Trawling through my e-mails I am able to pinpoint the first time I met Bernard Richmond QC. It was in the spring of 2012 in the Sherrard Room of the Ashley Building in the Middle Temple. I had been invited to the Inn for an interview for a place on the Access to the Bar Awards scheme and Bernard was chairing the panel. At that time, I was in the final year of my law degree. I had considered a career at the Bar but didn’t know where to start, given I was from the first generation in my family to go to university and didn’t know any lawyers. It is fair to say that at that time I was clueless as to the practicalities of the job.
Sensing my nerves, the panel were very gentle with me and, perhaps unsurprising to those who know him, most of the questions that day came from Bernard.
Fortunately I didn’t do as badly as I thought and was awarded a place on the scheme. I spent a week marshalling with Lord Justice David Bean (one of the founders of the scheme) and another week in chambers. This experience was instrumental in helping me to make an informed decision as to whether I would be suited to this vocation. Happily, I haven’t looked back since and so seven years after that first interview, I jumped at the opportunity when asked if I would like to interview Bernard for this article. Finally, I would be the one asking the questions!
UD Your practice profile describes you as being committed to ensuring that people have a voice in the justice system, which can be seen from the very difficult cases you have taken on over the years. A recent example is your role as counsel to the Grenfell Inquiry. Going back to the beginning, when did you decide you wanted to be a barrister?
BR I’m going to be one of those annoying people and say it was pretty early on. When I was 8 or 9 years old and I first watched Crown Court on TV. That was the starting point and then Rumpole of the Bailey came along and I was determined that I was going to be barrister.
When I was 14 my politics teacher took our class to Snaresbrook Crown Court and that was my first taste of court. We sat in the public gallery of Court 3 and I remember being transfixed by the advocates and the judge. The case finished but I stayed on and watched another trial even after my classmates had gone home – I found the whole theatre and dynamics of court fascinating.
Then when I was in sixth form I remember going to the Old Bailey and watching Jean Southworth QC; she was a proper advocate, a real class act.
UD You went to a state comprehensive school in the East End of London. Was your school supportive of your decision to pursue a career at the Bar?
BR I come from a working-class background and when I told my careers teacher that I wanted to be a barrister she assumed that what I actually meant was to be a barrister’s clerk. Having later done some research she told me that if I was serious, I needed to do an A-level in Latin – which was not true at all.
To be honest my school really didn’t have any ideas on how to help us. In my year group less than ten people passed their A-levels and it was pretty much left up to us students to forge our own paths. At that stage I didn’t know how I was going to go about becoming a barrister. I had never even met one but I had decided to read law at university.
That being said, it is important to add that I was really fortunate that my parents were extremely supportive of my chosen career path. I grew up in Upton Park and in my community there was a really strong tradition of leaving school and getting a trade, but my parents always worked on the basis that if I was bright enough to study then they would encourage me to do that and they did.
UD How important were mentors in supporting your journey to the Bar?
BR I don’t think I identified them as mentors at the time, but looking back now I can see that both my German and English teachers fulfilled that role early on. They didn’t really understand the Bar but they were both very encouraging. My German teacher despaired of me but she was very pedantic linguistically and she taught me to be inquisitive to really understand language, an important skill. My English teacher was also incredibly supportive.
Later on the Middle Temple Students Officer at the time, Andrea Tatton-Brown, was fabulous. She was the person who kept me motivated when I was really struggling financially.
Michael Sherrard QC, the first director of Middle Temple Advocacy is another influential person. He was an inspiration and I learnt so much from him. Robin Simpson QC was also very important; he taught me that nothing is ever too serious that you cannot have a little bit of mischief with it. Lord Justice Rose also was very encouraging. Those three in particular went from being my heroes to my mentors and eventually my friends.
My career has really benefited from knowing all those people.
UD What do you know now that you wish you’d known before – what advice would you give your younger self?
BR Seven things:
- During pupillage especially, don’t be afraid to be yourself. You can’t keep up an act 24 /7.
- Be rigorous when it comes to maintaining a balance in your life. Don’t try to take everything on; be selective. Protect your wellbeing and focus on yourself. You can’t control what other people do.
- The chambers where you desperately want to be is sometimes the place where you desperately should not be.
- Don’t get your tax/VAT wrong – you could spend a lifetime trying to catch up.
- Buy suits that fit you.
- Do not be consumed by imposter syndrome. You deserve to be where you are.
- The job is everything you thought it was going to be – and more.
UD Finish the sentence: If I wasn’t a barrister I would be…
I did think about being a teacher at one point and also about going to drama school and becoming an actor but with what I know now, I think every other profession would have left me feeling unfulfilled and full of regret.
UD Try to describe your career in a sentence
BR An unexpected abundance of riches.
About the interviewer: Ubah Dirie is a barrister at the 36 Group who specialises in advice, representation and advocacy in all areas of immigration, asylum, nationality, deportation and detention.