In case you have been wondering, I set out below a guide to some different areas of practice. The essential messages are ones I will defend, although I happily acknowledge that they demonstrate my own prejudices. However, should you be tempted to quote me I ought to point out that there are times when my tongue is in my cheek…
Criminal (posh)
Known as ‘White collar’ so that all your friends know you don’t defend muggers and shoplifters. Will draw extensive and tedious parallels with commercial work. DON’T ask whether the white collar criminal barrister actually does commercial work – you will make them cry. Will make much of massive knowledge of accounts – only a white collar lawyer believes that comparing himself to an accountant is a good thing.
Used to be a good payer with emphasis on fraud. As fraud now means 6 months in Wolverhampton at a rate of pay your plumber would sneer at, white collar barristers now talk about regulatory work. This is how they describe cases about men falling into tumble dryers at the factory.
Advantages. Clients are usually fairly bright, if arguably dishonest. Much work has to be done before guilty plea can be advised. Clients usually on bail so can come to Chambers for cons. Size of brief impresses professional colleagues. Good opportunities to be led. Can get government (as opposed to CPS) work which looks good on CV. Can quote actual authorities, as not much on regulatory work in Archbold, thus appearing to be a proper lawyer. Can address jury as you have wanted to do since you were 8. Legal press might know your name. Your solicitor will know lots about the case and will be able to help you. After the case there will be a confiscation hearing which will provide a further fee.
Disadvantages. It’s still crime so non-criminal barristers will snear at you whilst paying lip-service to how important the work is. The rates of pay are so low that for pre-trial hearings you can make more money not buying your train ticket to Wolverhampton. The client will trust you exactly as far as you run his defence. Trials tend to last a long time – so you better like your leader and all your colleagues in the same case. Judges feel the pressure and get tetchy due to fear of presiding over next Jubilee Line case. If you lose for the Government they might want to know how it happened. Clients on bail so can demand cons in Chambers. Hard work. Your solicitor will know lots about the case and will want to know why you don’t. Your client will be more worried about the confiscation than the prison sentence.
Crime (bog standard)
This is one of the places where law interacts with the average person. You can exercise your commitment to help the downtrodden – and prosecute (most burglaries are committed within 1/2 mile of the burglar’s home). Or you can cheerfully run the same defence that worked for your client’s uncle the last time – usually with the same alibi witnesses. You will find out more about sex with children, animals and the dead than you ever wanted to know. You will learn the best way to steal a car, fire a house, deceive an elderly person and kick someone on the ground. If you learn lots about all these things, someone may ask you to become a Judge.
Advantages. All your friends will know what you do because they will have watched Rumpole. Clients are normally grateful – win, lose or draw. Life is varied. This is what ‘Barristering’ is all about. National Press might know your name. Other lawyers might actually be interested in what you do. You also get to do the jury speech – and the jury might actually understand your case. Criminal Bar tends to be friendly and supportive. If so inclined, this is an area where you can parade your conscience by only defending (except for Rapists obviously) which can help you get work from like minded solicitors. Your solicitor is normally absent and sends a clerk who will be nice about you if you buy them lunch. Given the complexity of sentencing you can regularly double your money in the Court of Appeal.
Disadvantages. Although things may be a little better for the junior bar, paywise your plumber is still laughing at you. Other Barristers think that what you do isn’t really law. You have to spend time in prison, which is enough to depress anyone. Occasionally you have to defend someone innocent and will lose sleep. If your career doesn’t take off the CPS will seem an attractive option. There are actually only 5 mitigations and only 4 defences so it can be grindingly dull to be doing the same thing 10 years on. When you lose the plot you will be lucky if the solicitor’s clerk knows what day it is. The Government passes about 3 badly drafted major acts per Parliament – all of which are knee jerk responses to what the Daily Mail says – and you have to learn about them.
Family Work (Children)
This is known as ‘public’ work. It deals with care and adoption. You will end up knowing even more about sex with children than if you had done crime. Lots of work take place before District Judges and the Magistrates Court, and the Family Division High Court Bench has a reputation of promoting those whom it likes. The public will think that you help those who accuse hard working parents of abuse on little or no evidence – and they will be right. They will also think that you help those who have successfully abused kids for years and mislead social services – and they will be right about that as well.
There is a complex interplay between the Council (usually good but sometimes bad), the parents (usually bad but sometimes good), the Guardian (usually like the newspaper – i.e. pretending to be open minded but actually operating on a set of fixed principles only disclosed under pressure), the Grandparents (usually bewildered but sometimes bad), the Social Services (usually defensive) and the foster parents (usually outraged). This can make life stressful.
Advantages. The work is genuinely important. The Family courts tend to try to help people. Less chance than average of Judge shouting at you. Can produce happy moments – adoptions usually end with everyone in tears. As family breakdown increases there is lots of work around. You don’t have to robe. You will be part of a caring community.
Disadvantages. Your plumber is still giggling at you and the government is trying to drive fees down further. ‘Good bye and don’t worry about never seeing little Damien again’ is more difficult to say than ‘ you’ll be out in 5’. Your clients are often lying their head off and will not cheerfully admit it to you afterwards. No jury speeches. You will be part of a caring community.
Family (Money)
Known as ‘private’ work. This is what happens when multi-millionaires divorce. However, it is also what happens when Kevin Bloggs divorces Sharon. And unless you’re lucky, that’s the brief coming your way. You will become expert on the sharing of state benefits and how to rehouse people who aren’t employed. You will also have to deal with the custody arrangements in cases where the social services don’t think the children need assistance (admittedly rare). Whether the constant stream of inarticulate and disadvantaged people who lack the skills to live together make you think you are helping humanity or make you want to top yourself will depend on your temperament.
If you ever get to the stage where your clients have money, your solicitors will be super smooth, have designer clothes, be national personalities and possess nicknames like ‘The Rottweiler’ or ‘The Velvet Glove’. Their ego will be adjusted accordingly and you will be judged on your social skills as much as on your legal ability. Your clients will hate each other and whether you find their constant attempts to win the moral high ground nauseatingly hypocritical or simply common sense will depend on your temperament.
Advantages. Loads of work. Your clients are rarely in prison. Much of the job is done in negotiations between counsel at Court with the consequent possibilities of a long and convivial ‘working lunch’. If you get good work, your plumber may actually come out the first time you call him, although for the first 10 years or so he will still go to nicer hotels on holiday than you do. The bitterer the case the longer it goes on. The National Press may know your name and be interested in your views. Your granny might see your case on the front page of The Times – although you will have to explain to her that you were the 3rd junior.
Disadvantages. Clients are so unreasonable as to be untrue. It can be depressing to see a child’s contact with its parent being traded for a little less/more money per week. You will have to sympathise with your client if their ex has cheated even if after an hour with them you actually understand why. At the top end you are simply part of the entourage – and less important than ‘The Rottweiler’ (for some Barristers this is the end of the world). Also, the money may be good but, compared to your client, you are a charity case.
Personal Injury Work
This used to be how the Government looked after the workers. Most cases were for miners, factory workers or railwaymen. The Government paid both sides via legal aid/Union subsidies and support for Nationalised Industry. The Judges ensured that the Claimant (in those far off golden days known as the Plaintiff) won – but not too much. Everyone was friendly. If you were for the Plaintiff your client regularly confused you with God. If you were for the Defendant everyone was helpful and respectful. The work was not, frankly, difficult.
Well, forget that. Nowadays this is how people recover money for being crashed into on the roads or tripping up in the street. It is the cutting edge of ‘no win, no fee’ which means that you will get paid if you are lucky. It is also more complicated than you would believe. If the injury has lasting effects you will need a crystal ball to predict what state your client is going to be in in 10, then 20, then 30 years’ time. You will then need to work out how much he needs to invest tomorrow to acquire the price of the 4th replacement walking stick which he will probably need in 26 years time. Isn’t that interesting?
Advantages. It’s a job. If you’re crap at it you’ll be doing your own plumbing so will be spared the plumber’s condescension. If you’re good at it you will be able to afford to pay the plumber not to talk at all. There is always the possibility that you actually help someone. You will be dealing with claims assessors and insurers so you will always be able to feel morally superior to someone. The Judge will be grateful if you are competent and will let you get on with it. Money talks, so you may end up in the House of Lords on some recondite point which will affect whether accident victims can keep their own houses or have to sell them before the local authority provides someone to help wipe their bottoms.
Disadvantages. You will have to have an enormous throughput to make the job pay. 50 Advices a week can drive anyone demented. You will find yourself doing £2,000 cases as well as £200,000 cases even if you are doing well. You may face the soul-destroying task of fighting an unwinnable case ‘on principle’ – the principle being that Claimants’/Defendants’ insurers should understand that they will have to risk their money rather than assume they’ll get a settlement. Alternatively, your next 3 weeks work will settle the day before its due to start and no one will bother to tell you until you get to Court to find your case isn’t listed. Your work will be done by Chambers on a group contract basis and when the contract is re-negotiated you will find you are earning less but doing the same.
Still to come: Commercial, Shipping, Public Law, Human Rights.