‘It Has Taken Me Almost A Decade To Drop My Non-Public School Chippiness’

Ed note: This is the latest post in the 'If I knew then what I know now' series, where leading members of the legal profession share their wisdom with the next generation of wannabes.

I was in truth pretty clueless when I set out for a career at the Bar. If you’d have told idealistic undergraduate me I was to end up as a lawyer, let alone what I would then have thought of as a "divorce lawyer", I’d have been offended, writes acclaimed barrister and blogger Lucy Reed...

Being a law student appeared to me to involve a lot of milk round sucking up (sorry, networking), an overabundance of late night study and a rather unattractive sharp-elbowed competitiveness. I preferred four hours of lectures a week and the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Even after my epiphany as a postgraduate – that I wasn’t cut out for academia, and all the things I was enjoying and excelling at involved advocating for the vulnerable and the voiceless, and finding ways to articulate a problem and to find practical solutions – family law was absolutely NOT where I was headed. I had that strong but ill-formed desire to "help people" that must never be acknowledged in pupillage interview (it may be true and admirable but it sounds dull and unimaginative). But I thought I was headed for other fields of law to "make a difference".

Although those interviewing me for scholarships found it rather hard to accept, I was absolutely clear that I wanted to be an advocate rather than a litigator. At the time I experienced this as a hint that I was not from the right "background" for the Bar, but it only made me more determined to take that course, relying on debt rather than scholarships to get me there. Over time I’ve come to realise that the Bar is more inclusive than I had thought it was (or perhaps it has become so), but it has taken me almost a decade to drop my non-public school chippiness.

I ended up in family law through serendipity rather than design (the chambers where I secured pupillage became a family specialist set overnight just months before I was due to start). If it had been my decision I’d never have chosen it, nor would I have realised it was absolutely the area I should be practising in. I had been on mini-pupillages and seen vile intractable contact disputes between middle class couples that had filled me with horror. And in pupillage I found it hard to bite my lip while manicured wives wept because they had to pare their monthly income wish-list down to only my entire annual income. I resisted family law for at least a couple of years, before really seeing it as my area or my future and embracing it.

I didn’t understand the role of family lawyers or the need for family law when I set out on this career. Because at 24, and coming from a reasonably ordinary financially stable family with supportive and still married parents, I had no clue about the complexity of relationships or of the multiple pressures that some families endure. As I’ve progressed I’ve been able to drop the money work and focus on cases involving vulnerable children and families, which is where I’m strongest and most at home.

What’s more, even if I’d known that family law was where I should be, in all honesty I would probably not have chosen it had I any realistic expectation of the financial and career uncertainty that I would be subject to. Of course I knew and accepted the risks of embarking on a career at the Bar generally, with the vagaries of self employment. But if you had told me that at ten years call I would look back at a decade of cut after cut upon cut to legal aid funding and rates, and that I would have to work more hours year on year at the expense of my family just to sustain my income, I’d have probably invested my energies elsewhere. But then I never knew that family lawyers would be not just the focus of anger for disgruntled litigants and campaigners, but the subject of persistent attack from government too.

By and large the public are clueless about what we do, regularly misunderstand our ethics and motivation, and harbour ill feeling based on stereotype and misperceptions about lawyers generally. It is a great sadness to me that our government is happy to exploit and feed those stereotypes at the expense of access to justice and morale at the Bar. As an entrant to the profession I had no clue that public distaste of lawyers would extend beyond shiny suited commercial lawyers to what I thought of as public servant lawyers. I found that dispiriting to begin with, but you get thick skinned. In this line of work it’s not about you, it’s about the client. And their day is generally worse than mine.

Although I’d probably have done something else if I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But sadly there may yet come a time when there is no family Bar to practise at, and then I will have to explore those other possible futures.

Lucy Reed is a family law barrister at St John's Chambers and the editor of the acclaimed Pink Tape blog.

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