How I became a barrister, not a poet

I was born in early 1960, a child of that optimistic decade by a handful of weeks. I learnt to read very early and was a bookish child, living in imaginary worlds remote from the ordinary suburban house in south-west London where I grew up. My first literary world was that of the Greek gods, as re-told by Roger Lancelyn Greene, followed by the Railway Children and E Nesbit’s other stories; Narnia, although tainted with the dejection of discovering at the end that it was a religious allegory; Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe books, written in her ancient Fenland manor house and describing the adventures of a solitary boy who befriends the children of the house as they come to life from a 17th century portrait, and many others. The Lord of the Rings, which, like many, I now disdain as “interminable Elvish nonsense” beguiled my convalescence from appendicitis. Later, the Brontes and the vivid imaginary worlds into which they escaped from their childhood in Haworth seized mine, and by the time I went to university I was deeply immersed in Dickens, walking in the footsteps of his characters and imagining the river, streets and buildings of mid-19C London as if I could see them as he had done. As a young child I wrote poetry, composed as I walked around the suburban streets with my father when he came home from his office in inner London. The houses and street names of the hills of south-west London: Richmond, Kingston, and Wimbledon, where we lived, defined the place and reflected the imagination of those who built them. At the top of the hill, the ancient place-words of Warren, Coombe, and Chase survived in private roads of grassy verges and gated mansions. Downhill in New Malden on the steep escarpment of Kingston Hill were 1930s suburban streets — although none were called “Road” or “Street”, but the pointedly less urban “Avenue”, “Drive” and “Way”. These were built by someone with an affinity with Derbyshire, from where their names: Cromford, Buxton, Matlock, Darley, all came. South of the stations in New Malden, Raynes Park and Wimbledon, where even in the early 1960s a few steam trains still ran along the line into Waterloo, the streets were Victorian, and some memorialised figures of the age such as Gladstone, Palmerston and Russell in terraces of red brick. Decades later, I was instructed to give some advice about a trust connected with one of the small local department stores I’d often visited as a child, and within a moment of reading the instructions I felt as if I was back there with my mother, a little girl for whom a school blazer and velour hat had to be bought in September in the 1960s.

In 1970, when I was 10, I won a prize in a poetry competition in the ‘Young Observer’ pages of the Observer magazine. The prize-winners had tea with the Poet Laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis, and I still have the black and white photograph of us taken by the Observer’s photographer: two bright eyed boys, a small me with a fiercely intense gaze, wearing a Marks and Spencer child’s dress and NHS glasses, and three tall, beautiful adolescent girls, all of us grouped around an old man with an open smile and penetrating gaze, sitting in a carved chair. The other prize-winners had written far more impressive and grown-up poems than me — one, a professor’s son, had imagined thoughts of the emperor Claudius, and another winner, absent as it was too far for her to travel from Northern Ireland, had written about the Troubles in Belfast. Mine was a childish verse about the stuffed whale and dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum coming to life and enjoying a midnight party after all the visitors had gone.

Tea with Cecil Day-Lewis, the Poet Laureate, in early 1971

It was the ‘Young Observer’ that introduced me to the idea of being a barrister, when I was about 13. I remember reading a page describing a barrister’s work — probably a typical day in a criminal court of its time — and thinking this was something I’d like to do when I grew up, and it stayed in the back of my mind from then onwards. But in the early 1970s there were few women barristers and I quickly learned that family connections seemed necessary even to attempt to set foot in the Inns of Court in search of a pupillage. We had no family connections of any kind with the law, that I was aware of. My paternal great-grandfather, born in 1862, had come to England as a young man in the late 19C, together with five brothers, from a place that was then in Russia but is now in Poland, escaping the oppression of the Jews by Tsar Alexander III. He took the oath of allegiance to the Crown and was naturalised in 1903, and spent the rest of his life in Stoke-on-Trent, living at first in great poverty, as most migrants do, and working as a picture-frame maker and small shopkeeper in Hanley. His oldest son, my grandfather, would have liked to train as a doctor, but lack of funds and connections appear to have precluded that. He became a pharmacist, and settled in Crosby, a suburb of Liverpool, where he worked as a retail pharmacist with his own shop until he retired. My father, his oldest son, was the first generation of his family to go to university. In the 1930s a shopkeeper could afford to send his sons to a provincial public school like Merchant Taylor’s, Crosby, where my father did well academically, and gained a place to read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Compulsory national service intervened, as he left school in 1943, during the Second World War. He served in the Navy as a wireless telegraphist, learning to decode Japanese Morse, and by the time he was free to take up his place at Cambridge, had decided to read economics instead. A short period of work experience in a solicitor’s firm in Liverpool, which he found extremely dull, also influenced his decision. He had a long career as a business economist, mostly working for a multi-national industrial gases company — one of the surviving British institutions of a post-Imperial world. In his last years there he worked closely with lawyers in the USA, as the company was subject to an American reverse takeover bid, and he found the anti-trust litigation that ensued absorbing, and might, with hindsight, have pursued a career in competition law. Deep in my Bronte phase, it all seemed remote and uninteresting to me.

My mother was a first-generation refugee, who had learned English as her fifth language. Born in Prague in 1924 she had been able to leave in October 1939, with a group of Jewish young people, first for Denmark, and then for Sweden, where the boys mostly worked in agriculture and the girls in house work and childcare, helping the families who had given them a temporary home. In October 1943 the Danish Resistance ensured that virtually all the Jews in the country — foreign nationals included — were spirited away, hidden in herring boats as they crossed the narrow sea that separates Denmark from Sweden. Growing up, we never asked, and she never told us anything about this terrifying journey. Beyond her childhood in Prague, most of the past anterior to my and my brother’s birth was not something to be dwelt on — but it has been written about by others, and is remembered as a source of historic pride in Denmark. Like my paternal grandfather, my mother, a studious only child, had wanted to be a doctor, but her lost years of secondary education made this impossible, as was nursing training at an English hospital, although this may have had more to do with a lack of English roots or social class than formal education. Her father had somehow survived the war and settled in Ulster to work in the textile industry, where she joined him when she came to England in 1946, and studied in order to take an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Queen’s University, Belfast, before moving, eventually to London. She worked as an industrial chemist, and then as a chemistry teacher, breaking off for some years when my brother and I were young.

Unsurprisingly, given the transformative role it had played in their lives, both my parents valued education above virtually all else. They were entirely uninterested in and largely oblivious to any other form of social elitism, but were determined that both my brother and I should be educated at independent selective day schools in London. Apart from our cat, homework was our only household god. It’s only in relatively recent years that I’ve become aware — or been reminded — that a rigorous academic education for girls, following exactly the same curriculum as boys in similar schools, was not expected for or offered to all girls in the 1960s and early 1970s. In between a little childish needlework at the age of 6 or 7 and some voluntary shorthand & typing lessons as “light relief” in the post-A level term preparing for the Oxbridge entrance exam, I did not have a single school lesson intended to prepare me for a future as a housewife or mother, or equip me with any kind of finishing school or secretarial skills. It was expected of virtually all of us at my secondary school, St Paul’s, that we would go on to good universities and pursue serious careers if we wished to, as many of our predecessors had done ever since the school was founded in 1904. During the mid-1970s the now absurd-sounding debate about admission of women to traditional men’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge was at its height, and a number of girls from St Paul’s went to the newly co-educational colleges as they started to admit women, as I did myself.

Intellectually, I was absorbed above all by English literature, history, classics and modern languages, and didn’t then see myself becoming a lawyer or studying law. My first contact with law inside a court room was a trip to the Old Bailey as one of the activities arranged to fill the time between O levels and the end of school term, in famously hot summer of 1976. We sat in the public gallery and watched some of the trial of John Stonehouse, a great cause celebre of the mid-1970s. Stonehouse was an MP who had staged his own disappearance, leaving his clothes on a beach in Miami to make people believe that he had been eaten by a shark, whilst in reality he had gone to start a new life in Australia with his mistress. He was discovered (the police were also looking for Lord Lucan, who had disappeared at around the same time) and arrested and tried for fraud and related offences, for which he was eventually convicted. He conducted his own defence, and it was both striking and puzzling to sit in the public gallery looking down on this notorious but diminished figure talking about himself in the third person. But otherwise the trial was only interesting as momentary theatre and escape from the relentless heat of the City, not as a formative moment in a vocation.

Even in the mid-1970s, a time of economic upheaval and very high income taxation, many of the girls I was at school with came from far more wealthy, worldly and well-connected families than I’d met before. They weren’t so much titled or ‘old money’ families, as people who had been successful in their lives in various fields, including some distinguished lawyers — not that I took the slightest cognisance of that or explored any possible connection with any of them at the time. My family’s circumstances, although perfectly comfortable, were modest and frugal by comparison to many of my friends. I was embarrassed to remember this when, many years later, I first dealt with a Court of Protection case involving a family whose older generation were Windrush arrivals from the Caribbean (I have met many more, since then). The matriarch who came to court sat dignified in her Sunday best and hat, as her children, about my age, described the extreme poverty in which they had lived, in West Kensington, a few streets away from where I had been at school, at about the time I was there. Their rented home had broken windows and no heating, and there were usually not enough pairs of shoes for all of the children to go to school every day. I was ashamed to reflect how unconscious I had been of this harsh and different world, so close at hand.

I left school in 1978 and in 1979 I went to Cambridge to read English. At the end of my second year in 1981, I thought quite seriously about switching to law between Part I and Part II in my third year. I decided not to, partly out of sheer laziness, having been told I’d have to work hard yet expect to drop a grade in final exams, but mostly out of lack of commitment either to studying law with a view to a career in law, or to my fellow-students. I did have friends who were studying law, and had talked to them about it a bit. But when they showed me a supervision or exam topic — of causation and remoteness of damage in tort law, as they would have recognised it — I could only think of irrelevancies such as the colour of the trousers the hapless pedestrian was wearing when he was run over by a milk float, or dwell on the facts with a novel-reader’s impulse to change or unravel them. And I was less engaged by the lawyers at my college as a group than I was by the English students, some of whom are still close friends. At the time, I wanted to be a journalist, and was very involved with student journalism, and a spectator of student politics. Looking back, our activities were absurdly anachronistic — focused on an imitated — and overwhelmingly masculine — Fleet Street of printers’ ink and pubs that was already dying, or on starting a career on the BBC’s graduate training scheme and staying there for life, setting the national news agenda, or pursuing a mission civilisatrice of documentaries and culture programmes. Our Thursday nights and the small hours of Friday were spent in a cold basement room lit by a bare light bulb, “pasting up” (preparing the pages for printing) the student newspaper, Stop Press, using manual typewriters, Letraset and cow gum — whilst in the real world, media and broadcasting were changing out of all recognition. “Eggcup House”, the post-modernist home of the new breakfast TV channel TV-AM in Camden, was hurtling towards its launch in early 1983, at the very beginning of the era of daytime and multi-channel broadcasting, but I don’t remember even considering sending a CV there.

I didn’t succeed in reaching either Fleet Street or the BBC, and left Cambridge in a directionless limbo, not knowing what to do next. My English student friends had variously dispersed to accountancy training, postgraduate study in the USA, and to a journey to Nepal by tandem to live there and do aid work in a remote village. My final year had been disappointing, and I regretted my choice to do English Part II. I was left cold by some of the intellectual fashions in literary theory of the time — particularly structuralism — and although I’d read a lot in a superficial way, I was distracted by my extra-curricular interests, and unprepared for the depth and maturity of thought that the traditional core papers of Part II English demanded.

I came back to London determined not to be dependent on my parents, which ruled out further study, and did secretarial work until I found a better job. I’d learnt to type, originally on a manual typewriter, in pursuit of my journalistic ambitions, had typed both of my undergraduate dissertations at my parents’ house with a great deal of sotto voce swearing and Tippex correcting fluid, and had done a lot of temporary secretarial work in the university holidays. But I had no desire to carry on doing it, or even to see it as a way in to a better job in publishing or broadcasting — a step that was often recommended to young women then. Whilst I had been at Cambridge, the revolution in computing that took data processing out of vast mainframe computer suites manned by acolytes with punched cards or bulky reels of tape, and onto the desktop, had been happening. I had looked down my Paradise-Lost-reading nose at my contemporaries (all men) who studied engineering and spent hours in the college bar playing Space Invaders — then a novelty, but they had a far better grasp of the zeitgeist than I did. Many of them stayed in Cambridge and worked for or set up new technology companies, some so successful that they could buy the college an entire new bar and have it named after themselves if they wanted to.

More by drift than by design, I ended up working in the computer industry as well, not doing anything technically skilled with hardware or software, but writing and editing manuals for people who were using computers in their work, often for the first time. It seems extraordinarily archaic to look back to a time when even the office desktop personal computer was a novelty — a squat beige box with a monochrome screen and programs operated by text commands: no Windows and no graphics — and home or mobile computers, mobile phones, email and internet were essentially non-existent. Between 1983 and starting the GDL in 1988 I mostly worked for two companies: firstly, one which was small, modern and youthful and which provided data services to the advertising industry, and then one which was a subsidiary of one of the big banks, and had a completely different culture, much closer to that of traditional retail banking than of Silicon Valley. There were no women in management at this company, or in programming, which was the most highly skilled and vital part of its work. I worked in a small marketing and public relations department with three men and a bashful young woman assistant who seemed to be forever apologising for some mistake she imagined she’d made. All of the men were middle-aged, wore dark suits and white shirts buttoned from neck to wrist, and had previously worked for the bank — the job of one of them was a sort of retirement sinecure that consisted of no more than arranging and hosting golf days for the bank’s managers, to promote the computer company’s services. He drove in from the suburbs every day, his bottom warmed by a rug which his wife dutifully heated on the radiator for him before he left for work. This was very different from the first company, which had a woman director whose partner owned a fashionable restaurant, and several other youngish women in positions of responsibility. This company had its offices in Berkeley Square, in the West End, which was an attractive place to work, convenient for shopping and going out after work, and with amusing opportunities for people-watching amongst the very rich inhabitants and passers-by of Mayfair. Women in mink coats would buy a tray of premium cat food from the shop on the corner as they returned from lunch at Claridges. The second company had its offices in Aldgate, just outside the City, where the bank had taken over an Edwardian building and added a big data processing centre in the 1970s. The Edwardian offices have been converted, and the data centre demolished, and both sites are now luxury developments of flats. In those days, before either Canary Wharf or the Docklands Light Railway had been constructed, and down the road, print workers were in bitter dispute with Rupert Murdoch’s News International at the then-new Wapping plant, there were no espresso cafes, but traditional pubs in the streets nearby which advertised strippers at lunchtime, and one, next to a large police station, which was reputed to have raucous lock-ins on Friday evenings.

After a couple of years, I couldn’t imagine myself carrying on doing this work or anything connected that it might lead to for a lifetime. In fact, a discipline of understanding a set of rules and explaining them to someone who doesn’t understand them isn’t an irrelevant skill for a lawyer but I didn’t make that explicit connection then. I found what I was doing increasingly narrow and uncongenial, and felt more and more restless and frustrated. I was eventually pushed out of inertia by a sense that friends and contemporaries had much more satisfying working lives, particularly those who had trained as accountants or lawyers and started doing post-qualification work. By contrast, I found it could be too easily assumed that I had no particular skill to take from one job to the next, or could be relegated to some trivial office function considered particularly suitable for women. I was also shaken up by some jarring and unforeseen events in my life in 1986–7: I was involved in a car accident, which although much less serious than it might have been, was a shock in the way that a sense of physical fragility is always shocking to the young, and led to weeks off work and some surgery and rehabilitation, and a few months later, my mother died very suddenly, shortly after she had retired from her principal teaching job. I was 27, and now that many of my friends have children about that age, I realise how relatively young that is to lose a parent, even though I no longer lived at home. In a world of loss, I felt I had nothing more to lose by simply starting my adult working life over again.

It would be virtue-circling but fibbing to say that I was motivated towards the law by a keen interest in justice or desire to help the dispossessed. I wanted to feel a greater sense of purpose and achievement in a day’s work than I had done, and to use some kind of demonstrable intellectual skill to help people solve problems in their lives. I thought, and still do, that the law was the best fit of work to the skills I had. I had sufficient vanity to like the idea of being “on stage” and of having my name in the Law Reports, and I liked the idea of independence at the Bar. As I knew absolutely nothing about civil litigation, I had no idea how collaborative it is, nor how increasingly it would come to involve the skills of project and budget management, as it does now. I wasn’t motivated by money in the sense of wishing to become extremely rich, but I was motivated away from a life of cycling home to a damp basement flat and dressing and eating and going on holiday like a student.

All of this led to starting the GDL at the (then) Polytechnic of Central London in September 1988, followed by the (then) Bar Vocational Course at the Inns of Court School of Law in 1989–90. I had no secure belief that I would succeed either in obtaining pupillage or a tenancy, but reasoned that I would at least have some better opportunities in life if I passed the exams, and focused on that for the first two years. I found that I enjoyed studying again, and made some lasting friendships. There was a huge variety of people of different ages and backgrounds at the Poly — men and women who had been actors, teachers, social workers, policemen, as well as those who’d come straight from university, who included the judges’ daughters who preferred Vogue to Archbold, and other very young men and women who would have far rather been doing something else, but whose parents were prepared to fund their law studies and not the “something else”. I also learned a lot through mini-pupillages and through working for the Free Representation Unit, of which I became the treasurer in 1989. I remember my first FRU client, a middle-aged woman in a clerical job who’d been unfairly dismissed by a courier company, for whom I managed to win some compensation — beginner’s luck, as I’m now horrified by how much I didn’t know either about the law or about advocacy. But, as I perceived the mediocre middle-aged-male management culture of the company to be not dissimilar to that of the bank subsidiary I’d worked for, it felt like a positive step in my escape from that world. I did several commercial and shipping mini-pupillages, because I thought this was the sort of work I might like to do, and discovered that it wasn’t. Shipping was a particular disappointment, because it seemed so attractive from the outside: bound up with English maritime history, and involving ships and ports with romantic, memorable names and a rich specialised vocabulary. The reality of course was so very much more bulk tankers than “quinqueremes of Nineveh”. I was taken to watch one case which went on for several hot July days of argument about what seemed some infinitesimally small point of law in relation to a time charter (for some reason, I can still remember the names of the ships in the previous cases discussed in argument), and thought I had never come so close to an involuntary experience of being literally bored to tears in my life.

I also did some Chancery mini-pupillages as, to my surprise, the subjects I enjoyed studying most were trusts and land law, and eventually decided that this was the field I would like to practise in. I didn’t think that I had the stamina or the courtroom presence for criminal law, and I resented the assumption, which still widely existed, that women might naturally gravitate to family law. In fact the work I do now is really a variety of family law, and I have some regrets about not doing more, as it is family law which deals with the most profound questions of life and identity and connection between people that it’s possible to imagine. It also happens that my professional lifetime has coincided with a rapidly expanding view both of relationships which are recognised by family law, and with advances in medical technology at both the beginning and end of life, all of which has extended the range of questions that family law tries to answer.

I applied to many Chancery sets for pupillage and was rejected by most of them, which was dispiriting. They gave me the impression that I didn’t measure up academically, even though I had done well in the GDL and BVC exams, and that I didn’t fit in. I was about to give up when, right at the end of the applications season, someone I knew through FRU encouraged me to apply to his chambers, which was and is a leading property set. I hadn’t applied there because I didn’t think I had a chance of succeeding, but they offered me a second six months, and another set which had put me on a reserve list then immediately offered me a first six. In the end, I didn’t go to the property set, because the chambers where I practise advertised a second six months with a view to a tenancy, and I was offered and accepted that instead. The application was a properly rigorous selection involving a written exercise, which was unusual then, followed by a quite intimidating interview on it, conducted by about half of chambers.

As soon as I started pupillage in October 1990, I realised that nothing I’d learned in the previous two years had really prepared me for it at all. I always had the words of Edward Lear’s limerick about the “old man of Thermopylae who never did anything properly” at the back of my mind, and I would still occasionally hear an echo of them for years after I started in practice. Like most of my contemporaries, early practice involved weekly appearances at the Wednesday “winders” court in the Royal Courts of Justice, which mostly involved pronouncing three sentences of solemn rigmarole in order to obtain the “usual compulsory order” for winding up a company. You did not really need to have been to law school to be able to do that. The registrar had deep-set eyes in a bony face, and a rather lugubrious voice which, combined with the Victorian Gothic setting of the large courtroom, gave an impression that when you had addressed him and he pronounced the three words “usual compulsory order” in response, he was standing over the company’s metaphorical grave. More often than not, it felt as if the Revenue, whose counsel came to court with a boxful of winding-up petitions, were delivering the coup de grace to some cheerful local restaurant I’d been to the previous week but which hadn’t paid its VAT.

The first real piece of work I did was at the end of my second six months’ pupillage, instructed by a Chinese solicitor on behalf of a Chinese client — a middle-aged woman who had lived for decades in the same house in Ilford as a Chinese husband and wife as a concubine, but who had been abruptly evicted by the wife some years after the husband’s death. I set off for Bow County Court in Stratford — which in those days was not a place with a gleaming branch of John Lewis above the station — but found it closed for refurbishment and all the hearings redirected to the Royal Courts of Justice. My solicitor put on a pair of blue reflective sunglasses and drove us all to the Strand in his ancient Ford Capri. I had to address the High Court judge who was dealing with vacation business, feeling nervous and out of place as I squeezed in between much grander and more senior Chancery barristers asking for multi-million pound worldwide freezing injunctions, but the judge had a kindly manner and gave me an injunction for my client to return to her home. Weeks later, at Bow County Court, another judge refused her permission to bring an Inheritance Act application out of time — quite wrongly, I thought. From that modest beginning, I went on to eventually specialise in inheritance and trusts disputes, and in the property work of the Court of Protection, which existed before the 2005 Mental Capacity Act as a court which only dealt with the property and affairs of people who lacked mental capacity. A lot of my practice now is mediation, which was unheard of in the field of inheritance disputes when I started in practice, and I feel it’s a privilege to be in people’s confidence and hear the remarkable and often very sad stories behind what might seem ordinary lives.

One of the most noticeable changes since I started in practice has been the greater visibility of women at the Chancery bar. There were no female Chancery judges until 1993 and hardly any female Chancery QCs. I was the third woman to join my chambers, following one who had been called to the Bar in 1982 and one in 1988. Neither of the two senior to me was from a particularly privileged background, but both were clever women who had been very determined to succeed. One gave up practice when her three children were small, but has recently returned to study for a masters with a view to working as a lawyer again, in a field that interests her, and the other moved chambers to do more commercial Chancery work and is now a High Court bankruptcy registrar. Since I started, many more women have joined chambers and stayed, both at the end of pupillage and later in their careers, and half of our silks are women. It now isn’t at all unusual to be at hearing or mediation where all the barristers are female.

I’ve told my story not because I’ve had a particularly outstanding legal career, but as a thread in a much larger fabric of stories of women’s careers in law, as an illustration of the kind of social mobility that can happen over two or three generations rather than in one, and because careers aren’t just about the beginning, but involve resilience and longevity as well. No-one would become a barrister without self-belief, but self-belief can be rapidly assailed by self-doubt, however long you have been in practice. Even after 25 years, just as on the first day of being driven from Stratford in a Ford Capri for your first appearance in the High Court, you are alone at what a friend calls the “wigface”, entirely responsible for what you say and how well (or not) you have prepared to say it.

And if you are a woman, in perpetual anxiety that there’s a ladder in your tights as well.