‘I didn’t get tenancy after my first pupillage, or my second or third’

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After Catherine Rowlands’ first chambers’ Tooks-style collapse, a spell in the regions working in magistrates’ courts ended up proving an unlikely launchpad for a career in public law.

20 years ago, I did know what I know now. That is to say, people tried to tell me about life at the Bar: they told me that it would be hard, that the Bar was changing, that the glory days were over. But I didn’t really believe it — and the aspiring barrister that reads these words, I am sure, is no different. You can’t learn about life, whether that be life at the Bar or life in general, without living it; you can’t learn from other people’s mistakes.

I wanted to be a barrister from age 14; I never changed and feel incredibly privileged to have been able to do a job that I love, although it has not been unalloyed joy. The Bar is a profession full of human beings, and that means good and bad people. I’ve been lucky enough to come across more of the former than the latter.

I knew that the Bar was a profession of individuals, and whether you sink or swim depends on your own talents, and on luck. But I did not know that it also depended on other people. I did not know, and have been happy to discover, that senior members of the Bar would support and assist me. I was lucky to have mentors, including a pupil master and various silks, who have looked out for me, trained me and inspired me. My first ever mini-pupillage, aged 17 — with Michael Murphy, later QC and then judge at Sheffield Crown Court — was an eye-opener. I was a gawky, geeky working class girl. His courtesy and forbearance to me, and to everyone he came across, showed me how to behave at the Bar. Being courteous costs nothing and gets you a lot. It gets you respect from your opponents, it means judges are more likely to listen to you and it gets you devotion from your clients. Mr Murphy has been the standard I try to live up to ever since.

I knew that it would be tough to make it at the Bar and it was — I didn’t get tenancy after my first pupillage, or my second or third. My first chambers collapsed in hideous recriminations and costs. But tenacity is the second lesson to learn. I managed from the rubble of my first set to join a really good set in Birmingham, St Ive’s Chambers, and to move from there to my current set, Cornerstone Barristers. In both of those, I have had the pleasure of working with people I respect and admire, and hanging out with people who are fun to be around.

So one more thing I didn’t know back then: it is possible to move sets and even move back from the Provinces to London. When I first moved out of London, I was told I was mad, I could never come back. But the provincial Bar has so much going for it. There are fantastic advocates in Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol. There are chambers doing excellent work for their communities with overheads far lower than London and the quality of life you can enjoy as a common law generalist is far higher. I came back to London in order to specialise more and to share chambers with some of the best barristers in my line, but I still hold the provinces in high regard.

So to those struggling to get pupillage in London, my advice would be to go outside London. Learn your craft: learn to be a good advocate in the magistrates’ courts in the tiny towns. If you can impress the clerk there, who has seen raw baby barristers come and go (and go on way too long) you’ll have the makings of a good advocate. Learn cross examination in road traffic accidents. Learn what doesn’t work and don’t do it again. Learn the key skills, like being nice to the security guards and the ushers. They are the ones who will really determine your quality of life and what time you get home! Learn how to walk through a door without snagging the sleeves of your gown on the handles. And above all, find your niche. Work out what you want to do, or at least, what you do best. They are not necessarily the same thing; be realistic. And then, if you still want to, come back to London if that’s the best place for you.

However, if there was one piece of advice I would give to my 20 year-old self (although I know I wouldn’t take it) it would be this: look after your back. I wish I had known not to carry too much around in a rucksack or slung over my shoulders in my student days. Maybe my back would be aching less as I write this if I’d known then what I now know: use a wheelie bag.

Catherine Rowlands is a public law barrister at Cornerstone Barristers.

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