had never given much thought to what I wanted to do following graduation. Having first arrived in the UK to attend university, I did know that there were two things that I did not want to do. Finance or IT. As it happened, my first ‘real’ job saw me end up working in the financial services department of a large IT (or ‘management’ as they like to call it – in this case semantics mattered!) consultancy. Great start.

Not wanting to spend the rest of my working life writing code and preparing endless PowerPoint presentations, I stuck it out for two years after which I left to pursue a Masters degree. Randomly, I ended up as one of two non-lawyers on an LLM course at the University of Warwick. This, it turns out, was where my legal journey would start.

For the first time I actually found something I was properly interested in. Law. The GDL and BVC (now BPTC) followed. Having hedged my bets by applying for both pupillages and training contracts, I was eventually offered a training contract at Clifford Chance. I took it. While at Clifford Chance I gained experience in large-scale commercial litigation. During my final seat I was seconded to a law clinic that allowed me to represent, often very vulnerable, clients before social security and employment tribunals.

I remember the feeling I got when I was able to obtain a mobility scooter for an elderly man who could hardly walk and witnessing his joy at having reclaimed his independence. This was my first real taste of professional advocacy and it whetted my appetite for a career as an advocate at the Bar. About a month after I left Clifford Chance (and after several shameless cold calls to various members of the profession which led nowhere) I was finally put in touch with a barrister who needed an intern to assist on a case before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. This was the area I studied during my LLM and one in which I never even dared to dream I would be able to work.

Perseverance pays off. If you have an ambition to work in a specific area but are told: ‘it’s too niche’ or ‘you don’t have a reputation or experience in that area’ or ‘it’s a very small and highly competitive area and they tend to only instruct X or Y chambers’… don’t listen! Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity. After two months I had run out of savings (it was unpaid) and was about to pack my bags when I was offered a position as a full-time (paid) lawyer on the case. Thus began my journey in international criminal law, an area in which I would go on to specialise. Following the end of the case over two and a half years later, I returned to London in 2012 and started pupillage at 9 Bedford Row, where I have been ever since. My current practice is a mix of domestic crime, international criminal law and public law and inquiries.

Diversification is easier than you might think. At the start, when I decided to embark upon a new practice area I would often think that I would arrive in court not knowing half of what I was required to know and be utterly trounced by my opponent, admonished by the judge and, in the end, unceremoniously dumped by my client.

That fear, thankfully, never materialised. On the fear factor, I recommend reading the excellent article by Nikki Alderson, ‘When wigs become masks’, published in the March 2021 issue of Counsel Magazine. I was surprised at the extent to which skills overlap across what may on paper appear to be very different areas. In my experience the ‘learning the law’ aspect often sounds more daunting than it actually is.

Exploring new areas can be challenging but also fun. It allows you to grow and learn new things. Finding your rhythm within a large multi-party international case or inquiry with many different moving parts takes more time. The skills I obtained from working on large-scale transactions and litigation assisted me in international criminal law cases and public inquiries, both of which are document intensive practice areas. All require stamina, an ability to digest huge amounts of complex detail and the confidence to identify and use evidence strategically.

Own your own time. At Clifford Chance everything was set up for late night working. Food, snacks… they even had sleeping cots if you needed a nap. You didn’t actually need to go home. I recall one of the partners who, after a little cajoling, explained to a very big and very important client that the, somewhat arbitrary, deadline they had imposed on our team was unrealistic and risked resulting in errors due to fatigue. The client agreed and extended the deadline. Not all clients may be so accommodating, but it’s worth a shot.

Positive structural change in the manner in which barristers and courts work has been brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Precipitated by the advent of remote working and CVP hearings, these changes have been demonstrated to be perfectly feasible and bring with them a wide range of benefits to the government in terms of expediency and cost savings as well as to practitioners who can more easily balance home and family responsibilities.

Your time matters. The entrenched acceptance that barristers must regularly agree to receive last-minute instructions that inevitably impact on their evenings, weekends and family life is another area where time ownership comes into play. Sure, we’re self-employed and if some don’t mind and have the time, then they get the brief. Or we could, individually and as a profession, open Pandora’s Box and start the discussion to ensure that barristers can own more of their own time.

Being a barrister does not mean having to be available for work 24/7. Just like my boss at Clifford Chance did for her team, don’t be afraid to say no to that extra brief that just came in at 6pm and which would require another all-nighter, where, of course, you can reasonably refuse without breaching your professional duty. And, of course, if you can afford to forfeit the fee. Clerks do tend to appreciate that barristers (even the most junior) are, in fact, human and in my experience they will support you as much as they can.

Real leadership is universal. My experience before I came to the Bar was that there is no one leadership style. Personally, I found that I learned the most from the very best leaders and, equally (if not more), from the very worst. For me, those who reached the pinnacle of their professions were not only the brightest but also the kindest and most supportive. At the ICTY I led a team of junior lawyers and paralegals from different countries and backgrounds. This was the first time I had managed a team. I tried to invoke the simple styles of the best leaders I had worked with. I tried to be patient, supportive and encouraging. I have since found, without exception, that this is an effective approach.

Being yourself is not always easy. Particularly in a profession which remains attached to and, to many outside the Bar, even defined by archaic stereotypes. That said, the Bar is full of highly intelligent and approachable people who are keen to help and support you.

Your success and longevity at the Bar will depend in large part on your reputation not only as a barrister but as a person. People will quickly forget your devastating cross-examination or inspired closing speech. They will not forget how you made them feel in that two minute one-on-one chat in the robing room ten years ago.

So, to recap, these are three things I learnt from my journey to (and at) the Bar:

  • Don’t be afraid to try something new. You probably already have most of the tools.
  • Own/reclaim your time where you can.
  • Leadership is universal. Be a leader by supporting and developing others.