I was born in 1984, and grew up in the south of England, in Wiltshire, Hampshire and Somerset. I feel as though I had a rather slow and winding path towards becoming a barrister. It wasn’t something I was exposed to or thought about at school, and I got a place at university to study Classics. I enjoyed literature, history and philosophy, and my plan was to get a broad humanities education at university before getting a job doing something else – I didn’t know what at that stage.
My motivation to study and ultimately practise law came from three friends who were studying or had practised law. One had started a law degree while I was taking a gap year before university; amazingly, he managed to arrange an internship for both of us in Kampala, Uganda, assisting refugees and asylum seekers with applications for refugee status determination and resettlement to third countries. I began to think about studying law as a route into working with refugees. At the same time, I was impressed and intrigued by the subjects my friend was studying, and wanted to find out more for myself.
I spent two years studying Classics at King’s College, Cambridge. I hugely enjoyed and appreciated these, but after a lot of thought decided to apply to switch to law half way through my degree. I wanted to see what it was like, and to have a chance to study the subject in a bit more detail than I thought would be possible on a one-year GDL. I ended up doing two years of Law at Cambridge, and then doing a year’s masters (the BCL) at Exeter College, Oxford.
What finally made me decide to try to become a barrister were my experiences of mini-pupillages and of mooting while at university. On my first mini-pupillage, I spent two days studying the experts’ reports in a large commercial case. The experts were disputing whether it was or was not inevitable by a certain date in 1998 that the Russian government would default on its sovereign debt. The question involved history, politics, economics and finance, and I loved being a fly on the wall, analysing the incredibly able arguments on both sides. I admired the quality of thought and of writing that I saw, and it looked like an exciting and interesting career. Mooting gave me the confidence to think that I might be able to do it myself.
After my master’s, I spent a year in Sydney, where I worked as a ‘law clerk’ (i.e. a paralegal and research assistant) with a small but dynamic corporate law firm, and began filling in all of the application forms for Inn scholarships, BPTC training and pupillage. I also took the chance to revise some basic law, and read cases and trawl the internet to try to figure out what area(s) of law I wanted to practise in. Inner Temple were prepared to interview me by telephone for a scholarship, which ended up with me picking up the phone at 11pm East Coast Australian time to hear the words: “Hello John, this is Lord Justice Laws…” I was very lucky, and was awarded a Princess Royal Scholarship by the Inn, which covered my fees for the BPTC and was a welcome confidence boost too.
Since October 2012 when I started tenancy, change in my practice has been incremental, and I am still continually learning and expect to continue to do so. I remember the milestones of my first court hearing (a strike-out application at the Central London County Court), first cross-examination, and first solo hearing in the High Court. It is both nerve-racking and exhilarating. It turned out that I do (by-and-large) enjoy standing up in Court, which is a relief. The best way of dealing with nerves is to know that you understand the court process and the law, and to prepare your case intimately – so it all begins at bar school, and before. Winning is fantastic, and losing is (or can be) awful. Highlights have included acting as sole counsel defending a very large and wholly unmeritorious claim brought against a small African country at a three-day arbitration hearing, and acting as junior counsel in a complex and substantial damages claim against the Serious Fraud Office brought by a former suspect of an SFO investigation.
I have not always got the balance right between ‘work’ and ‘life’, and there have been times when I was regularly eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in Chambers. It’s generally recognised that that is not necessary (or encouraged), and that the best work is done when you are properly rested and leading a balanced life. At the same time, barristers do and should work hard, and there is no way around long hours when you have a trial (which may last weeks). Again, in large part this is a question of managing work and setting realistic time estimates for yourself. I now have an office at home, which means that if I have to work early, late or at the weekend I can do so with less disruption to family life. On some days I can work entirely from home (where my wife also currently works), punctuating the day with taking our dog for a walk in the park. I now tend to eat dinner at home (!), and, while I will typically do a few hours of work at the weekend, it doesn’t dominate the weekend. I am conscious of the advice of senior members of Chambers that you need a full day off each week in order to give the mind a proper rest. It is a privilege to be self-employed, with a resulting measure of flexibility about when and where you work. There is also no formal limit on how much holiday you take. I love classical music, and keep up pretty regular choral singing. I go for a run or a walk pretty much every day: it’s good for the soul, and is where some of my best thinking gets done. I also enjoy (and just about manage) keeping up with friends and family and getting out on the odd long walk in the country. I don’t currently read as much as I would like, and I’m also conscious of not yet doing anything much to support the charities I’d like to support. But I can see other barristers who manage these things, so I know it’s possible!
Perhaps the most important thing is that you should not be put off by any preconceived image of what you think a ‘real barrister’ looks like, sounds like, or has done before becoming a barrister. I nearly didn’t apply because I wasn’t sure if I was the ‘right sort of person’. It took some years of gradual exposure to the bar at university and afterwards to realise that this was untrue, and that the Bar isn’t defined by one single ‘type’ of person. There are over 15,000 barristers in England and Wales, with different backgrounds, different styles of advocacy, and different types of practice. Working hard and being able to think logically are fundamental, but everything else is a matter of training, practice and experience.