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

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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28 Comments

Anonymous

I remember many a happy school holiday watching ITV at lunch-times.

First Report with Robert Kee at 1pm – and then at 1.30pm Mondays Indoor League with Fred Trueman, and on Wed-Fridays was Crown Court…

I dare say many other of us were turned onto the law by that TV programme (which they brought back a few years ago…)

And anyone else for “Houseparty”…?!

(7)(1)
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Not Amused

Once again I will point out that these nostalgic utterances do nothing but harm the children of today. Alleged and half remembered insults and long held grudges given an airing decades later (and always *always* based upon identity politics).

Let us be absolutely clear here:

1) No alleged perpetrator of the alleged activity will be harmed by this or punished in any way;
2) the only impact this story will have is to further entrench negative views of the Bar and thus further disincentivise the young people of today who share the allegedly slighted identity from applying.

If anyone supports diversity at the Bar in the slightest then this recent slew of alleged ancient slights from extremely privileged individuals must stop.

(6)(33)
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Anonymous

Pointing out a problem doesn’t magically cause it to appear. It was always there and acknowledging it is the first step to addressing it.

While the bar is better today, the idea bullying and classism doesn’t still exist is ridiculous. The bar is mostly private educated and overwhelmingly rich. You’ll naturally have those views, to some extent, in that environment.

Those attitudes are even still prevalent in some solicitors firms, and diversity is far larger in that profession.

(19)(1)
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Anonymous

Seems like you’re really making two points here (and in your similar comments on similar articles):

1. Complaints about discrimination are not to be believed (because complainants are lying about, misremembering or have misinterpreted their own experiences).

2. Regardless of whether or not the complaints are true, it is harmful to talk about discrimination publicly, because it might put people from under-represented groups off the bar.

I think that both these complaints are pretty unsupportable.

Regarding 1 – by virtue of his position I think we can assume this man is intelligent and honest, and so if he considers himself to have been bullied because of his background, I’m inclined to think that his assessment of the situation is probably right. The same goes for similar complaints of discrimination from lawyers.

Regarding 2 – do you actually have any evidence that talking about discrimination is off-putting to candidates? Or is that just a hunch of yours? Encouraging silence about discrimination on the basis of a hunch that it might be harmful seems extremely irresponsible. My personal experience has been that discussing these issues is helpful rather than obstructive.

(17)(1)
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Quenelle

I keep getting marketing emails from a legal magazine offering to do puff pieces on people if they pay about £1,500.

Do people pay for your features as well, Legal Cheek?

(4)(0)
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comm lawyer

It’s amazing how snobby criminal barristers can be. It’s hardly especially competitive and the pay is embarrassing. The clients have fleas. One would imagine the working class would be a good fit for the role.

(11)(23)
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Anonymous

If they aren’t being snobby, they are checking the size of the other criminal barrister’s penis, while adding two inches onto their own.

(0)(2)
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I'm not a lawyer, I am a human who works as one.

This is an excellent article.

And the funny thing is, when I was doing the bar exam (which I now wholeheartedly regret) it was certainly the members of the bar who saw themselves to be erm… “elevated souls” that were the most dysfunctional (as well as very big fish little pond, so hilarious at the same time).

To those out there who use their “fine” attributes (as if) as a way to undermine others whilst covering up their many personal issues… You are an embarrassment to the profession and give a bad name to the majority who are very decent people.

John Cooper QC – excellent article and much welcomed.

(12)(4)
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Anonymous

The bar sounds like a constipated cesspit of incessant ignorance and bigotry. Why do people want to enter this profession? I’d rather have Katie Hopkins perform a rectal exam on me with a rattle snake.

(2)(0)
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Anonymous

I have been at the Bar a long time, and am undoubtedly ‘working class’. I have never suffered anything which could remotely be described as ‘bullying’.

(0)(0)
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Ivor Annetts

John, I only vaguely knew of your background, which is similar to my own. We have in the past had significant differences of opionion. I actually still believe that I was right! ( This is fairly unusual. lol) BUT having read this piece, I now take this opportunity to publicly congratulate you on your intellect – of which there was never any doubt – and your tenacity – of which I have had painful personal experience.
Good luck to you and yours.

(0)(0)
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