Ed note: This is the third in a series of posts where leading members of the legal profession share their wisdom with the next generation of wannabes. The first two are here. We’ll be featuring one-a-week in the run-up to ‘Legal Cheek at the Google Campus‘ next month.
When I was called to the Bar in 1983 a lot of people were saying that “people like you don’t go to the Bar”, writes John Cooper QC. Well, anyone who knows me will instantly realise that any lingering doubts I had about becoming a barrister vanished with that challenge…
I guess they meant that because I come from a working-class background, attended a comprehensive school and spoke with a Black Country (note not Birmingham) accent, that I would be up against it.
In fact, the Bar as an institution has been welcoming to all people of different backgrounds. And although it still has a lot to do, it is in fact, as an overall entity, one of the most diverse professions in the UK.
All this, I soon learned. But what I know now would also have been useful as I began my determined strategy not just to be a barrister, but to be a successful one.
Coming from a non-legal background, with no history in any generation of my family in the so-called professions (medical, legal, army, navy, air force etc…), I had to establish myself from ‘ground zero’. And to do this I could not sit back and wait for things to happen like many of my more privileged and connected colleagues.
Actively and tenaciously seeking work, building a practice through 24-hour-a-day networking, and generally ‘putting myself about’ and proving myself – as I had to do to survive – is still not considered appropriate by many.
Even when I was campaigning earlier this year to become Criminal Bar Association (CBA) vice chair, and argued in favour of public hustings of the candidates, my opponent, Nigel Lithman, scuppered the proposal by calling it “inappropriate” and labelled me a “self publicist”. Maybe guilty as charged, but as life at the criminal Bar gets more difficult, many more of us will have to fight to survive.
What I know now is that if you have the determination and talent to succeed at the criminal Bar, you should go for it. Take into account the real hurdles, but aspire.
If you are not from the ‘professional class’ and have no connections, make them. But understand that those who don’t need to do that will always resent you for it, and be prepared to deal with that resentment for the rest of your professional life. Use it to motivate you…and enjoy it.
John Cooper QC is a barrister whose cases have included the judicial review of the Dr David Kelly inquest. He represented Paul Chambers in the ‘Twitter joke trial’ and is visiting professor of law at Cardiff University.