out of bed. I’m supposed to do exercise every morning: a ‘run’ around the park (which is a touch slower than most people’s walk) or a slog on the cross-trainer – which I do to the crazy techno beat of the Today programme – it suits my cadence. I hate all of humanity at this moment. I am not good in the mornings.

I usually avoid taking the kids to school pleading early court listings. My husband is much better at getting them out on time with the relevant bags and kit. If I do end up with that job, we always end up getting distracted by plaiting hair into complicated styles and practising our Ariana Grande impressions rather than actually getting ready.

Mornings have always been the more difficult bit to manage for criminal lawyers with families, because school/nursery drop-off starts at 8am at the earliest, and if your partner’s job has similarly inflexible start time, finding sporadic affordable childcare to take up the slack is near impossible. On the plus side, finishing at 4.30 does mean that you can get back and do the early evening shift, which many more rigid jobs don’t allow, and my rule to maintain the sanity of the family has always been to take plenty of time off in between cases.

Being in court recently, I am having to get used to something that I thought had almost disappeared: being the woman imposter. More often than not you are the only woman silk in a case, and the figures are worse in cases involving gangs, firearms, fraud or terrorism. Yes, there are more women in these types of cases these days, but they still tend to be the juniors. Gender imbalance remains a big issue across the legal profession. For people joining the Bar: its 50:50 at the junior end, but we lose a huge number of middle and senior women and are still grappling with promoting enough women: only 23% of QCs are women. But on the plus side, being the only woman in a case means you do get noticed, and I feel intensely lucky never to feel bored in my job: the constant whirlwind of intellectual challenge, being feisty for a living, standing up for something important and the semi-social worker role is a great way to spend your working life, even if the pay at the junior end makes it more difficult to juggle things.

This week I’m in a murder trial, first on the indictment, which is a stressful and intense way of working. It was a case returned to me and my junior just days before the trial started and so the usual weeks of preparation had to be concertinaed into less than a week and worked around other commitments. We both arrive plastered with makeup to hide the dark rings around our eyes from all the late night catching up. Fortunately everyone in the case is delightful and patient with us newbies. It doesn’t help, however, that my junior and I are both hobbling about and limping – her from a serious back problem, me from a ridiculous recurring achilles injury (I blame the running). I’ve also got an embarrassing injury to my thumb (caused by too much WhatsApp-ing) so I am overly bandaged. The court is not ergonomically designed and my poor junior has to stand up every 40 minutes to relieve her pain, much to the bemusement of the jury. Fixed benches in court have to be the worst possible design of furniture for posture.

"I feel intensely lucky never to feel bored in my job: the constant whirlwind of intellectual challenge, being feisty for a living, standing up for something important and the semi-social worker role is a great way to spend your working life, even if the pay at the junior end makes it more difficult to juggle things."

We have, however, secured a sought-after room. This is considered the height of luxury at the criminal Bar, a lockable room near to the court room in which your team can converse privately about the hopelessness/brilliance of our case, gossip with the usher, leave our papers, secret stashes of sweets, spare bandages, and the pairs of Skechers (other brands of comfort shoes are available) in which we travel to court. There are hardly any court canteens any more and the machine in the foyer selling brown liquid, which is quite plainly neither coffee nor tea, is not much of a temptation, so we have also sneaked in a Nespresso machine, which is an invaluable way of bribing special favours from the prosecution team.

We are staying in hotels for the first couple of nights, even though you usually don’t get the expenses back, because there is often so much to do in the first days of a criminal trial. There is little point going home because I won’t have time to engage with anyone. I’ll get some work done while I eat an M&S sandwich, then try and talk to the kids on the phone. The teenagers are monosyllabic as usual, though seem happy enough without me. The youngest updates me the news on the latest craze: slime-making, or how her cartwheel practice is going. I give every impression of appearing fascinated by these developments.

The late evening is my productive time. I think my best work is done when it’s 2am and I’m nearly cross-eyed with sleepiness. I start doing all that stuff that builds up in the day for us court-workers. Skeleton arguments, prepping cross-examination, trawling through a million emails all with urgent deadlines. I have fallen in love with the Tomato Timer which helps you to focus on work (it’s an app: get it if like me you can be easily distracted by Amazon browsing or sending ranty tweets about Brexit). I’ve always got lots of stuff to do on my beloved Women in Criminal Law organisation, whether it’s organising events, writing articles or responding to email queries. Then it’s catching up with personal email stuff: news from my wider family, a school performance, or my work as a trustee of a local charity.

When that’s all done, and when I’ve WhatsApp-ed my favourite ladies to arrange some weekend swimming in the ponds on the Heath or some retail therapy or some drinking an ill-advised quantity of wine, then it’s time to get my head down and set all those damn alarms all over again. 

Katy Thorne QC is a silk at Doughty Street Chambers and Founder and Chair of Women in Criminal Law.


Shoulder to shoulder

Women in Criminal Law has become a huge part of my working life. I set it up 18 months ago to try to support and encourage women working in the criminal justice system to get to the top. We have hundreds of members across the country and have held lots of fantastic events designed to create a network of support and connections for women solicitors, barristers, paralegals and clerks. We run mentoring schemes and training programmes for all women in these professions whether prosecuting or defending, privately or publicly funded. I now travel the country trying to spread the word about the benefits of working together to try and smash the glass ceiling. Join us here: www.womenincriminallaw.com.

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Katy Thorne QC

Katy Thorne QC is a silk at Doughty Street Chambers and Founder and Chair of Women in Criminal Law.