Every advocate knows that self-confidence is a slippery customer. My friend Frank Chaplin suffered from both extremes and used to exude assurance in conferences only to become a nervous wreck the second the judge entered the courtroom, not unlike the attorney co-defending with Joe Pesci in the brilliant My Cousin Vinny. He and I once attended a widely touted confidence-building seminar, very fashionable in the 1990s, paying £250 each.
The theory was simple. You imagined a time when you had been very successful in your life, closed your eyes and brought it to mind, savouring each moment of triumph and confidence. This was then your ‘circle of excellence’. When faced with a crisis in court, you were to pause for a second and place yourself mentally inside your circle. Now you drew those streams of past success into yourself making you confident and assured to cope with the problem facing you.
The room was full to bursting. This clearly was an issue that many barristers at least perceived that they had. We had an inspiring talk from a lovely Silk who then handed over to our trainer, a hard-bitten salesman for this new religion. We were asked to share our own doubts and problems with the rest of the audience. First up was a young man of impressive bearing and loud voice. What problem could he possibly have?
‘I irritate people,’ he told us. ‘What do you mean by that exactly?’ asked our trainer with apparent deep interest. ‘I just annoy everyone: family, friends, my clients, instructing solicitors, the clerks, opponents, the judge, colleagues in Chambers…’ At this point the trainer interrupted him. This was just as well, because somehow, and indefinably, he was now irritating all of us. I felt waves of annoyance flowing through my body. Our instructor told him, somewhat testily, that he would find the exercises a great relief.
The next barrister to speak was in pupillage. His problem was that his heart beat too loudly when speaking in public and, indeed, he was feeling this sensation, now, this minute, as he spoke to us. Our instructor was genuinely delighted. ‘This is a common phenomenon,’ he said, ‘very easily cured by the circles of excellence. It is based on a false belief. In fact, your heart is really beating perfectly normally. It is your perception that is betraying you.’ To illustrate the point, he asked the pupil to place the roving microphone over his heart so that we could all listen to the beats ourselves. Unfortunately, the speed was so alarmingly fast that, had it been an episode of Casualty, the defibrillator would have already been attached. The concerned seminar secretary dashed over with a glass of water and the young man sat down, perspiring profusely.
We were then asked to divide into break-out groups of three. Abandoning Frank to his own devices, I chose two individuals to my left: a young woman with flaming auburn hair who hailed from the Scottish Highlands and a rather elderly man with pince-nez spectacles. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘who is going to kick off?’ The young woman, whose name was Ailsa, did so. ‘I have this problem with cross-examining police officers,’ she said in a beautiful Scottish lilt and at a pace not dissimilar to the clearly compromised heart we had just heard. ‘I mean if you say to them “you didn’t do that, you did this”, they say “it’s all here in my notebook” and there it is, all written down. So what do you do now? You say he didn’t do this, but he says he did do it ‘cos it’s all there in black and white for anyone to read. I mean, what do you do? I can never think of anything to say.’
Nor could I. The elderly gentleman could, however. ‘I think I may have come to the wrong event. If I have a problem, which I haven’t, it is over-confidence. I came to discover the art of re-examination which I confess to finding ever so slightly difficult. Perhaps that one was being held at Middle Temple.’
At this point Frank turned and grabbed my arm saying, ‘We need to get out of here.’ For myself, I tried circles of excellence just once during a torrid day in the Court of Appeal. The Lord Chief Justice stared quizzically and asked if I had lost my thread whilst I was mentally stepping in and out of my circle. Sadly, Frank did not seem to improve either and eventually became a solicitor in Malvern.
William Byfield Gutteridge Chambers. William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.