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Why life as a QC is more similar to running a pub in Cleethorpes than at first it may appear

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When she became a lawyer, Taryn Lee QC thought that she was taking a very different path to her publican parents. But now she’s not so sure.

When I was 18 months old, my gas-fitter/plumber father and my secretary mother decided became the tenants of a rather large public house on Cleethorpes seafront for a well-known brewery.

From being a very young child I watched my parents literally work every hour possible in the pub while raising a young family of three girls — I was the youngest and my sisters would say by far the most spoilt!

When I first started Bursar Street Infants school I had to come home for my lunch and my mother used to cook my dinner in the microwave (incredibly futuristic at that time) while serving behind the bar. I would eat my lunch and watch the programme ‘Crown Court’. Bizarrely, I can still recall and hum the theme tune to that programme.

More importantly though, it awakened my interest in all things legal. I was fascinated by these people in their very strange wigs and long flowing black gowns, who stood up in a very scary room (or at least to a four year-old it looked that way; it still does sometimes!) and told somebody else’s story.

By the time I was seven or eight years old, people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I would say I want to be a barrister. This was much to the amusement of my family, who had no idea where this had come from, never mind how I actually knew what one was.

I held onto that dream throughout my childhood and there were many times when I thought my dream might be thwarted, either through not being bright enough, or not being from the right background or just due to a simple lack of finances.

However, my parents always said that you can achieve anything if you are willing to put the hard work in and that great things don’t just happen; you have to strive for them. They never once told me to give up, but when I didn’t quite manage something they would just simply say, “If you tried your best then no one can ask anymore of you than that”. That phrase and those words have been so powerful throughout my life because I know that when I haven’t quite achieved something in the way I would have hoped, it was invariably because I hadn’t given it my best shot. I approach everything with that mantra and check against myself — have I done my best?

I had the notion that if I became a barrister I could speak up for others and help people in crisis (legal crisis, that is) and perhaps would have a nice life, in which I wouldn’t have to work every single hour like my parents had done throughout their lives.

How wrong I was! In many ways this profession is just like the one my parents entered into when I was such a small child. Working all hours, being friendly and supportive to those who were having difficulties and trying to dispense good advice, even when you have your own worries and pressure. The only difference between the advice I dispense and that which my parents dispensed to countless customers is that mine is legally based and theirs was just plain old wise, good common sense advice on life. And good advice it was too: “Always put your make-up on, especially when you feel low because it will make you feel better and anyway, nobody wants to see a miserable face!” That was my mum’s motto and I have always tried to follow it.

My parents enjoyed their time in the pubs even though it was incredibly hard work and involved anti-social hours. I thought I would avoid that in my own profession but I haven’t. It’s fair to say that my chosen career and the demands it makes on my time has been a source of huge frustration for my children at various points in their lives, when they simply cannot understand why I suddenly have to stay at home and work or miss family holidays (more than once) because a case has overrun. If you ask my children what they want to do when they get older their immediate response is “not a barrister!”

One of the things that I most love about the profession is the sheer commitment and dedication that each barrister shows to each individual client they represent. The strength of the justice system and the reason it is so universally admired and replicated around the world is, I believe, founded in the integrity and fearlessness with which we represent and defend our clients and the high esteem and well–earned respect with which we hold the judiciary who uphold the rule of law. To be a part of that justice system, even in the face of all of the challenges that are presented to us on an almost daily basis, is really something very special and unique. Even now, over 20 years into my chosen career, I still pinch myself because I can’t quite believe I am here.

If I knew back then what my life would be like now — not so different from my parents — would I still have chosen the Bar? The answer would be a resounding yes. And if I could think of one piece of advice that has stuck with me throughout my life it’s a Walt Disney quote that my parents used to like which my daughter has inscribed on her bangle: “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them”.

Taryn Lee QC was called to the Bar by Inner Temple in 1992 and took silk in 2012, the same year she became a bencher. She is joint head of chambers at 37 Park Square in Leeds and chair of the Bar Council’s Social Mobility Committee.


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