While being a public law barrister can be thrilling and rewarding, it’s often less glamorous than people imagine.
If I could go back in time, I’d tell my 22 year-old self that she should give up smoking — firstly, to avoid being told off by ushers for popping out for a quick one when the case is about to be called on, and secondly to avoid spending six months of every year feeling both tetchy and horrendously nervous outside court because she hasn’t had a cigarette for a week as part of her latest attempt to quit.
Next, I would ensure that she had done a thorough trolley bag test so that it would not split or spill her papers all over the wet train concourse at 6am. She would not just own one, but at least two trolley bags — destined to be stuffed to within an inch of their lives with more paper than it is possible to imagine.
My 22 year-old self would also possess a broader sense of the reality of the Bar. For example, she’d realise that life as a barrister is mainly a series of encounters with toasted cheese sandwiches at windswept train stations spent trying to calculate if you can get home before your childcare provider resigns at your lateness.
She would know, too, that no one apart from bald men look good in a wig. And that falling over your gown while wearing heels is an occupational hazard (and the fact that it was in front of the entire public law Bar when you are about six months into practice is a useful experience in humility).
What else do I wish I knew then that I know now? That it’s normal to have shaking hands when you first do your submissions, and that it never really stops; anxiety is a daily part of this job. And that it’s OK to cry at the end of the day after you have had to deal with people to whom life has not been kind and who are finding it difficult to cope.
But social welfare law has more than its share of rewarding moments too. Receiving a thank you card from a nine year-old after you’d got him into the school of his choice, in which he has painfully and obviously — after much effort — written his own name, is one of the best feelings in the world. Second only to being told that the boy who sat in his room for two years communicating with no one has passed his GCSEs and has made some friends. But having the privilege to share in these moments requires persistence, patience and determination.
You have to clear many hurdles first, such as coping when an entire courtroom erupts in laughter at your attempt to pronounce names in Welsh. My improved younger self would be capable of such pronunciation feats. And even if she made a rare mistake, she’d be comforted by her knowledge that everyone else is also putting on the act of self-confidence, and that inside they are all riven with self-doubt and worry too. So when she encountered those young men who tell you that they enjoy being rude to people, she’d know that they will not prosper, and that being kind and courteous is an essential part of the job.
This non-smoking, Welsh-speaking superhuman would, of course, be keenly aware that the sternest of judges can soften in the face of a well-timed joke. But not too many. And obviously never at their expense. On a related note, she would know never to face a judge just before lunch with a difficult submission or proposition.
The final thing I’d tell her would be that a comprehensive school girl from Romford who didn’t even know a lawyer while growing up can become one of them, albeit with a distinct Estuary accent. And that she would be accepted despite her fondness for the early work of George Michael.
Fiona Scolding is a public law practitioner at Hardwicke Building, specialising in social welfare work across a broad spectrum for both individuals and institutions. She has a particular expertise in education law.
The full ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series is here.