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‘Although the choices you make in your twenties matter, they are rarely life threatening’

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Barrister-turned-cartoonist Alex Williams feared expulsion when he cheated on a piece of work that his pupil master had set him — but he was spared, and, much to his surprise, was later offered tenancy.

If I knew then what I know now, I probably would not have gone into law at all. After all, two years at law school and then a year of pupillage is probably not the best way to prepare for a career in animation and cartoons, which is what I ended up doing for a living.

On the other hand, I don’t regret my (rather brief) career at the Bar. Knowing how the law works is a very useful life skill. And I got my cartoon strip, ‘Queen’s Counsel’, out of it all, still running weekly in The Times two decades later.

I suppose the only thing I would really have done differently would have been to stress about it all rather less. After all, although the choices you make in your twenties do matter, they are rarely life threatening. I agonised about it all way too much. Looking back, I wish I had simply enjoyed the journey more. One of my pupil masters, noticing my distress over one of my early cases, said simply: “Try to have fun with it. After all, that’s what it’s all about”. Still good advice today.

That said, law school is boring and pupillage is ferocious. The competition was intense 20 years ago and I imagine it is even worse now. At my chambers there were five pupils, and only two seats. Three of us were going to go down; we all knew that. And we would have to wait a year before we found out who were the lucky two.

Oddly enough, I later discovered that chambers made their collective minds up quite early on, largely on the basis of who they liked the most. At the time, I thought that seemed rather a flippant basis on which to recruit, but now, aged 45, I understand it completely. Barristers’ chambers are like large rather dysfunctional families — and who wants to welcome someone they don’t like into the family?

My absolute worst moment as a pupil was when I cheated on a piece of work that my pupil master had set me. Instead of doing the assignment properly, I sneaked a peek at his own summary of the case, and then re-engineered my own. That I could ever have thought I would get away with it seems baffling now. I can still see him swivelling round in his chair and pointing a long white finger at me while quoting Emile Zola: “J’accuse”.

I was spared expulsion from chambers after this inanity but later had a further unfortunate encounter with legal ethics. This was during a criminal case where, appearing in front of a judge, I was less candid than I should have been about my own knowledge of what exactly my client had or had not done. It was at that point that I finally got it: the professional code of conduct is not there to be bypassed or skirted — it is there for your own protection. Hug it close, relax, and sleep well at night.

When I applied for pupillage I had just started my cartoon strip Queen’s Counsel in The Times, and I was terrified of being found out, which was why I used my middle name Steuart as a byline. But I needn’t have worried. Barristers’ chambers interview hundreds of candidates and many have equally impressive qualifications. The cartoon strip, far from being an embarrassment, just made me a bit more memorable. In a world of equally excellent candidates, something that makes you a bit different can at least get you a second interview.

Miraculously, my chambers did offer me a tenancy, and I took it, delighted to win the prize. But I soon ungratefully abandoned them, seduced by the lure of Hollywood to animate movie cartoons. Since then I have not ended up using my legal training in the way I had intended, but it came in very handy when I had to negotiate studio contracts…

Alex Williams is a film animator and cartoonist, having previously been a barrister at 12 King’s Bench Walk. His new book, ‘The Queen’s Counsel Lawyer’s Omnibus: 20 Years of Cartoons from The Times 1993-2013’, is available from Amazon and costs £9.99.