‘I’m Glad I Didn’t Know Some Things I Said In Court Were Prattish: Ignorance Gives You The Freedom To Experiment’

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By Simon Myerson on

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.

One of the things I did know – courtesy of a father at the Bar – was how enjoyable a barrister’s life could be. That’s good, because you’re only here once. But there are still lots of things I wish I knew, writes Simon Myerson QC. So, in no particular order…

I wish I had known that I did better work when doing a type of work I enjoyed. That would have transformed a number of inordinately tedious days, long after the time for experimenting with the particular area had passed. Nevertheless, I am glad that I was prepared to experiment with different types of work: most of what I now do isn’t what I saw myself doing in 1986.

In that respect, I wish I had known that the feeling you get of walking on the edge isn’t necessarily a sign that you don’t know enough. It might just be the shock of the new. In a similar way, I wish I had known that feeling comfortable in court is as likely to be a sign of stagnation as a sign of improvement. I wish I had known that doing the same thing time and again means that even though it’s exciting today, it may not be tomorrow. If I had known that I would not have charged down a number of cul-de-sacs.

English Courts decide hugely important social and moral questions by behaving as if every issue is strictly legal, and almost as if in the immortal – and appalling – words of Margaret Thatcher, “there is no such thing as society”: I wish I had known that when I started out. I still can’t make my mind up whether I think this mindset is a good thing or a bad thing – and it’s unlikely ever to matter what I think. But prior knowledge of this would have prevented a good deal of frustration.

I think I did know that spouses, children, friends and parents are more important than anything else, but there have been times when I forgot. It is possible to work 18-hour days almost all the time. Sometimes you simply have to, but quite often you don’t. I wish I had known that the world didn’t stop and my practice would not vanish because I went on holiday without either taking a computer or a set of papers.

I wish I had known that a judicial gown does not automatically convert its wearer into the font of all knowledge, and that unpleasant people make bad judges.

Even though I was called at a time when barristers didn’t move chambers, in which respect today’s junior Bar has choices unavailable to me, I wish I had known how important the atmosphere in chambers is for enjoying the job.

I am glad I didn’t know that some of the things I said in court were particularly prattish. Sometimes ignorance gives you the freedom to experiment. I am glad, also, that I didn’t know that the civil service were so incompetent, ignorant, foolish or consumed with envy that, in their efforts to scale back the legal aid budget, they would ignore everything the professions had to offer in terms of making the system of justice reliable and efficient. Or that money ostensibly saved would become the only measure of success in evaluating that system.

Finally, and on a purely personal note, I wish I had known that one of my pupil masters, the late great Edmund Lawson QC, would die when he was 62. If I had known that, I would have spent much more time drinking (too much) pink gin with him, and learning.

Simon Myerson QC is a barrister specialising in crime, civil and regulatory work at St Pauls Chambers in Leeds. He also authors the Pupillage and How To Get It blog and information resource for Bar wannabes.