Called to the Bar - An interview with Georgina, a Barrister
Top tips from Georgina: 'Achievement in any field is very well regarded in the legal profession. There was a woman on my BVC course who was a very accomplished sportswoman. You need to show that you can commit and achieve at a high level.'
Deborah: Did you read Law for your first degree?
Georgina: No. I read Modern Languages at Oxford. I very much enjoyed learning about the structure of language and doing translation work. I had always been interested in a legal career, though. I'd enjoyed public speaking at school and university - at school I'd done public speaking competitions and at university I was active in the Student Union. I intended to progress straight onto a law conversion course after my first degree, but in fact it was a few years before I enrolled for it. That was because I felt that after 4 years I'd done enough study for a while!
D: So what did you do when you graduated?
G: I went to work for the Legal Services Commission first for a couple of years. It was at a time when there was significant change, in the sense that the Legal Aid Board had become the Legal Services Commission. I went out to firms of solicitors to audit change. That was a useful experience for my later legal career. It gave me a general understanding of the law - how it operates and the different areas of the law. I saw solicitors struggling with the changes that had been introduced by the government; some were struggling to make a living. After that, I taught English in Russia and travelled for about a year. When I came back to the UK, I fell into hotel management. I got a job in event management and was promoted to hotel manager for a 4-star hotel. There's no direct connection with the law in that job but it was a job where I had a lot of responsibility. I had to deal with difficult situations. That was a useful grounding for later work in court, dealing with clients and opponents. I learnt how to empathise with people. But I wanted to use my brain more, so I decided to do the law conversion course - the Graduate Diploma in Law.
D: Tell me about the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) course?
G: The conversion course involves learning about 7 topics: EU, criminal, constitutional and admin, contract, tort, trusts and land. It's pure law not evidence or procedure. It's all current law so everything is relevant. You are taught how to apply law to real situations. There are a couple of pieces of coursework in each topic that account for about a quarter of the final mark. But mostly the course is assessed by exams. It really suits people like me who like exams and cramming for them the night before. You have to retain a vast amount of information - cases and dates. You're well-supported on the course, though - you have mock exams to prepare. If you're going to be a solicitor after the GDL and have a training contract arranged with a firm of solicitors you can be sponsored through the course - your fees and living expenses would be paid. If you want to be a barrister, though, sponsorship isn't available. Instead there are a small number of scholarships to the Inns of Court. I was fortunate and got one of the scholarships - it gave me about £10k for the year, to cover fees and living expenses. There isn't much funding available. People often fund the course privately. You can decide if you want to be a solicitor or a barrister at the end of the first year. I knew that I wanted to be a barrister. I wanted to be independent and self-employed. So, I went on to do the 1 year Bar Vocational Course.
D: Tell me about the Bar Vocational Course (BVC)?
G: It's more practical than the GDL. (There's some cramming. You have to learn civil procedure rules off by heart - hundreds of pages of fairly dry procedures...) You learn about advocacy, negotiating and holding conferences with clients. You learn about paperwork. People tend to associate barristers with court only, but there's a lot of paperwork involved - written advice work for instance. The course is all assessed by exams, although in some cases you might take something away for a couple of weeks and work on it. The exams aren't just written ones - there are practical exams in advocacy, conference and negotiation for instance. The exams are spread out across the course. You'll do your first exam in the first term.
D: What happens after you pass the Bar Vocational Course?
G: Once you've passed the BVC you enter pupillage (training). However, it is fiercely competitive to get a pupillage. It can be frustrating because you're competing for it with people who are exactly the same as you - they have at least a 2:i, they've been involved in public speaking, they've volunteered.... The process of getting pupillage is much fairer now than it was said to be in the past, though. Nonetheless, because it is so competitive, at this stage a substantial number of people are weeded out. People usually have a year out between the BVC and pupillage - it's easier to get one when you've passed the course - so they may get one and then go travelling for the year. There's a company that hires part-qualified solicitors and barristers to do straightforward advocacy work in the County Courts, looking at mortgage repossessions for instance. The pupillage itself involves doing a year in chambers. For the first six months you shadow your supervisor and you do paperwork for them. In the second six months you do some work in court on your own.
D: What was it like the first time you were in court on your own?
G: It was daunting! But you've had six months in chambers to build up to it. You've been well prepared. You do a lot of advocacy on the BVC. You're always given something within your capabilities. And having watched others for six months, you're keen to have a go. It was exciting to do it. It was great to be independent. It was liberating. I won my first hearing. It was an adrenalin rush. It was an early instance where I knew I'd chosen the right career. But it's not just about winning cases. Even if you lose you might come away happy because you've won on one issue, for instance costs. You might win but be unhappy because you didn't feel you were really on the ball. What's important for me is making a difference. Thinking on my feet. It's a job where you can't take your eye off the ball.
D: What happens at the end of the pupillage?
G: You apply to stay on at the same chambers usually. People can move to other chambers, though. You send a letter and they let you know the outcome in the last week of your pupillage. You really can't relax at any time in the pupillage! You have reviews with your supervisor during the year - but at the end everybody in chambers has to vote on whether to keep you on. It's not a fun year because you're under scrutiny all the time. If they agree to take you on - and they did in my case - you become a tenant. You're then self-employed. (A lower proportion of barristers are in employed practice, for example in law firms or government agencies.)
D: I know you're coming to the end of your first year as a tenant. Tell me what the year's been like? What have been the challenges and rewards?
G: The challenges are the workload and the learning curve. Sometimes you have to learn about an area of law, say housing law, overnight. Once you've done a couple of cases in an area it gets easier. You're not rushed all the time, but it's unpredictable. You could have an easy case one day and then be up all night preparing for the next one. Being self-employed is a challenge because you have to take responsibility for your finances. You have to do tax returns and pay VAT. That's a challenge for many people. It's rewarding when you do cases where you feel you've made a difference; when you've read the papers for a case and had no idea about that area, but you've got your head round it - it's about achievement.
D: What particular areas do you work in?
G: I do civil work, no family or crime. I cover a bit of everything at the moment: it's too early in my career to specialise more fully. I chose civil because I am stronger on the academic side, the analysis, and I enjoy paperwork. My perception of family is that it requires you to be more practical than analytical; and for crime my perception is that you need to be a showman - it's a different style of advocacy to what I do, you're in front of a jury, whereas in civil work you are in front of a judge.
D: What's a typical day like at the moment?
G: There isn't a typical day, which is what I love about it! I'm in court most days. That can be anywhere in the country. I'll get to chambers at around 8.30am, prepare for cases. I'll then drive to wherever I need to be and spend maybe 2 hours in a hearing and then drive back. I finish around 6.30 and tend to take 1 or 2 hours worth of work home with me.
D: What are your plans for your future in the legal profession?
G: I'd like to specialise. I'd like to work in commercial and property more. It may be unrealistic to say I'd like to be a QC - I came to the profession 10 years later than I might have done and being a QC takes 15 to 20 years. I'd like to be a part-time judge. It's fiercely competitive, though. I'd like that as I'd be able to see both sides and adjudicate.
D: You mentioned being up all night preparing for cases - is this a career where people can have a work-life balance?
G: It's not a predictable career so it's difficult to plan for a social life during the week. Sometimes you have to let people down. You can be flexible, though, because you're self-employed. If you want to go to the gym in the morning and then start work at 10am, you can. As you get more senior you get more work, so you have to work hard at having a work-life balance. But there are senior people in my chambers who achieve that.
D: What advice would you give to students who are thinking of progressing into the legal profession?
G: Work hard and get good results - a 2:i minimum. Academic achievement is important. Get involved in debating, public speaking, being active in the student union - anything that gets you to think on your feet. You could do theatre work. Pro-bono voluntary work is important, advice clinics. Do voluntary work particularly while you're an undergraduate as the GDL year is very intense. Achievement in any field is very well regarded in the legal profession. There was a woman on my BVC course who was a very accomplished sportswoman. You need to show that you can commit and achieve at a high level. Work experience is a good idea. Solicitors will take work experience students, as will criminal barristers - for civil work you'd need to have started your legal training first.