It is easy to become overwhelmed when reading up on Mary Prior QC. Both her achievements (Woman of the Year in the Women in Law Awards 2020; a leading criminal silk; part-time Circuit Judge (Recorder); Co-chair of Women in Criminal Law (Midlands) forum; Chair of the Midland Circuit Social Mobility Programme; visiting Professional Fellow at Aston University; a Bar Council Social Mobility Advocate) and her accolades are striking (Legal 500 describes her as ‘extremely robust’ and ‘commanding the respect of the courtroom’).

When we meet for the first time, via Zoom, on a February Friday evening during COVID-19 lockdown 3.0, it is with some trepidation that I press the button to admit Mary from the virtual waiting room. I need not have worried. The first thing one notices is her ability to make you feel totally at ease. (Her command of a courtroom must surely be by carrot rather than stick.) She is phenomenally charming; not in a slick, sophisticated legal drama-esque way, but she generates a warmth, friendliness and sense of humour to which you cannot help but succumb, even over an erratic wi-fi connection. She is quick to laugh and joke, especially at her own expense. Not only does she have the silver wit and turn of phrase one might expect from a bastion of the criminal Bar, but she speaks by way of analogy, peppering our conversation with wonderful pearls of wisdoms. (A personal favourite, ‘Our profession is like a relationship. Every relationship requires work and commitment. Especially the one with your job.’)

The impression I soon form of Mary is as a kind of fantastical creature and this deepens as we chat about her background and journey to the Bar. Growing up in a working-class family, the daughter of a former coal miner and factory worker, Mary’s formative days were spent in poverty on a Stoke-on-Trent council estate. A childhood filled with love and support propelled her academic success and eventual decision to study law at university. Not, as she points out, with any lofty ambition of becoming a barrister or solicitor, but because she thought it might be the best chance of securing a semi-professional job. Mary attended a former polytechnic university, the first in her family to do so. Following an ill-fated turn at a graduate-scheme-with-car company, she worked for a number of years as a magistrates’ clerk, eventually securing a position on the Bar Vocational Course. That in itself was due to a fortuitous twist of fate; there was no space left on the Solicitor’s LPC. She was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in 1990. After securing a sponsored pupillage with the CPS and spending six years as a Crown Prosecutor, she took a leap over to the self-employed Bar at the time when she was a mother to three sons under the age of three. (Mary now has five sons!) She took silk in 2017 and was appointed Recorder in 2018.

Two things become abundantly clear. The first is that she truly adores being a barrister: ‘It’s the best profession in the world,’ she tells me, exuberance brimming across the screen, ‘I like to be challenged. I like an obstacle or puzzle to fix. There is a real joy in challenging your mind and ability on a daily basis so that you are being stretched.’ In relation to her particular practice area, which often involves highly sensitive criminal cases and being the voice of the downtrodden, she says: ‘For me what gives me joy is permitting vulnerable people to be heard, it is a difficult role, but I have so much joy from it.’

The second is the legacy (my word rather than hers) she wants to leave behind. That legacy, to me, appears to be one of social mobility, of encouraging and supporting those from non-traditional backgrounds, be that by gender, wealth, race or other, to know that they too are welcome and have a place at the Bar. She confesses: ‘There are only a couple of things that I am proud of – my children, I’m really proud of my children, and that I have worked tirelessly since I was given the huge privilege [of being appointed Queen’s Counsel] to encourage, inspire, enable and do whatever I can for the next generation. Both for women and anyone else who ever feels that they are less.’ On the morning of her silk appointment ceremony, while thinking about her parents, both of whom had sadly passed away before Mary turned 30, she made a vow that ‘I’m going to make this count.’

I ask about ‘resilience’ at the Bar, a word Mary has often used in association with her own childhood, along with ‘humour’ and ‘love’. Is resilience something that is being eroded and overlooked in a world of woke and wellbeing? ‘There has to be a combination of realism and protection,’ she says, after a pause for thought. ‘You have to be realistic that life, especially at the criminal Bar, includes long hours, travelling far and dealing with extremely difficult cases. Work that is difficult in terms of law and fact...’ Another brief pause, and she continues: ‘This is exhausting work that is emotionally draining… we cannot get around the fact that this job is stressful.’ Considering how to strike a balance between the stress and our mental health, she notes that ‘the way to deal with it and protect yourself from it is to learn mechanisms to cope with stress. You must have a support network.’ In her view, all barristers should have mentors throughout their practices. ‘If you don’t have one now, go get one!’ she begs through the screen and, in what is perhaps my favourite takeaway message: ‘Eat, people, eat! You wouldn’t run your car on air and fumes – so stop trying to run yourself on caffeine and no sleep.’

To Mary, worrying is like gossip: ‘It achieves nothing but misery.’ She urges practitioners, those in their early years especially, to make lists of tasks to complete and to prioritise sleep and personal time. Barristers need to know their hard limits and not be afraid to set them down in stone, whether that is to their clerks, solicitors or even judges. She appreciates that it is hard in the early years, but that’s what mentors and support networks are there for. ‘The solution is not to keep going under huge amounts of stress,’ she notes, ‘if you’re not enjoying the work then either you have not learned the mechanisms to cope, or this is not the right job for you.’ Mary is a big propagator of being proactive; taking command of your life and practice. We discuss at length how, unless you set your own boundaries clearly, you can possibly expect anyone else to respect them?

On the issues of impostor syndrome and gender bias: ‘I am a pleaser, a social person by nature,’ she confesses. ‘It took time for me to learn a quiet confidence.’ It was not until she learned to treat herself more seriously, to find her own gravitas from the level of work she was being instructed in, that others viewed and treated her as an experienced practitioner. ‘Imagine starting with a blank piece of paper,’ she tells me, ‘because that it all anyone knows about you when you start out. Now write on that paper the type of advocate you want to be. Write down the limits and how you might respond if someone is rude to me… if someone chats me up or is racist or sexist… Be in charge of you.’

I’d like to conclude this piece with a uniquely ‘Mary’ saying (just one of the plethora of pearls I had the fortune to hear): ‘I always say, the glorious person to be is you,’ she shares towards the very end of our long chat, ‘because the role of someone else is already taken. It is the unique aspects of you, that makes something interesting.’

Perhaps then, the lesson to take from the wonderful world of Mary Prior QC is not to try and become precisely like her, much as we may yearn to, but rather to try and better our own unique aspects. To challenge ourselves and build our resilience. To share good humour. To encourage and support others who may feel that they are ‘less’ in some way. To be proactive. If we all did that, it might be something else of which Mary might be proud.