Serious crime silk John Cooper admits he was bullied at the bar because of his working class background

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By Katie King on

More fuel, more fire

John Cooper QC

This is the third piece in a series by Legal Cheek exploring the different motivations and stories of successful lawyers from non-traditional backgrounds. Last time we spoke to Child & Child partner Kevin Poulter, whose teacher once told him he was “too soft” to be a lawyer. Today, we speak to 25 Bedford Row’s John Cooper QC, whose school also tried to steer him away from pursuing a legal career.

Now a silk specialising in murder, violent offences, drug trafficking and other serious crime, John Cooper QC hailed from what he describes as a “solid working class family.”

His dad a shop worker and his mum a dinner lady, there were certainly no lawyers in the family for a young Cooper to look up to, nor any in his social circle. He instead found inspiration in Crown Court, an ITV series about fictional criminal cases. The daytime show treated viewers to 25 minutes of courtroom drama three afternoons a week. Running for 11 series and almost 12 years across the 1970s and 80s, Cooper was hooked. “I knew from watching the show that I wanted to be a barrister,” he says.

Though his family had never even heard of barristers or the bar, his parents were entirely supportive of his decision:

Mum used to say to me ‘as long as you’re happy with what you do, that’s all that matters.’

His teachers weren’t as enthusiastic. Though there were sometimes a few solicitors at Cooper’s comp school careers fairs, there were no barristers in sight. He was often told: “people like you don’t become barristers; it’s for posh people.”

The school’s dismissive attitude and terse response provided “fuel” for Cooper to pursue a career at the criminal bar — he just needed some money to get there first.

“I received a full grant from the local authority for my university education,” he tells us, “then funded my bar course through scholarships and by saving up money I earned as a delivery driver in Wolverhampton. I spent a lot of my time delivering furniture, and often found myself stuck up big flights of stairs with massive wardrobes.”

With an LLB from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the bar course and a pupillage under his belt, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’d be plain sailing from now on for Cooper. But, he tells us:

In the early years of my career, I was bullied at the bar by other barristers because of my background. I hate bullies. People ridiculed my accent and I was even physically poked in the chest.

“It was terrible”, but more fuel, more fire for Cooper. Had he not been so tenacious, he may have left shortly after being called to the bar in 1983. But the bullying made him more determined. “I wasn’t going to let myself be bossed around by those prats.” He took silk in 2010.

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