What’s It Really Like to Be a Barrister?
Becoming a barrister is often considered one of the highest achievements for a person’s legal career and most are probably under the impression that it will be plain sailing once they qualify. As with any similar role, being a barrister is much more than knowing your stuff and getting up in the morning.
Below Lawyer Monthly is pleased to hear from Angelina Nicolaou, a barrister at One Pump Court in the UK. In this brief Q&A Angelina talks about why she decided to become a barrister, what the reality was like compared to the expectation, discusses general day to day stuff, and offers some advice for newcomers.
Why did you decide to become a barrister?
I didn’t really have an epiphany moment, I had toyed with the idea a lot throughout my studies as I had really enjoyed moots and mock trials. The decision solidified for me at a time when I was working for an NGO and dealing with a lot of work on their ‘strategic litigation’ team. I felt a real sense that I wanted to be involved more at the interface of these decisions, I wanted to play the role of the advocate instead. The best part of this job is the advocacy, I always felt a sense that I could be good at it and it would be fun and stimulating. It has its challenges and can be very unpredictable, and I think all of that appealed to me.
How does the reality of the job compare to your original expectations?
I thought that qualifying was going to be the hard part, but when that was over I was confronted by the reality that your work continues to get more difficult the more senior you get, and you have to keep growing with it. In many ways that is great as you’re constantly challenged and motivated, and there is real opportunity for growth, but it does have its moments of real stress.
I was definitely right about how much I’d enjoy it and find it rewarding, which is reassuring.
How do you think people’s perception of your job compares to the reality?
I think some people tend to view the role of a barrister through the lens of American TV shows so I’m often asked whether I jump up and shout “Objection!”, which would be very fun and dramatic, but unfortunately does not happen.
I also often get asked about what I do if I’m representing someone who I ‘know’ is guilty, and I think there can be a bit of a misconception about what the role entails. It’s not my job to decide whether my client is guilty or not, that’s the job of a judge, lay bench, or jury. I think tied into that there’s also a misunderstanding about how the role works in terms of ethical duties. All lawyers have a duty to the court that takes priority over everything else. I still have confidentiality duties to my client and have to do my best for them, but I can’t mislead the court, so I don’t have to wrestle with that dilemma in exactly the same way that people think I might have to.
What does a typical working day consist of?
It’s true when they say that ‘no day is the same’, so this question is quite difficult to answer.
I have a mixed practice of immigration, crime and inquest/inquiry work so my working day can really vary depending on what kind of case I’m instructed on. Sometimes it involves very early mornings and travelling long distances to places I’ve never heard of.
Once you walk through the door of court it’s incredibly fast paced and you have to make the most out of the little time that you have. Before a hearing I am often handling discussions with the court staff, my opposing counsel and my client conference, trying to sort out preliminaries and iron out any issues, which is absolutely key to the smooth running of a hearing.
The experience of the hearing itself can differ a lot depending on what kind of case I have, sometimes there is a lot of witness handling, other days it’s more about making submissions. It also depends on the judge, some days are just harder than others. When I’m not in court I’m often doing a lot of drafting work from chambers. I’m also on part-time secondment at the moment so when not in court or chambers I’m doing casework there.
Do you take home much work – physically and mentally?
The workload can be very tough at times. I find myself working in the evenings and over weekends, often because the task at hand is urgent. I always expected that to an extent, and I think it’s a lot easier to do when you like your job and your practice areas. A great personal effort has to be made to ensure that I carve out enough time for myself in order to avoid burn out. I am always keen to protect my social life where I can and I’m quite unapologetic about that because I recognise its importance. I am also fortunate to be part of a chambers that encourages discussion about well-being at the bar and I think that this has been a great help.
I find myself working in the evenings and over weekends, often because the task at hand is urgent. I always expected that to an extent, and I think it’s a lot easier to do when you like your job and your practice areas.
In terms of sometimes taking my work home mentally, I think this is to some extent inevitable. All of my practice areas involve working with vulnerable people and covering subject matters that can be quite emotionally charged and traumatic. I am heavily invested in the outcome of the cases that I work on as I care deeply about the subject matter and the clients. I would be more worried if I wasn’t moved by this from time to time, but I think if anything it’s a strength and something that has been valued in me by my clients and instructing solicitors. Naturally, there’s a need to keep that in check and ensure that it’s under control so that it doesn’t impact your productivity or judgement, but I haven’t struggled with that aspect. Generally speaking, more and more is being done within the profession to acknowledge vicarious trauma and I think that can only be a good thing.
What has been the most surprising aspect of the job?
My fear was that the job would be quite lonely, but fortunately that hasn’t been my experience at all. I feel very at home in my chambers and within my practice teams. I am well supported by my colleagues and have good working relationships with my instructing solicitors, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised by that. I think there is quite a collegiate atmosphere at the bar, despite being self-employed you’re not at a loss in terms of who to turn to for advice or when you need a sounding board to bounce ideas off.
What would your advice be to someone starting out in their legal career?
My advice for those seeking pupillage is that they must be resilient to rejection. Pupillage is hard to come by but those who succeed are the ones that do not give up. A huge amount of people who apply for pupillage do not get it first time, it’s just testament to the fact that it’s a very competitive process.
I remember once at an Inn event being told by someone on a pupillage panel that every year they find a handful of about 5–7 people that they would happily take on but can only offer two. At that point you’re really splitting hairs in terms of who you take and the reasons for rejecting the others. Don’t take it personally. Use the time in between to keep strengthening your position by getting more and more experience.
If you could say one thing to the younger you starting out in the profession, what would it be?
Don’t rush it. There’s plenty of time to be a barrister and you’ll get to do it for the rest of your life. Be sure to fill the time in the interim with interesting work that prepares you well for the role and the lifestyle that comes with practice at the bar.
In terms of trying to get into human rights work, I took a year out in order to work a part-time job so that I could volunteer on unpaid human rights legal projects, and I think that was the right call. It was important to me to have that experience under my belt and show my commitment to this kind of work. It’s a very competitive area of practice and so I was happy to contribute what I could at the time.
If you had told me then that one day someone would actually pay me to do this work I wouldn’t have necessarily believed you. It’s definitely a long road, but don’t feel pressured if you haven’t got somewhere by a specific time. Just have a plan and don’t give up.
How rewarding is the job?
I couldn’t see myself doing anything else that would give me the sense of satisfaction that this job does. Even on the ‘bad’ days I am constantly motivated by the good days that I’ve had. When you get the right outcome, and you get to see the client’s reaction – there is honestly nothing like it.