‘Turning a story round as a journalist is closer to the process of preparing a late brief for a trial than I ever imagined’

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Changing careers isn’t easy, says Catherine Urquhart of her switch from journalist at The Times to rookie barrister, but being a late entrant to the law also has its advantages

Like any journalist, I was at the mercy of events. And the September 11 attacks, the Boxing Day tsunami, and the Bali bomb were some of the more shocking, demanding world events I covered while on the staff of The Times, where I was for ten years the travel editor.

In each case, my colleagues and I, whether overseas or back in the newsroom, had to get to grips with a large amount of information in a short time. That information came in falteringly as the story unfolded. Communication with contacts overseas could be difficult. Just as we’ve seen in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, rumours could easily gain traction and be hard to check out. The editor would have particular demands regarding content, pictures and presentation. Deadlines weren’t negotiable: the presses rolled at set times. And our duty to our readers was to present a coherent, honest account, to the best of our ability.

Now I’m a junior barrister, but what I do each day feels very similar to my old life. For late-breaking stories, read late instructions; for demanding editors, swap tetchy judges; for communication difficulties, try calling the solicitor from a distant train. As both a journalist and a barrister, you have to get to the heart of the matter at speed, work out how to present your case, and do the best you can with the information and in the time available. The process of turning a story round as a journalist is closer to the process of preparing a late brief overnight for a trial than I could ever have imagined. The final similarity is that the next day, you wipe the details of the story or case from your mind as you’re on to something completely different.

You may be wondering what someone who was called to the Bar three short years ago is doing writing this column, rubbing metaphorical shoulders with the more experienced lawyers who normally occupy this slot. But although I only became a barrister in 2010, that came after nearly two decades in journalism. And I’d say that having had a previous career will make me a better barrister than if I’d started in my early twenties.

If you come to law later in life, whatever professional path you’ve taken before, your greater age and life experience will give you a degree of wisdom and common sense which comes into play on a daily basis. As a barrister it helps if you can assess people’s character, put a nervous witness at ease and make small talk with solicitors. Your bullshit detector’s more finely tuned and you’re better at not sweating the small stuff. You’re also in a hurry to get your new career on track — you don’t have as many years to make your mark as your younger colleagues.

There’s a presentational advantage, too. When I make a hopeless point in court, judges appear to think that someone my age could not possibly be so dim as not to know the obvious, and may kindly assume I must be trying to make an ambitious argument. When my clients meet me and then see my 20-something opponent (who’s often far more experienced than me), they reckon they’ve got a good deal. And after a judge once made a frankly potty liability decision in a road traffic case, I told my client that never before had I asked for permission to appeal on grounds of perversity. She took comfort from that, and didn’t need it spoiling by the knowledge that I was just out of pupillage.

My journalism background has proved to be particularly useful when dealing with witnesses. To get people to speak to you as a journalist, you need a certain amount of charm, empathy, and to be interested in people, whatever their background. That really helps when dealing with cases with multiple witnesses, such as employment hearings where everyone from the boss to the cleaner is giving evidence. The shorthand’s a bonus, too, for taking down judgments accurately and being able to read a witness’s contradictory evidence back to them.

Those contemplating a career change often ask me for advice. Is it too late to become a barrister in your thirties? (No.) Your forties? (Probably.) Do I need a first? (No, but good academics are important, whatever your age. If you have a 2:2, finding pupillage is near impossible.)

The financial considerations are important too. While younger barristers inevitably have a student loan to pay off, that debt can to some extent be postponed. Older candidates are likely to have a mortgage, partner, children, regular bills. You will have to fund law school fees and living expenses for several years, at a time when many of your contemporaries are reaching the peak of their earning potential in banking, accountancy or medicine, for example. You’ll become out of step with your friends’ lifestyles. The unpredictable work, early morning trains, late night prepping and cash flow problems might seem strange to those in your social circle who are settling into middle aged comfort and security. Your partner and children will find it tough, too.

But if you really love what you can do with the law — using your intellect and training to fight and win battles for people who need your help — you may find it’s worth making the switch. One thing I know for sure: your previous career will help, not hinder you. In my final pupillage interview at Ely Place Chambers, I was asked about my experience of dealing with stressful situations. As a journalist, I’d been charged by an elephant, had to fly a light plane when the pilot got into trouble, and faced Khmer Rouge gunmen in Cambodia. It wasn’t a tricky question.

Catherine Urquhart is a barrister at Ely Place Chambers. She was previously travel editor of The Times.

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