The backstory

I am in some doubt that anyone will be terribly interested in this, but I asked you for suggestions for blog posts and the only half serious one that has come back is a request for me to tell my story, and in particular the story of how I became a barrister.

Particularly now I’ve written it, it feels terribly self indulgent. But you did ask…so I’m going to take a deep breath and hit publish.

So, where to begin? At school I suppose. I went to a convent school until I was 11. Goodness only knows why – my parents weren’t religious and certainly weren’t catholic (a fact which the nuns were perpetually reminding me of). The only explanation my mum has ever given me is that she met one of the nuns at the local playgroup and they sounded nice (good research skillz there mum). But I was reasonably bright and hard working and (apart from that time when I played a trick on the teacher at my friend Liz’s insistence and nearly got the cane for my trouble) I was a good girl, even if I was destined to burn in hell with my parents and brother (allegedly).

My mum and dad both went to the local secondary modern, and my dad had to fight with his own father (a postie) to stay on at his school till 16 rather than get a job at 15. He tells a great Monthy Python-esque story with overtones of “paper bag int’d middle o’ road” about his childhood, about playing in bomb sits, about the only tv in the street, about his grocery delivery round on a bike so big he could only dismount by finding a tree and doing a controlled sideways fall into it, and about getting a job as a minion at the Weston Super Mare branch of Lloyds bank. He recounts how he was taken to one side by the Bank Manager after the first week, given his first pay slip and asked if wouldn’t mind buying a suit for next week. He had been wearing his school uniform to work. My dad ended up a bank manager. That bank is a wine bar now.

Oh dear, I’ve gone a bit off topic. Back to school.

I had a bit of a shock when I transferred to the local comp. There a single year group was bigger than my entire primary school had been, the bogs were painted neon green and there were three boys named Stuart in my class, all of whom teased me relentlessly. And Jason Donovan (no, not the Australian soap opera one) teased me relentlessly about the mole on my right cheek. He called me Spot the dog, but given that Jason was routinely called a Paki by the other kids I figured I could have had it worse. And still, I was reasonably bright and hard working and I got on with it. And they only tease you cos they like you (or something).

When we were nearing 16 they sent us to a careers lady. We filled in a multiple choice on a computer screen and at the end it printed out a little card telling me I should be a librarian. Clearly I fed the damned thing the wrong answers. So I ignored it and decided to be a doctor instead (a nice rosy cheeked man from the Constabulary had told me at a careers fair in the school gym that I wouldn’t be tall enough to be a police officer so I’d given that up as soon as I’d thought of it) and chose four A levels to allow me to do it.

I lasted a week on Chemistry A level. Too damned boring. So that was the Doctor whim over with. I decided to be an artist. I still remember my mothers snorts at the idea that such a thing could be a career, and my art teacher looking visibly wounded at my mothers lack of tact. When my friends went to University I stayed behind and went to art college. I loved it. I really wasn’t very good but I loved it anyway. I made seven foot paintings of chickens and marine life. Later my mother got fed up with them cluttering the attic and burnt them on the bonfire (she also cremated the carcass of my delinquent evil parakeet Spanner on the coal fire in the living room for want of some better method of burial, but that’s another story altogether).

And then I went to university. Nobody in my family had ever been to Uni before, but I don’t remember it being a big deal – it was always assumed I’d go. I chose universities that would let me hedge my bets and continue as many of my A level subjects as possible. So I went to study Fine Art and English combined honours at Exeter. But I realised pretty quickly that I was not cut out for a career in the art world (I was not very good at dressing up a pile of junk as a big idea – now I come to think of it perhaps I shouldn’t have become a lawyer after all?), and decided to throw all my energy into English. This meant I had to complete the balance of the English first year part time and worked as a home help to pay my fees. That job, and all my jobs in care homes whilst a student, taught me a lot about life and people. A welcome relief from the self absorbed self entitled gits that feature heavily in Exeter’s not entirely undeserved reputation. I was most definitely not a sloane ranger or a member of the green welly brigade (I stared blankly when someone mentioned these phrases to me just before I started at Exeter. I had no clue what they were on about and found it really difficult to deal with the social shunning that seemed to be so unremarkable to some of my contemporaries who lived life in the expectation that they were on a lazy conveyor belt to inevitable success). Girls in volkswagen polos (posh car then) with mobile phones (luxury item then) and turned up collars who pretended you were invisible. Yuk. And my god, but we all thought the law students were a bunch of t*ssers. With their career fairs and their networking and their exams. Yawn. We English students read novels and poetry all day, and had a taxing four whole hours of lectures a week. And in between I’d beetle off in my nissan micra to give an old lady her breakfast or to give an disabled man a bath, or to feed someone’s cat and put the washing on. Thank god for that sense of perspective.

By the time I left Exeter I wanted to be “an academic”. I had a bit of a brain crush on all my tutors. I was high on critical theory and my new found knowledge of history and politics (the ONLY history I learnt at school was about the grassy knoll and the book depository). I wanted to write terribly clever essays with titles that could mean six different things at once (four of which were only known to me), and with many erudite footnotes.

And so reader, I went to London.

Bear with me guys, I’m getting to the law bit. Honest. Right. This is the bit where the judge is making that face and you have to pick up the pace before you lose your audience…

I’m in London to do a Masters at Birkbeck College, which is mainly part time evening students, most of whom work full time in the day. Its quiet in the daytime, nobody but staff and postgrads. I get collared in a corridor and asked to be the welfare officer for the SU, and this leads to me standing for President of the SU. I run unopposed, which for some reason causes a big stink as some other doofus got disqualified by getting nominated by someone who hadn’t paid his fees and wasn’t a registered student. There is a campaign to re-open nominations cos #notfair. Of course his is before anyone ever invented a hashtag – jeez its the 90s we’d only just invented the goatee. If it had been now I’d have been trolled on twitter, but as it was I just got death stares in the bar. Such was my introduction to politics (small p).

By the time I finish my masters I have decided I want to jump off the top of the ivory tower even if there is a very nasty thud waiting at the bottom for me. I think it was the introduction to philosophy by means of Kant that did it, or possibly the entire module on “Whiteness”. Give me strength. I needed a life involving real people who eat actual food and poop, instead of people who living on a cloud and have important thoughts about whiteness. So I was quite glad to be starting a sabbatical as President. I had a salary of £16k (an almost unimaginable fortune to me) and my own office right next to the bar, in which I can smoke as many fags as I like. People come to see me all the time to tell me tales of woe, to bum a fag or to persuade me to go for a pint.

Whilst I’m at the students union I do a number of things. I get me a Vice President. He’s a handsome man from the USA. I had spotted him in the bar, identifiable as a friendly American by his choice of shorts and sandals in a freezing cold May. I did a split second calculation based on this simple visual observation – definitely American and therefore high probability that he would be so friendly he’d be unable to say no to my request to stand as VP. Who says sterotypes don’t pay off? I was right. Also, I later married him. Sadly, he has learnt to say no to me sometimes and he does still wear shorts even when its snowing.

Yes, so whilst I am President of the SU for 2 years (I get re-elected when the grumpy RON campaigners realise I am actually not evil and I am reasonably bright and work hard), I start an advice centre. I’ve been volunteering at the University of London Advice Centre for a while, but its only open in the daytime and is focused on the problems of young students who are in their late teens / early twenties. My students can’t access that or their CAB because they are at work and they have a whole different set of issues – so we set up a project that runs in the evenings that they can. It’s still going (about the only thing that is, I’m sad to say). I dealt with all the academic appeals and complaints and I sat on all the 20 odd committees from Estates, to Academic, to Governors. I developed a reputation for speaking up and challenging – I think I was expected to sit there and look freaked out at the grown up talk and occasionally hum a Billy Bragg tune under my breath or something. Instead I said “why don’t you do this instead?” or “I don’t agree with that because”. I redrafted the constitution. And we made leaflets and information materials galore, all copied on brightly coloured paper and folded by yours truly.

Yeah, sounds a bit like lawyering dunnit? But of course I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Because lawyers are all – well, you know the stereotypes. I bought into those. Venal, pompous clever dicks without a conscience. And I definitely wasn’t one of those.

I spent my time dealing with students in crisis. Mental health problems, fleeing domestic abuse, being kicked out for cheating, lost their job, split up from their wife…Some of the vulnerable students who came to see me had been handed from President to President, and were both dependent and persistent. But as time went on, the people who came into my office to tell me all the reasons why the Academic Registrar was wrong to kick them out just because they had been registered for 15 years and still hadn’t finished their PHd, and the people who came into my office to explain that the voices in their head were better this week, and the people who came in to ask me to raise an issue at the next Governors meeting, and the people who came in to bum a fag kept saying “you should be a lawyer you know”. All idiots, plainly. Except the voices got louder. And they were all strangely saying the same thing.

So one day, when I realised I wasn’t going to be able to sit and smoke myself to death in my office forever, I googled it. This was in the days when websites took a year to load and then were utterly shite, and you ended up having to phone someone to ask them to send you stuff on paper anyway (I know, right?). And I realised that the stuff I was getting a buzz out of, and the stuff I was actually really good at was a lot like the stuff a lawyer did. And that was it. Other ideas for jobs had come and gone. This one never did. From the moment I landed on it its always been that. And it was always the bar (in spite of what the awful bloke who interviewed me for a Lincoln’s Inn Scholarship said it was always the bar. He wondered patronisingly whether I didn’t really want to be a solicitor after all. I will never forget that interview. He made me feel like my willingness to spend time with clients was a grubby thing that only solicitors did. He was an idiot, and he didn’t put me off. I’d have been a terrible solicitor).

And so, in October 2000 I did two things : I started my conversion course at City University. And I married that American from the bar at Birkbeck (And my dad made a brilliant dad-joke at the wedding breakfast about the Three Degrees). I didn’t want to do more studying, but I definitely wanted to be a lawyer. So every Monday, instead of using my designated “Library day” to do something obvious like going to the library, I went to work to help pay my fees. I worked 9am Monday to 9am Tuesday (a sleeping shift acting as personal assistant for a man with cerebral palsy) and rocked up at 10am on Tuesday to start my lectures. In my bar year I worked as a policy officer for Walthamstow Volunteer Centre and volunteered at the Lambeth Law Centre and Race Discrimination Unit. The volunteer centre had no staff to speak of by the time I left but by gum they had a set of policies to die for, covering every topic you could ever dream of. I did some mini-pupillages, including some in Bristol where I sat in on some hideous, soul destroying middle class intractable contact involving a girl who had stress related alopecia and a father so rigid he couldn’t respond to her. God I thought, I definitely don’t want to do that area of law.

In October 2002 I started as a pupil at 29 Bedford Row. When I’d applied for it I had hoped to get some experience in education and employment law, but as it happened they’d had some sort of major rejig. They sent us pupils a nice letter in July explaining they were going to be a family specialist set from now on but we were still very welcome to come if we’d like. Cheers then. If we’d like? Of course we went, we didn’t have any choice. As it happens I spent my first six months with a pupil master who did more education law than family (he was one of the few non-family bods left). I drafted some of the lengthiest pleadings the Administrative Court has ever seen, and had a thoroughly brilliant time, the highlight was going to the House of Lords. My second six was a curious mix of vibration white finger and big money divorce. My abiding memory is of sitting in conference with women who obviously had to have £10,000 a year for each of their pool man or their dog grooming or their beauty treatments. I spent the entire time willing myself not to remark out loud on the coincidence that this was the exact same amount of money I had to live on for a year.

I left 29 Bedford Row for a third six at Tanfield Chambers. They hadn’t been able to take us on because they had no baby work, and I couldn’t afford to squat as the two possession hearings a week wasn’t going to match my loans repayments. The first week at Tanfield I was instructed by the Race Discrimination Unit on a 20 day trial for 3 defendants who had worked for the MoD. They claimed unfair dismissal and race discrimination. To say I was bricking it was an understatement. I had EVERY one of those 25 witnesses cross examination prepped on day 1 (who even does that?). On day 5 the MoD folded. I never got paid for that case, but it didn’t matter : that was my first real experience of cross examination. And it taught me to hold my nerve. Cos it was a bloody good result. Nobody expected me to pull it off, including me.

At Tanfield I was in court every day all day, sometimes twice a day – almost all family, a smattering of employment. At the end of the third six i took my nose ring out on the advice of the senior clerk and was duly taken on. By this point I was both resigned to having been sucked into family law against my will, and beginning to realise I was actually rather good at it. I combined a family and employment practice until I left Tanfield in 2008 to come back to Bristol and to St John’s. Family law was always my first string, but when I went on maternity leave I ditched the employment law – too much to keep up to speed with. And I finally surrendered to the serendipitous pull of family law.

And so, in July 2008 I started work at St John’s in Bristol, breast pump at the ready, new baby at home – and I haven’t looked back since.

If you’re still with me – well done. I don’t doubt many will not be remotely interested in this, but I do realise the power accounts like these can have to encourage others to come to the bar even though they may feel they don’t not fit the mould. I don’t claim to be anything other than privileged – this is not a tale of rags to riches, and I’m not Caitlin Moran (although I would quite like her hair), but I know that if I have sometimes felt like I don’t fit in it must be so much more acute for others with stronger accents and different coloured skin and more acute financial difficulties than I ever had to experience. Others have it much tougher than I, and although that chap at Lincoln’s Inn didn’t think I quite looked the part I can pass of as one of ’em most of the time. When you get to my age though you realise you don’t have to pass as one of ’em, you just have to pass as yourself.

Not that I’d recommend the family bar of course. We’re all going to hell in a handbasket. But that’s another blog post. And if you want to come and join us in our handbasket I for one will welcome you with open arms and a barely noticeable brizzle burr.

14 thoughts on “The backstory

  1. Just some interesting parallels for me… (my comment might be longer than your blog).

    I went to art school when I was 16 because I didn’t know what to do, and I’d got an A in my mock O’Level. I wasn’t very good and I didn’t get an A in the real thing. I did a 2 year foundation course but didn’t get a place on a degree course because I wasn’t very good.

    I did an access course later so I could work out how to prepare for a degree, or prove I was ready to study on a course. I didn’t think I was clever enough to go to university really. Everyone in my family could probably each of win University Challenge single handedly so my view of clever was a bit skewed. I discovered I wasn’t stupid after all and found Birkbeck, so I worked as a cleaner and waitress, I was poor, and it wasn’t nice, but I loved my degree.

    It was all good, except for the bit where I decided philosophy was a good idea. I maintain I didn’t turn the paper over, which accounted for the 39% I achieved in the exam, which luckily I didn’t have to count in my final grade (I dropped the two lowest marks in a very complicated grade calculation). In reality I am not sure it would have made any difference. I laughed when you mentioned Kant.

    Post degree life, I wanted to branch out beyond retail, and wrote a huge number of CVs tailor made for each and every job, as well as emphasising all my transferrable skills in 100s of job applications. It turned out I was more imaginative than any employers. In the meantime I worked as an outdoor clerk because a friend of mine was a partner in a solicitors’ practice. I don’t know if the role still exists but I represented the law firm with clients and took contemporaneous notes in court. I loved it. I liked crime better but I took a lot of family cases, because I was a bit older than the pupils generally doing that job, and clients liked that. I seriously considered law but I wasn’t then at a point when I wanted to do any more studying or how to finance it.

    I did get a job in a buying office, good job, well paid. Then I got another job in a buying office in the middle of the country, but for lots of reasons that one really wasn’t where I wanted to be, or what I wanted to do. I’d met my husband so decided not to go back to London. All of the voluntary work I did with children with additional needs and young offenders led me to social work. It’s a better fit than law for me, although I am very interested in law, which you may have noticed by now. I sometimes wonder why I didn’t think of it sooner but it was the right thing at the right time.

    I don’t tell the young people I work with my story, but I do say that things not working out the way you think they should isn’t the end of the world it sometimes feels like as a teenager. There are other things about my life that didn’t make stuff easy, which I won’t go into, and I do sometimes comment judiciously and broadly on that to the families who think my life has always sat pretty. So far it’s helped 2 young dads to think they can go to college.

    As John Lennon said “life is what happens when you are busy making plans” or something.

  2. Many thanks for the personal history. Fascinating. Could we please roll back to your early years [both of you, perhaps]. I am intrigued by the way children early on develop a concept of “fairness” which they often use to manipulate adults, of course, but which seems to be fundamentally genuine. Do you think that any of your early experiences laid the ground for doing things, later on, which relate to doing good works, helping people, fighting cases, etc. which leads on to being a lawyer? You obviously picked up on the Pakistani boy’s plight, for example.

    • I’m sure my early experiences did help me develop a sense of fairness, including I think the things I read. I don’t really remember any incidents at home apart from the one time I was smacked on the bottom (bloody hard as I recall) by my mum – I had no idea what I had done and I remember my dad remonstrating with her. I remember a burning sense of unfairness about that, as I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong (I imagine I had simply pushed one too many buttons on a long stressful day). I don’t ever remember being smacked apart from that one time.

      Two incidents at school stick out for me : when about 6 we stole some sweets from Sister Germaine’s drawer (those little dummy sweets). Inevitably we were found out. We all got a huge telling off from the headmistress Sister Mary Michael, who expressed particular disappointment that a clever girl like me was involved. But it was Georgina who was deemed to be the ringleader (I think she probably was, but we’d all happily joined in) and she got the cane. That put the fear of God into me. Second incident : when about 9 or 10 I decided to play a prank on the teacher Mrs Brown by placing a wooden block on her chair. It was covered in sticky tape, the idea being it would stick to her bottom when she stood up and everyone would laugh and I would be cool. In fact it didn’t stick to her bottom it poked her in the arse and she developed a very sour look on her face. When the inevitable threat for us all to be detained over lunch came I crumbled after about 20 seconds and fessed up, unable to let others take the blame or to do any sort of poker face. Once again much disappointment that it should have been me, the responsible one to have done something so silly. The humiliation of having to own up and me being decidedly not cool has never left me. It left me with an absolute conviction that I am utterly rubbish at lying, and that telling lies is very high risk and it is always better to be straight about things.

      As for the “Pakistani” boy, he was mostly aggrieved at being called a Paki because he wasn’t actually Pakistani at all but mixed race white / African. I don’t pretend to have never been unkind as a teenager (what on earth kind of teenager is never unkind?) but I certainly never called him a Paki and could never understand those who did. That was a line. our school had a very low number of BME pupils so I don’t think it was ever really tackled. I think I instinctively understood that his unkindness was a defense, so I tolerated more from him than I would from others. It’s difficult though trying to put yourself back in your 14 year old brain – perhaps this is a narrative I have constructed…

      Other than that my overarching experience was of people behaving like shits to others who didn’t fit in for some reason (wrong fashion accessories, wrong skin colour etc) and me struggling to understand why. I guess I learnt to stand my ground and to just find different, kinder friends. But then I guess that’s no different to the experiences of many teenagers?

  3. I love your story. Its really made me think – about the difference between deciding when you are young what you want to “be” ( but really deciding what career/job you want ) and then setting out to achieve it – or finding out who are you are and then doing what you can to be that in your working life . I am now 70 and have had a successful, varied and enjoyable ( mostly apart from when I tried being a manager ) professional life – never having a long term goal in mind but seeing opportunities, going wherever it appealed and through this finding that this is what I wanted to be. I am now a humanist funeral celebrant. As a teenager or young adult, or I never could have imagined that this is what I would be. But looking back I can see that everything I have done to date has contributed to me being in this role that I absolutely love. It is me.

    Thank you for your story. A reminder not to ask young children what they want to be.

    • oh I agree – I felt under so much pressure to choose a career. but you just can’t know. and what you cannot understand at that age is that so many things can change and come across your path that you may end up doing something you never dreamed of. kids should study what interests them and let life point them in the right direction.

  4. Your big money divorce tale reminds me of a case where I acted for one beneficiary interest in a nine-figure estate with an Inheritance Act claim. The claimant was a person who had formerly been maintained by the deceased – in my office we called her Miss Fifi la Strappe. She had not been so maintained for over three years before Mr Stinkingrich turned up his toes but she got round that by saying that she was still living off the interest on the price of her charms.

    And yes, she claimed more for vets’ bills per month than my trainee got per year.

    The case came to an end in an interesting way. The deceased had been a well known public figure and his main benefit ficiaries were the family, and one day Ms La Strappe’s solicitors wrote to the family’s solicitors urging their clients to settle by reference to the publicity which a trial would cause.

    And the son sent a copy of it direct to the Claimant endorsed with what the Duke of Wellington wrote to another blackmailer:

    PUBLISH AND BE DAMNED

    and she dropped the case!

    • Fifi La Strappe! Love it. She sounds much like the clients I used to have to sit in conference with, smiling and biting my tongue…

  5. Your reference to drafting lots of policies on every topic under the sun made me laugh. Perhaps this is the true sign of the lawyer.

    I wanted to be a diplomat but my mother said I wasn’t diplomatic enough, so I did a law degree and went the same student union and LLM route as you did.

    • yes, I don’t think my mother would describe me as a diplomat either! I used to be a waitress and just about managed to contain myself being whispering “the customer is always right” under my breath, but I think if I went back and tried it now I would be fired the first time I had an obnoxious customer (and believe me you get a lot of them), because instead of “but of course sir” I’d say something altogether more indigestible.

  6. When I was at school and insisted to the careers lady that I wanted to be a barrister I was told I should be a legal secretary. At uni I was told not to bother thinking about the bar unless I had a first. Good thing I’m stubborn 🙂

    • Ha ha! I wonder if the careers lady EVER got it right?? What a loss to the legal profession that would have been Zoe! Why did nobody at our schools see our potential? Mine only got 2 or 3 of the really clever boys to apply to Oxbridge – was never mentioned to me, cos it never crossed their minds!

  7. Great Article Familoo!!

    Thanks for sharing your interesting story, it will help some people to choose their path according to their interests.

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