‘Objection, Your Honour!’ shouted the attorney. ‘Overruled, Counsel’ bellowed the judge in response. Well, practising in England and Wales isn’t quite as theatrical as the American legal dramas ‘Perry Mason’ or ‘Ally McBeal’ but at the criminal Bar, you can get pretty darn close. And that was why I was hell bent on practising crime when I first came to the Bar in 2007. And for four years, it worked pretty well – busy and bustling…
… until ‘the whirlwind of life’ blew through. Within two years I met someone, got married and moved to London. Regrettably my Western Circuit criminal practice was unsustainable as the cost of travel outweighed the intermittent legal aid rates paid. In London, we had a limited flow of criminal work and I didn’t have the appetite to start over – back in the mags. So in July 2013, I took the plunge to start a whole new area of law. I applied for and took up a seconded role as a Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) case presenter. For six months, I presented NMC cases up and down the country. Before I started, I knew naught and 180 days later, I was an expert in professional discipline… almost.
If it wasn’t for my secondment, I would never have acted in a professional disciplinary case in which even the writers of ‘EastEnders’ would have said the plot’s a bit far-fetched: a tale of deception, same-sex love triangle between heterosexual individuals, harassment, assault, a conviction, more lies and a career that nearly ended in tatters – all in one case! With one six-month secondment, I had managed to diversify my practice beyond recognition. Fortunately, London life suited me.
And then another turn of events… the birth of my daughter in 2016. The plan was to jump straight back to work once I returned from maternity. Others made it look so easy, surely I could do the same? But how could I now do a three-week trial in Manchester at the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service when I was still breastfeeding? Even a two-day trial was impossible. When you become a parent you soon realise that your evenings are no longer free to prep cases, do your accounts/admin or just catch up. And the fatigue from waking up half the night to deal with teething, nightmares or whatever else is thrown at you, when you haven’t finished your cross examination or closing submissions, is utter torture. I was ready to pack it all in. I wanted to be around my child and be part of her life – not stressing about how I would prise myself from her in the morning as I had to make the train to a faraway part of the country. It finally dawned on me – ‘So that’s why so many female colleagues leave the Bar when they have kids.’
Then my clerks offered me a lifeline – a part-time secondment with National Grid plc as a health, safety and environmental specialist legal counsel to cover maternity leave in 2017 and 2018. Then in 2019 and 2020, I was offered a 10-month contract with the Financial Conduct Authority as part of a team of enforcement lawyers investigating two high-profile financial entities for money laundering regulatory breaches.
So what have these experiences taught me? Having a child does not have to hold you back. With babe in tow, I advised on the health and safety arrangements at a control of major accident hazard site, regulatory compliance of a major asset under the Fluorinated Greenhouse Gases Regulations 2015 and prepared witness interviews for senior leaders of a financial entity.
This article could not have come at a more pertinent time: the chaos of COVID. Although many courts have found a way around the mayhem following on from the first lockdown, unsurprisingly many are feeling the emotional and financial strain of uncertainty. With patchy diaries and/or tighter finances, a secondment could be the answer to a world of unpredictability.
It can be a steep learning curve, but secondments have helped me mature, work collaboratively within teams, manage groups of lawyers and non-lawyers and advise big business. Having consistency and stability in the formative years of my child’s life has meant I have been around to do pick-ups, drop-offs and bath time. Of course, it is not as exciting as swanning around courts or tribunals, getting great results or the adrenaline rush when cross examining. But for a little while I have had sanity. Sanity in my professional life in knowing my start and end time, having an evening and everyone knowing where they can find me. Better still, the only chaos was dealing with my little mite!
Perhaps more than anything, if you do well, you can have clients for life. Undertaking secondments has confirmed for me that I enjoy being at the self-employed Bar. So, to my colleagues at the Bar, if you are at a crossroads and do not know what to do next – try a secondment. It will give back far more than you have put in.