‘If I knew then what I know now… I’d be on my hands and knees begging my younger self not to become a criminal barrister’

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The criminal Bar no longer offers a path to a nice middle class lifestyle, but it’s still a great training ground to launch an interesting career in something else from, writes barrister-turned-author Alex McBride

“Don’t do it, Young Self, you dumb ass,” I’d say. “The money’s terrible, the hours are terrible, the train journeys endless. And the people, you have no idea, and that’s not just the judges, wait until you get a load of the cops, and the crims. Wait until you get a load of the CPS.”

“Old Self, you kill me with your world weary patter,” Young Self replies, “but I’ve just turned thirty and if I don’t press the big red panic button marked ‘Law’ what else do you suggest I do? I, or rather we, have screwed up everything else.”

I scowl at Young Self’s know-it-all smirk but I have to concede the little git has a point. What else would I have done? And for that matter, what else would you do, sat reading this piece, considering a career in the law with the same aspirations and hopes that I and countless others have had?

I launched my legal career thinking the law is a copper-bottomed profession with near limitless opportunities. This long held view was famously encapsulated in FE Smith’s “glittering prizes” speech he made as rector of Glasgow University in the 1920s.

Smith’s boosterish contention was that the world, and especially the world of law, responded with glittering prizes for those who had the oomph and ability to acquire them. Smith was extremely well qualified to speak on the subject of achievement. He was showered in gongs and honours. He made silk in nine years flat, was an MP and a member of the cabinet. Between 1919 and 1922 he clicked through the grades of the peerage from plain old baron to earl, and crowned this prize-grabbing by becoming lord chancellor at a mere 47.

In 2013, the criminal Bar, and to a lesser extent the other Bars, can no longer offer the same career progression. In fact, the criminal Bar can’t offer much at all. If you want to own a flat — forget London — or have a middle class, professional lifestyle, you are in for a long wait.

Does that mean I am right to go crawling and Cassandra-like with the bad news to my younger self and anyone else who will listen? If I knew then what I know now, would I still pick up the legal shilling? Probably. The criminal Bar is certainly a very bad career choice but the skills and experience you learn on the job are still worth having. Legal practice, especially knockabout fun in the criminal courts, makes you very good at focusing on what is relevant and what is not. You learn to master a brief and set out an argument clearly and persuasively. You acquire confidence and lose your fear in the adversarial back and forth.

None of these are glittering prizes in FE Smith’s terms, but they are transferable skills which can lead to good things further down the track. The trick and the challenge to make the criminal Bar worth doing, for a while at least, is creating a job or career where these hard won skills might help you shine. You will not be handed the opportunity just because people think criminal barristers are swell. Instead, you’ll have to take risks in order to move sideways to something new, but as the conveyor belt to well-paid work and the senior judiciary breaks down those risks become easier and easier to take.

That the criminal Bar is still a formidable training ground is good news for us lawyers, but not for the people we represent. The running down of our profession is a disaster for them. The fair and efficient administration of justice remains incredibly important work that requires able people to make it function. When you escape the Bar, try to go and do something interesting and useful. Don’t be a self-serving careerist like FE Smith, and unlike him, don’t get legless in bars and clubs or you might end up as he did — an earl, chancellor of Oxford University and stone dead at 58.

Alex McBride is the author Defending the Guilty and the editor of the Penguin Famous Trials ebook series.