September 19, 2016

Estelle Dehon, Cornerstone Chambers

cornerstone_080914_687(Inner Temple)

I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and learned first-hand about the iniquities possible under the law, but also about the possibilities to fight injustice through and outside the law. My Mum and Dad were journalists – my Mum a print journalist and my Dad a photo journalist; in the 1980s they both often went into Soweto and covered the police violence unleashed on people protesting against discrimination.

Then, when I was at university, South Africa went through its extraordinary transformation, including the drafting and confirmation of one of the most forward-thinking constitutions in the world. It was an incredibly exciting time to be a law student, and I was hooked. I had the amazing experience of clerking at our Constitutional Court for Justice Richard Goldstone (an utterly inspirational person), and this cemented my desire to make my life in the law.

I began my university studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. I read a three-year Bachelor of Arts degree, with majors in English, Philosophy, Politics and Law. I did an Honours in English, and then went on to a two-year LLB, which gave me my legal qualification. I then read the BCL at Oxford, and went on to do an MPhil at Oxford, focusing on international criminal law.

When I was awarded a scholarship to pursue my graduate studies in the UK, whole new areas of law opened up for me, and I saw the potential for exploring these at the Bar. I had always found advocacy electrifying, and knew I wanted to make my career as a barrister in the UK or an advocate in SA. When it came time to undertake professional training, I found there was a lot of financial support available to me in the UK, including through Inner Temple, and that pupillage was paid. Inner Temple awarded me a grant to assist with the Bar Vocational Course (as it then was) and the Education and Training Department was also a great help in giving advice about applying for pupillage. By contrast, in South Africa, there was hardly any financial support, and pupillage was (and still is) unpaid. That acts as a significant barrier to entry into the profession. I was not prepared, as some of my friends were, to work for years as an attorney in SA and then transfer to the bar. So I made the decision to pursue my career in London, although I am admitted in SA and would certainly pursue opportunities to work in both countries if they arose.

When I began, I took work in as many different areas of public law as I could. I wanted to experience all the ways of being a barrister, so I did court work, public inquiries, inquests, tribunal work, and even (once) a jury trial in the Crown Court. I have since focused primarily on three key areas, although I still have a good mix of High Court and inquiry work. Currently, I practice in public law, with a focus on human rights, environmental law and privacy law.

I believe it is very important to have a “hinterland” – ie interests outside of my work at the Bar. I have maintained my academic links in areas of law in which I do not practice, and will always take advantage of opportunities which arise: for example, in 2014, I participated in a workshop in Uganda on prosecuting sexual violence crimes (organised by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), and next year I will be conducting legal training in Ramallah in Palestine. My clerks are supportive of me blocking time out in the diary to pursue these interests. Outside of the law, I keep sane by doing yoga, and go to as many gigs and plays as possible (the wonderful side of living in London).

Earlier this year I represented Friends of the Earth at a big public inquiry concerning fracking in Lancashire, where I worked with world experts to lead evidence on climate change, waste and public health. In a very different area of practice, I was instructed this year as a junior barrister to advise the Greater London Returning Officer during the mayoral elections, so I spent the day and night of the count at City Hall. I have also been a junior in a case that went to the Supreme Court, and in a planning inquiry which involved a facility that trains fighter pilots. And my time at the Constitutional Court in SA is still one of the most important and most enjoyable experiences of my career.

As you can probably tell, my background is by no means typical at the Bar. On top of that, I was the first member of my family to go to university and the first to go into the law. At every stage in my training, I have needed to win support via scholarships or grants to progress. But I have always been determined to succeed, and I now realise how important it is to have that stamina, resolve and self-belief. I worked hard to ensure I achieved very good academic results – for many chambers, that is the main criterion, so you put yourself in a very good position if you do well, and especially if you go on to do a postgraduate degree at a well-regarded university (and no, not just Oxbridge – there are a number of top universities in the UK). Finally, remember that when you join a chambers, you will be spending a lot of time with the people there, so they are looking for interesting, personable colleagues: if you can overcome interview nerves and show your personality, that can make a big difference.