‘If you forget that everything can be taken away from you at a moment’s notice, you’ll be in trouble’

By Francis FitzGibbon on

In a line of work that’s not exactly secure, it’s helpful to gain early experience at dealing with adversity, reckons Doughty Street’s Francis FitzGibbon QC

I didn’t know any lawyers. My mother’s ex-husband was a solicitor, but he had horns and a forked tail (or so she said). I did not read law at university, but as we were coming to the end of our time my friend said, “let’s be barristers, it sounds fun” (we had been drinking). So we signed up for a Diploma in Law. My friend hated it and bailed out after six weeks. Resulting trusts did for him. However, someone knew someone who was a big silk, representing proper corporate chancers in a grand Chancery set, and wrangled an introduction. He must have liked the cut of my jib and he offered me a pupillage (that was how it went, then). When I started, he’d left for the Bench. It was not what I’d naively expected…

Day 1: six hours silently reading commercial leases. 4pm — chambers tea in the head of chambers’ room, which was only slightly smaller than St Pancras Station. Junior clerk wheels in the trolley and tea is served. I struck up a friendly conversation with one of the younger-looking barristers. The room fell silent. Someone took me aside and explained that pupils were not expected to speak to members of chambers unless spoken to first. We’ll pass over the incident with the black suede shoes, of which I was proud.

This daily purgatory was interrupted at lunchtime by going to a greasy-spoon on Chancery Lane to fetch my pupil master his vile coleslaw and salad sandwiches. I think we went to court, once, for half an hour. I’ve forgotten everything I knew about easements and the rule in Foss v Harbottle. At the time I thought I understood this sort of thing, and recitals, dilapidations, and break clauses, and I even caught myself referring to “the 1954 Act” as if we were on first name terms.

Before OLPAS and during the age of typewriters and handwriting, I wrote to dozens of chambers applying for the second six of my pupillage. Many didn’t reply at all, a lot more said no. I got lucky and found a spot in a really good common law and crime set, where I learnt that law was about people and their problems, especially their criminal ones. The clerks sent me to every Magistrates and Crown Court in the South East. The other pupils were charming, and fun, and few had sharp elbows. It soon became clear that criminal law was the thing. How to be calm and assertive without being offensive in front of obtuse — even drunk — magistrates is something everyone in any line of work should learn. And how to win the confidence of uncertain, fearful clients. And how to recover your own confidence, when you think you’ve finally got the hang of it and something goes wrong, and it was your fault. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

A few years later I wound up in an unhappy set. It was divided into factions and there was a magic circle who got the good work. I wasn’t in it. It ended badly, with a public row in a thunderstorm, during which I walked out, and never went back. It was a reckless move, but absolutely the right thing to do and it has never given me a moment’s regret. The insecurity of the job should be the barrister’s friend. If you forget that everything can be taken away from you at a moment’s notice, you’ll be in trouble, because when bad things happen — and they will, eventually — you won’t have a clue what to do. You probably won’t anyway, but walking out of a job in a thunderstorm must help a bit to develop those crisis management skills.

I often think that the longer I stay in the business, the less I understand how it works, because it abounds in baffling things: the Criminal Procedure Rules; the reasoning of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division); solicitors in general, and why they never come back if you win a case, in particular. Or, in other words, there is always more to learn. But I do know this: it is a huge privilege to work as a criminal advocate. Every case is a prize. No day passes without at least one interesting moment — not necessarily in court. I have no time for members of the profession who moan about being bored by their work. It’s not boring, they are.

So what I know now is that my friend and I were right to think that being a barrister would be fun. If I’d wanted to be swanking about in a Bentley and whinge-boasting that I couldn’t afford to run the house in the Cote d’Azur, I’d have stayed with Foss v Harbottle. But I didn’t and I don’t.

Francis FitzGibbon QC is a criminal barrister at Doughty Street Chambers.

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