‘You need an offer…but you only need one’

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It took a stint working in marketing, a brief spell as a criminal barrister and a longer interlude as a government lawyer before top law blogger Carl Gardner discovered what he really wanted to do…

I think the first time I became interested in the legal world was when I saw Crown Court as a kid — it was the best daytime TV ever, except for test cricket. At about the same time, Rumpole was on, too, and then David Jessel investigated Rough Justice.

But these things didn’t make me form a true ambition to a lawyer — I got sidetracked. By university, by politics (I seemed to spend my student years slipping leaflets under doors) and then by the need to actually make some money: on leaving college I couldn’t have afforded to do a law conversion course even if campaigning and marketing hadn’t seduced me. Aged 23, it made sense to me to make a career selling, in the broad sense. I loved writing, I loved persuading people and I loved selling ideas, I could deal with numbers and I wanted to explore the world. I wanted to “do” marketing, and I got a job offer. Just one.

My marketing experience was disastrous. It needn’t have been. But I was kept away from responsibility in a big, unenterprising firm that had no idea what to do with trainees except see if they “fitted in”. I felt frustrated that they didn’t want me to work harder, and no one was interested in my ideas. “You’re obviously a high achiever,” one of my bosses told me. “But not in this”. When did you last buy a Chambourcy yogurt, though? Exactly. I told them the 1988 relaunch was a mistake.

I’d saved enough to survive being a student again, and within a week of lectures at Manchester Polytechnic, I knew I’d been right to fall back on law. It seemed right. The City didn’t want me — I didn’t get the one offer I needed; life might have been different had Cameron Markby Hewitt (now CMS Cameron McKenna) not rejected me after three interviews — so I gained a year, embraced insecurity, and regained a half-formed childhood ambition by throwing my lot in with the Bar. I got just one offer of first six pupillage, and eventually, just one offer of second six.

I failed, like so many, to become a tenant, all the time thinking what I must do was advocacy. I was opinionated, mouthy and argumentative. Perhaps even a bit of a show-off if given a chance. I’d delivered votes for my party, and I’d sold. All these things attracted me to advocacy, plus I’d enjoyed all the bits of law that involved state power: public law and, yes, crime. But by summer 1995 I was doing pro bono work for the Free Representation Unit with no third six, nowhere to squat and no prospect of a real legal career. I applied for everything, and the one offer I got — from the Government Legal Service, an application that had felt truly desperate as I filled in the form — shaped the next phase of my life. You only need one offer.

I had a salary now, so I could survive. But I also had a dull-sounding job for the Department of Social Security (as it was then) with no prospect of advocacy or the excitement of big deals. I felt disappointed and compromised: I wanted to be in Chelmsford Crown Court. But within a year I relearned what I should have known since Manchester: it was law itself that really interested me. In government I was doing all the law I could handle, thinking every day about how to interpret legislation and, in time, how to change it. The GLS took me back to politics, too. I’d been a social democrat student, and social democrats were soon to be in power. It was the right place for me.

Unsurprisingly the civil service has many of the unfortunate characteristics of a large, managerialist bureaucracy, and perhaps I was bound to leave it in the end — so that I could write, if for no other reason. But I was lucky for most of the twelve years I spent as a backroom servant of the only government I’ve ever really, strongly supported (when Ed Miliband’s Prime Minister in 2015, part of me will wish I was back). I worked on bills and on cases in the European Courts. I negotiated for Britain. I became an unusual sort of human rights lawyer, for the “bad guys”. But some of the very best things I did sounded dullest. The legal framework governing occupational pensions? It’s great. Drugs licensing regulation? Seriously interesting, trust me. Cross-border tax law? Yup. If I could do any of those again without giving up my writing, I would.

Now I want to write, and teach, and broadcast, and make decisions (I’ve developed an interest in regulation and do some adjudication work). I’m still interested in government and politics, and I may well practice law again if I get that one right offer. I’m still making my career, and always will be.

Okay, so: this is what I’ve learned. You need an offer (I think I’d have liked being a City lawyer…) but you only need one. What interests you about work may not be what you think will interest you, so give unglamorous things a chance to surprise. Don’t worry about making a career for life: you’ll always be shaping your career anyway, so reshape it however life lets you. Mix purpose with opportunism. But don’t just settle for anything, ever.

Carl Gardner is a barrister, former government lawyer and author of the Head of Legal blog.

The full ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series is here.