Barristers’ chambers tend to fall into one of two camps: corporate spaceship or 18th-century timewarp. I quickly see that my new chambers leans heavily towards the latter; a Georgian rabbit warren of pastel walls and narrow, thick-pile Escher’s staircases spiralling into the ether. Inscrutable unmarked oak doors open variously onto yawning conference rooms and poky, two-desked offices, from where a cacophony of names and hearty welcomes boom, to be instantly forgotten as the next door opens. Near the clerks’ room, pigeonholes are embossed with tenants’ names and piled high with briefs tied in white or pink ribbon. Names and faces blur as I do my best to compose a mental map of who goes where and does what. It is largely pointless. Years later, I will still have to ask Alice on reception for directions to Conference Room 4, and won’t be able to tell you who of the hundred members of chambers live in which room, or whether somebody I bump into on the stairs is a long-standing colleague or opportunistic burglar. I doubt I am alone. It would certainly explain how and why an opportunistic burglar does in fact manage to stroll into chambers one day in broad daylight and help himself to half a dozen laptops.

And then we are off to our first conference; my first face-to-face encounter with a real, breathing, possibly guilty defendant. At Bar school, we practised with actors bearing rub-on tattoos and doing their best impressions of East End hardened crims; now I get to see one in the flesh. ‘Remember what you’re doing?’ Alan [SB’s pupil supervisor] quickly turns to me. ‘Sit quiet and say nothing?’ I venture. He nods. ‘You’re doing well.’ He marches into the conference room and I obediently trot behind.


My first day in court as a pupil is as terrifying as any day I go on to have in practice, and all I do is sit behind Alan in timid silence. The fear congeals in the realisation, as I observe the list in action, that no longer am I a mini-pupil clockwatching through obligation. This is something which, come hell or high water, I will be doing in six months. There is no guarantee it will last any longer, but for those six months I will have to be able to at least speak words in a courtroom populated by people who know what they’re doing, with someone’s liberty on the line if I fluff up.

The closer I watch and listen to my colleagues-to-be in action, the greater swells the feeling of dread. Fluent eloquence under pressure is one of those How Hard Can It Be? skills that looks eminently replicable until you attempt it yourself, like hooking a plastic duck at a carnival or digging a shallow grave. The confident poise with which the advocates make their submissions, sparring with not an ‘umm’, ‘err’ or ‘y’know’ in sight, gracefully leaping into the air like loquacious fish to catch judicial barbs in their mouths and politely spit them back out again – these are things that the version of me in my head is a natural at but, as I will quickly learn, that the real version is not. The idea that I will be able to slot into this tableau in 26 weeks would be laughable were it not spectacularly, deathly unfunny.

And it isn’t just the verbal dexterity; it is the language. The idiosyncratic mode of courtroom address, which you are summarily trained for at Bar school but which bears little resemblance to match day – all the May it please Your Honours and In my respectful submissions and M’learned friends – combined with the indecipherable choreography of barristers seemingly standing and sitting back down again at random, renders a court hearing at best alienating, at worst completely impossible for anybody not versed in Bar lingo to follow what the hell is going on. Throw in the shorthand, the industry acronyms, the in-jokes, the very particular style of wry humour that is permissible – but only with certain judges and only if you have the experience to pull it off – and you have a spectacle which all the actors understand, but which is wholly incomprehensible to the audience, like performing Brecht to a room of dachshunds.

And this is a problem. It’s something which you quickly forget once you’re doing it, but courts are by their very nature public forums for the administration of justice. What we do matters to society at large, not just the lawyers in the case. It is essential that somebody stepping into the public gallery – and, not least, the person in the dock whose fate is being discussed – can understand what is being played out before them... That feeling of otherness, which I know that most of us feel when starting out, is one which I think we would probably do well to remember, instead of – as I know I was guilty of early on – striving to join the natives in their impenetrable legal culture and leaving the public behind.

The clerks

‘You live and die by your relationship with the clerks,’ Alan tells me on one of our early morning car journeys to some faraway Crown Court. ‘They have the power to strap a jet pack onto your practice, or to fuck it into a lifetime of burglaries and affrays.’

That doesn’t sit easily with my early impressions of Paula, our senior criminal clerk, who has been a model of charm and cheery ‘Good morning, Sir/Madam!’s since my first day. But Alan isn’t wrong. Clerks are the lifeblood of a barristers’ chambers. They bring in the work, schmoozing [solicitors and caseworkers] to send briefs into chambers, while haggling with court listing officers and shuffling barristers’ diaries to ensure that all cases are covered and all monstrous barristerial egos are soothed by a healthy workload. As you become more established and develop a reputation, solicitors begin to ask for you by name, but at the start of your career you are almost entirely dependent on the clerks to advertise your services, which they merrily do with all the subtlety of an Amsterdam window.

It’s a perverse relationship. Clerks are technically our employees – they take a chunky percentage of our earnings – but they are very much the ones calling the shots.

A large part of first six involves drafting written work for one’s supervisor. It’s unlikely, certainly at the beginning, that it will be of sufficient quality to be usable in real legal proceedings, but with regular feedback and by comparing your efforts to your supervisor’s, you can start to see competence on the horizon. My first piece of work is an advice to the Crown Prosecution Service on a case that Alan is prosecuting, involving the theft of musical instruments belonging to a famous band from a large music venue.... Most cases in the magistrates’ court are prosecuted by in-house CPS solicitors, whereas in the Crown Courts the CPS will usually contact a barristers’ chambers and ask for a barrister, either somebody by name or – my personal favourite and the key to my professional success – ‘whoever you’ve got available’.

As I pore over the papers and carefully distil my semi-professional analysis of the law of non-dwelling burglary, particularly pleased by my inclusion of the wiggy turn of phrase ‘five-piece power-pop combo’, I apply what Alan has told me, which is the second-best piece of advice I’ve ever had: Start with what’s missing. The brief you receive from the CPS will rarely contain all the evidence that you need for trial; your job is to identify the gaps and omissions, those sly loopholes through which a cunning guilty defendant might wriggle, and to advise the police and CPS on how to close them.

I am not prepared, however, for quite how much is missing. Apparently key witnesses, whose names appear in internal documents, haven’t given statements. Police officers have filled their own witness statements with inadmissible hearsay and bad character. Exhibits which seem obvious, even to me as a burglary virgin – such as photographs of the recovered loot at the defendant’s home – haven’t been obtained. Fingerprint evidence is mentioned but doesn’t seem to actually exist.

This, I quickly learn, is the norm. The resources of the police and the CPS to investigate and prosecute crimes – especially ten-a-penny offences like burglary – are minimal. It often falls to prosecuting counsel to rescue a viable case to present at trial. After seven hours and 15 pages of incisive factual and legal analysis, I proudly present my (surely perfect) document to Alan.

He returns it two days later, ablaze with red pen and a thick circle of ink around ‘five-piece power-pop combo’ with the annotation – ‘DO YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY? THIS IS NOT FUNNY. DO NOT TRY TO BE FUNNY.’

That is the best piece of advice I’ve ever had.

Following Alan into the court cells to visit a freshly sentenced flasher, I bump into Alicia, who was one of the other final-round applicants for the pupillage that I lucked into. She is now a pupil at a chambers across town, and we swap cheerful congratulations before being dragged apart like excitable cockapoos by our respective masters. Clocking Alan’s furrowed expression as Alicia scurries away, I remind him that she was one of my co-interviewees. Recognition clicks. ‘Of course!’ he says, absent-mindedly. ‘She’s the one I voted for.’

This time-limited extract is reproduced with the permission of Picador/Pan Macmillan. Nothing But The Truth: Stories of Crime, Guilt and the Loss of Innocence(Picador: 2022) is the new Sunday Times bestseller by The Secret Barrister. Charting their journey from hang-em-and-flog-em undergrad to bestselling author and campaigner, it explores, with searing honesty and wicked humour, what it is that we want from our justice system, and what it takes to change our minds.