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.