Barristers are mythological creatures, right? Like vampires they are rarely seen, they’re up all night and there are far too many tales told about them! Those of us training admire them from afar, praying our fears of never wearing the iconic wig don’t become our reality. We admire them up close like a star-struck teenage girl meeting her favourite boy band. Even gaining your pupillage does nothing to alleviate your fears and then your two-decade long practice at the bar cannot dispel those nagging thoughts that you will never be ‘one of them’.
I wanted to take a different direction for a couple of articles. Of course we all know how wonderfully brilliant my mind is when faced with challenging constitutional theories (I will let you decide on the sarcasm/ego ratio). But touching base once in a while with the real world of practice is strangely a much more complicated task. It is near impossible to arrange ordinary work experience within a set, and mini-pupillages are few and far between (though I should now thank those of you who did help me in getting time with you). I’m on the BPTC and dying for some attention here, people. So in this article you will read all about the amazing people who frequent that dark, overcrowded bar like scruffy alcoholics and you will hopefully gain a glimpse of a very murky world. My next article will be explaining exactly why you shouldn’t even bother attempting to make it to the bar (so look out for that one as it is very inspirational for all you training barristers!)
A not so long time ago in a court not too far away, my adventure began. I had, as I am sure most of you will understand, the generic preconceptions of what to expect and upon first glance these ideas were not challenged. After all, we barristers are all old, white, filthy rich, cognac guzzling, Dickensian relics, right? The robing room door, in such fashion, was allowed to close on my eager face by a group of older male practitioners and, one very glamorous female… barristress!! (Yes I’m coining that word). This image was soon superseded though. Chris McKee. He’s young, kind, attractive and bares an Irish accent. I’d go with simply saying he is a smooth Tom from ITV’s Downton Abbey! Shattering my initial annoyance, this pupil, who coincidentally completed his BPTC in Northumbria (like me!), bounced up to me with a welcoming grin. From the get-go he was open and warm and I had the pleasure of seeing him address the bench, if only for a few moments, on a preliminary hearing in a fraud case. Obviously he was not yet running trials, still in his second six, but I got the distinct feeling (mixed with the comments I managed to overhear) that he would be a fierce barrister soon enough. I look forward to coming across him in the future. Chris managed to pull off a subtle cockiness which made him all the more intriguing. He covers his insecurities with boastful outbursts (see above!). It was only a momentary ego jump but it left a smile on my face and that of his pupil mistress. He had the effervescence and propriety expected of a fresh face in the profession and he was nothing short of refreshing.
If it was pleasing and surprising to meet Chris in the tiny Durham court, it was astonishing and fascinating to meet his pupil mistress. Julie Clemitson was immediately polite, humble and inquisitive. The first mental note I could make of her is that she was real. Julie put on no pretences. For a barrister with renown she managed to be genuine and friendly. It is worth noting that prior to our meeting on that Monday I had heard nothing but compliments about her talent, personality and ability and indeed, throughout the week I spent with her, I managed to hear many more comments which shed light on her reputation.
The first day was exceptionally short and I was rather pleased for an opportunity to talk with both Chris and Julie on a personal basis. It was a few hours spent supping coffee and sharing laughs over everything from family life to ‘pet peeves’ about the bar. It is worth pointing out a valuable contrasting opinion. While Julie mentioned her peeve with the bar was the way in which barristers are undervalued for their necessary work, Chris pointed out that for him he was most concerned by the uncertainty of the profession. I’m sure we can all connect with both views, but it is perhaps more telling of the trends within the bar that the pupil should be worried about the financial uncertainty as the experienced mistress concerns herself with the image and appreciation of her career. They entered the bar via very different routes at very different times and this will obviously have flavoured their careers to date, but it is fascinating to look also at something they share in common; the very reason they are barristers. I plan on building this one up before the big reveal though. You’re going to have to wait until the next article!
The practice I witnessed during my time with these wonderful barristers was eye-opening to say the least. I had never concerned myself with practising the criminal bar. Indeed this article was undertaken at the criminal bar not due to my passion for it, but because of the theatrical sentiment. A criminal court is intoxicating, it is formal and exciting and ultimately filled with romanticism. It was Chris’ reason for wanting to practice criminal. It is the image of the bar to everyone else. My time with Julie specifically was during a full trial. While I was exceptionally eager at first to witness someone with such a reputation for advocacy in action, I was warned against such thoughts by Julie herself. It didn’t take long for me to realise why.
Miss Clemitson has become a force to be reckoned with by standing up for defendants accused of sexual crimes. Often the object of contempt and anger, she has very strong feelings of right and wrong and holds them at the centre of her practice (even if she argues morality doesn’t come into it!). She quietly and consistently seizes every opportunity to work for her client and in both her manner and her advocacy one begins to understand the compassion. This brilliant barrister has a stunning style I have failed to witness before. It was perplexing in the beginning but then, much like the bible fairy tales, there was light and I began to understand her methodical conscientiousness. I digress.
I had the wonderful pleasure of spending time with some interesting characters recently (some for only a few moments, others for days). It is true to say that Julie left the biggest mark on me and, while not wishing to flood her with sycophants, if you get the opportunity then get yourself into a trial to watch her advocacy. It is strangely sublime.
I cannot ignore Tony Cornberg however! I spent time with this (new-fashioned) gentleman flitting between court rooms and video link. He was perhaps the most average Joe I could have ever expected to meet at the bar. That, it has to be said, was meant in a loving way. I was applying average to mean one of us. He was a perfectly wonderful barrister who cares. He cares perhaps to the point of a little too much. It is a great possibility that the faith in his ‘punters’, as he calls them, is very much misplaced but what is beautiful is that he has said faith. Tony is a barrister, with a decade of practice, who has yet to give up on his clients. It is a quality I have become fairly certain is necessary for criminal practice.
I must mention Sue (the glamorous barristress we met in Durham!) and Kathryn (prosecutor in Julie’s sexual offences trial), both of whom are absolute firecrackers! They are loud, very demanding and tenacious. It will perhaps not surprise you to know that they seem quite suited to prosecution. While I failed to get any ‘real’ time with these two, I could not fail to pick up on their personalities.
This is the point of this first article. I don’t think anyone can possibly argue that the bar is a profession full of the ‘same old’ any longer. It was an interesting discussion I shared with Tony actually. We all are most definitely not old, white, filthy rich, cognac guzzling, Dickensian relics. In fact, you will find, should you choose to completely ignore my next article and continue on the path to a dreadful life in practice, varied personalities of every rainbow colour. Some are well suited to a life of damning people to hell (insert Kathryn and Sue here!) while some are erudite defenders of faith and hope (where Julie and Tony fit in!). The hunky Northern Irish Chris is all bright eyed and bushy tailed and has yet to figure out his role. Whatever happens I wish him the very best of luck in his chambers vote this September and somebody please make sure Miss Clemitson makes Silk! Nobody so deserving, in my humble (but bloody correct) opinion. So the guest list at the bar continues to change and, arguably, modernise. If you think your name should also appear on this particular list, I urge you to read my next article ‘The Bar: It’s Your Call’.