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 suppose I do wonder if I had worked a little harder on the entrance exam for Cambridge, or taken a year off and tried again, whether I would have succeeded. My career might also have turned out differently if I had applied myself more and got better than a 2:2 from Manchester, writes Gerard McDermott QC…
But in those days the vast majority of my year was graded 2:2 and it was not a great concern. As it was, after six months working in-house at Ferranti (an electronics powerhouse which later went bust), I got pupillage in Manchester. Things really were different then. My interview came as a result of a letter that I had written before getting the job at Ferranti. During it, I recall a senior member of chambers not being able to believe that I was going to trade a well paid job with good prospects, a pension and other perks for the uncertainty of the Bar. Certainly as a junior I sometimes wondered whether commerce and industry might have been more appealing.
I also wonder if, given my time again, I might have aimed for the commercial Bar. In 1978 when I was looking for pupillage, the Bar was far less specialised than it is now. But actually I think the work I do – largely acting for badly injured claimants – is as essential and as satisfying as any commercial case. Plus I also enjoy the international relations work I have been involved in for the Bar. It has made me a quite different lawyer. In particular, long-lasting exposure to the US legal system has taught me that there are many ways in which the Bar can innovate and flourish, provided it remains alert to this impetus to change.
The one thing I suppose I would change is not learning a language. I have always had an interest in European and comparative law, and I suppose I might have tried to further that if I had been fluent in French or German. Maybe I should also have finished the LLM I registered for at Manchester in about 1980. I suspect I may still be enrolled as a student.
I did know then – maybe around 1987 when the first green papers on reform of legal services were published – that practice at the Bar would change and we would need to be ready for this. But I would have worked harder to persuade the Bar Council and the circuits to change sooner if I had realised how wide ranging the current forces for change would be.
If I had known then how difficult it would be for new starters to get to the Bar, I hope I would have tried to do more about it at an earlier stage, too. In my own way I am doing exactly that now. Although I belong to Outer Temple Chambers (and 9 St John Street in Manchester) in the conventional sense, I also operate, day-to-day, from my own chambers in east Manchester. There, I have support from two legal assistants who have done the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and are looking for pupillage. I could not deliver the service I hope that I provide without the research, summarising and general assistance that my legal assistants provide.
I can’t help but feel that the Bar could do more in this way for those aspiring to join us. I think there are ways and means of using innovation in the recruitment of pupils through the use of legal assistants which could be beneficial to both chambers and pupils. It would enable the Bar to offer a better service, reduce costs and provide those looking for pupillage with an ideal opportunity to “cut their teeth” in the work of a barrister.
To write about “If I’d known then what I know now” suggests a lot of regrets. I am lucky not to have many, aside from maybe working a little harder in my earlier years – not just as a student but also as a junior barrister starting out. Yet, equally, life was much less pressured then. Solicitors could not chase by email and clerks could not call you on your mobile. So it was easier to go for a lunch that might last a few hours…
Gerard McDermott QC is a barrister specialising in high value personal injury and employment cases. He sits as a recorder in the Crown Court.