The tale of a lawyer who’s jacked it all in to run a cafe.
When Heidi Cotton launched the Broom Wagon Velo Cafe last March, she must have seen the headlines coming. And newspapers being predictable creatures, they didn’t let her down. “Barrister turns barista,” has been the cry, which we have admittedly echoed. But the rest of Cotton’s story is not so predictable.
It is easy to anticipate a tale of a criminal law specialist so demoralised by the hard grind of daily practice for ever-worsening pay — exacerbated by the government’s current assault on legal aid rates — that she jacks it in to set up a coffee shop. Where, so the story would run, she is bound to earn more in daily tips than she would schlepping to a committal hearing at a far flung magistrates’ court.
However, Cotton was not in fact that demoralised with practice at the criminal bar.
“I always took the view — ever since we first got wind of significant legal aid cuts four years ago — that I would simply ride them out. I thought there would still be a need for quality advocates and that I would be one of those.”
Cotton read law at De Montfort University in Leicester before joining the Bar Vocational Course at BPP in the first year that institution ran the programme, which has subsequently morphed into the Bar Professional Training Course.
She was called in 1999 and joined Sheffield’s Bankhouse Chambers as a pupil — under pupil master Peter Kelson QC, who became a full-time Crown Court judge in 2010.
Cotton stayed with those chambers for her entire career at the bar, where she both prosecuted and defended criminal cases.
“I specialised in crime because I liked the courtroom drama,” she says. “And I enjoyed interacting with the clients, the jury and the entire courtroom atmosphere.”
So why did she bail out of a bar career in favour of smacking coffee scoops against a steamy espresso machine?
“I didn’t feel too disheartened about the legal aid cuts,” explains Cotton. “Instead, as I was 38, I realised I didn’t want to be at the bar for the rest of my working life — at least another 20 years if not more.”
“I wanted to be a businesswoman and to do something for myself that I was absolutely passionate about. I’m passionate about coffee, cakes and bicycles — and I still get to interact with the public.”
The coffee shop in Retford, a Nottinghamshire market town, is cycling themed and also offers customers indoor bike storage. Cotton employs six staff, and cycles to work most days herself — “weather permitting”.
Despite adamantly maintaining that justice secretary Chris Grayling and his legal aid budget axe did not drive her to the velo cafe, Cotton acknowledges that times are increasingly tough at her former end of legal practice.
“Clearly, practising at the criminal bar is getting more and more difficult,” she says. “And it is an awful shame to see incredibly intelligent and capable former colleagues forced to reconsider futures in the legal profession — as many of them are. So many quality advocates are now being forced to consider their options.”
Ultimately, however, Cotton derives satisfaction from the incredulity her career move triggers in some.
“I get a kick out the reaction people have — especially lawyers — when they learn I’ve traded in a career at the bar for owning a cafe. It is a sort of shock and horror.”