‘I spent my early years at the Bar worrying that my peers were smarter than me’

By Nigel Poole QC on

In this week’s ‘If I knew then what I know now’, Nigel Poole QC recalls how, over time, he realised that the unshakable self-confidence of some of his peers belied a shared state of ignorance and anxiety.

Two characteristics of the profession conspire to breed paranoia in the young barrister. The first is that no one really knows how well they are doing. There is no league table or promotional structure, and, of course, it is vulgar to talk about money. So, you are left to speculate from circumstantial evidence. That way lies madness.

On returning to our respective cars parked outside Oldham County Court one afternoon my opponent looked at my rusting Clio standing next to his gold-trimmed Lexus and remarked, “I see you have chosen an unobtrusive model”. I should have been thinking, “Who drives a Lexus in their 20s?”. Instead I was pondering how well he must be doing to be able to afford that car. I should have known then, as I know now, that money is a poor measure of success at the Bar. At least that is what I tell myself.

The second paranoia-breeding characteristic of the Bar is that it naturally attracts those who can “talk the talk”. We are professional advocates after all. There are many genuinely talented barristers but there are many others who merely act how they think a barrister should act. I recall bumping into a fellow pupil at Macclesfield County Court and asking what he was doing. “Oh, a couple of pieces of nonsense,” he replied dismissively in the manner of an old hack.

There is a certain kind of barrister, usually male, who feels compelled to talk himself up. He pops his head round my door in the morning to say, “Nigel, do you know Mr Justice Smeggins? What’s he like?” The object of the question is not to hear my view, but to inform me that he has a hugely important case in the High Court. Later you find out that the brief was merely to announce, “I have nothing to add” on behalf of a defendant at an approval hearing. I wish I had known then that those who talk themselves up the most often have the least reason to boast.

So, I spent my early years at the Bar worrying that my peers were smarter and more successful than me. I was intimidated by the absolute conviction with which opponents would tell me how strong their cases were and how weak was mine. One colleague would greatly impress everyone with his facility in conversation for reeling off case names. Only later did I realise that he used the same authorities to support a wide range of — sometimes conflicting — propositions. In litigation, no-one has all the answers and most cases are decided not on the law but on what you might call “common sense”. As a barrister you have to rely on your own judgement so you might as well learn to trust in it. I wish I had had more confidence to do that from the outset.

Many of the barristers who have impressed me the most, including my own pupil supervisor Alastair Forrest, have been sceptical, undemonstrative and constant. There are “great characters” at the Bar but you do not have to be one to be a good advocate.

I wish I had known, earlier in life, not to fear failure or to fear change. At university I noticed that those who ended up running the student union, editing the newspaper and presiding over the debating society did not necessarily have more talent than anyone else — they had more self-belief. Being at Oxford University there were a number of Etonians. They just assumed they would take charge and they did. They didn’t ask, “Why me?” but “Why not me?”. I wish I had learned sooner to have a go and, when you fall flat on your face, to have another go. Such successes as I have had in my career have always been immediately preceded by failure. You will achieve nothing if the fear of failure stops you even trying.

The same principle applies when facing the prospect of change. Whenever I have consciously made changes in my professional life, my career has benefited. Presently the profession is facing very many changes and challenges, but whether it is the use of technology, alternative business structures or funding arrangements, I have learned that those who are not willing to contemplate change will usually suffer. I let several years slip by, wondering whether to make certain changes, but once I made them, I wished I had made them earlier.

I regard my main professional achievement as having kept going. All barristers are in competition with each other, even with our closest colleagues. We are reliant on the whims of solicitors as to whether or not we work and we fear being “rumbled” — at any time the instructions could simply cease. Cash flow is erratic. Reputation is crucial to making a living, but you have limited control over your reputation. It is in the nature of the job, acting within an adversarial system, that our opinions are constantly challenged and our judgements questioned. This barrage of uncertainty and conflict can wear some people down, so much so that they cannot fight back. With the support I have had at home I have managed to stay on track.

When, as I did, you share a tutorial group at Bar School with Dinah Rose, you soon realise that your career will never really measure up. While she set a determined course towards the Supreme Court, I, almost inadvertently, ended up in Manchester practising clinical negligence and personal injury work. I know now that I landed on my feet. It is a great city and there is a wonderful camaraderie on the Northern Circuit. It has been a privilege to represent countless individuals whose lives have been blighted by injury or bereavement. If I had known 24 years ago what I know now I would, without hesitation, have taken the same path.

Nigel Poole QC is a barrister specialising in clinical negligence and personal injury at Kings Chambers in Manchester. He blogs about clinical negligence at NigelPooleQC.blogspot.co.uk.