Now that the onslaught of the OLPAS applications have been completed, minds turn now to the preparation of that all important pupillage interview before the presiding Pupillage Committee. To help foster a better understanding of what to expect in chambers, The Pupillage Blog is delighted to present a new series of interviews entitled ‘A Day In The Life Of A Barrister’, which are designed to give pupils and entrants to the Bar a clear idea of the reality of the profession and a personalised view of both the role and function of a barrister.
‘A Day In The Life Of A Barrister’ with Felicity Gerry
Typically what preparation do you embark upon before your working day?
It is impossible for me to do any work at home of a morning as I have enough on making sure my 3 children are up and out of the door with the right kit. I try to travel by bus or train as I can then deal with emails and calls before I arrive at court. This also allows me to catch up on twitter and the newspaper so that I am up to date with what is going on in the world. It is important to be on the ball in front of the jury and news stories often figure in comment or speeches during jury trials.
What time do you normally arrive in Chambers? Or what time do you arrive in court? In either case, what would be your typical start to the day and your interaction with either clients, clerks or other barristers?
I work on the Midland and South Eastern Circuits so I work from home and very rarely go in to chambers at all. I go to London about once a month for media appointments so I tend to pop into chambers then. In my old chambers I went in every morning and every evening. I had to hang around to collect my briefs. Now, everything is sent to me in the DX or by scanner and email which gives me more time with my family rather than being in the clerks room.
I try to arrive at court about an hour before the hearing. There is little point being any earlier as many defendants are not produced at court by prison transport until after 9.30am. Every morning the robing room lights up with jokes and tales as advocates arrive and start to negotiate and discuss the cases. On Friday this week I discussed every topic from the DPP to Obama before knuckling down to fraud, drugs and guns.
Throughout the course of the day I also deal with calls and emails. I recently missed out on a murder as I was at a funeral which is about the only time you can be off line on a work day. My colleague who got the call instead was in the hairdressers.
Can you provide a snapshot of the trials and tribulations of a typical day in Court?
There is no typical day. This week I turned up on Monday to defend an armed robbery. The defendant was accused together with others of attempting to rob a known drug dealer and being in possession of balaclavas, guns and gloves. My client’s defence was set up by the drug dealer who unsurprisingly did not attend court so the trial was adjourned to try to secure his attendance. My client had been in custody throughout case preparation which took 8 months. Evidence and unused material was still being served at the last minute and the judge was going to have to deal with a PII hearing on the morning of trial. At the adjourned hearing the following day, the witness still had not been located and the judge refused the Crown any further time. It transpired that in the 6 weeks before trial little or nothing had been done to ensure he attended. Nonetheless I had prepared for trial. That afternoon I had a conference organised but the defendant didn’t turn up. On the Wednesday I dealt with a PCMH in a rape and had a conference with the OIC at Court learning a great deal more about the character and history of the complainant than was ever in the papers. The week ended with a morning in one county negotiating a plea to a £68K theft of chose in action and a review on possession of prohibited weapon components followed by a 2pm in the next county to deal with an application for disclosure on my rape trial the following week where I was given a vast bundle to be read and reduced to admissions for the Monday.
How do you prepare for your advocacy, negotiation or daily conferences?
Preparation of every case is key. The thinner the brief almost inevitably means the more the law. I have to make time to research every point. Since most of my papers are sensitive I can’t open them on the train but I can research the law so that gives 2 potential hours a day for legal research rather than doing it at home.
Advocacy needs to be structured. I usually note topics and bullet points but no more as this allows the questioning to flow rather than rely on detailed notes. This means I have to have all the evidence and issues in my head. I find that having an early conference and drafting defence statements helps. Negotiating, I imagine all advocates like to try and keep something up their sleeve in the hope of the best deal for the client. Prosecuting you have to be confident you know the strengths and weaknesses of your case in order agree the right pleas rather than capitulate.
What are the typical issues that may arise and how do you deal with them (case, client, advocacy, representation, witnesses, solicitor, chambers or court focused)?
Again, there is no typical issue. For example, in the firearms case, I asked for a review even though there was apparently no defence as it did not seem to me that it was in the public interest to prosecute. The context of the case became clear once the defendant produced photographs of his home and revealed why he had gun components. The case is ongoing so I can give no further details but the mission is to try to avoid the minimum 5 year sentence. You have to know the issues for trial and the potential consequences on sentence in every case. This is particularly important in historic sex cases where the law has changed many times over the years.
I speak to chambers several times a day about listing issues, papers and fees. You have to be grateful that clerks deal with the high pressure of arranging 80 diaries but sometimes the listing of cases drives you mad and it is hard not to be annoyed as cases are dropped into and out of lists and papers have to be passed between advocates and prepared for hearings at short notice. I tend to get on well with most people so have no particular issues with solicitors, other barristers or clients but like everything in life, some cases are easier than others and occasionally you have to let off steam.
What are the typical drafting, opinions or conferences that may take place in any one day?
My paperwork tends to be done at night and on a weekend or the odd day out of court. In a criminal case this consists of skeleton arguments, schedules, admissions, defence statements, bad character and other legal applications. It is best to be short sharp and to the point. I like to fit conferences in at lunchtime or after court or in groups in a day for any particular county. It is important to control the conference and make sure that the client understands the advice in order to make informed decisions. Prison conferences are always awkward as clients don’t always feel free to read their papers or speak about the charges.
Can you provide an overview or insight into the case preparation needed for this case?
Read and research.
Send lists of requests for what else is needed.
What for you would be described as the highs or lows of the typical day?
The priority is to make sure the case goes well, the witnesses / defendant feel they have had the opportunity to give their evidence properly and the jury are engaged in the case. The highs tend to be a good cross examination. The lows usually relate to difficult clients, unrealistic instructions, discovering failures by the police or crossing swords with an awkward judge.
What preparation would you embark upon for the next day?
Every day there is something to be done on paper or by email. This can be for the ongoing case or other case preparation. As every case is different the amount can vary. At the moment I am surrounded by 11 lever arch files and about 2’ of papers which need to be read and organised in the next 48 hours.
How do you balance family life and life in Chambers?
It is very hard. I once went to court with the baby still in the car and I have rocked the baby at court before realising it was in fact my files for the case. Sometimes I have to send a video camera to the school play and I rely on the understanding of friends and family. This week The Guardian published my article giving advice to mothers on how to balance work and family life. Essentially, in my view, women at the bar are like Ginger Rogers: they can do everything the men can do, and backwards in high heels but it takes some considerable organisation. My advice is as follows:
• Remember what we do is important.
• Be prepared.
• Worry is not a bad thing; it keeps you on the ball.
• Don’t waste your time looking at someone else’s practice.
• Your private life is private and the client does not need to know.
• Maternity leave is a pleasure not a curse.
• Make time for your children collectively and individually.
• Pay for decent child care.
• Accept you can’t do everything.
• You are not mad, just tired, and your children will understand.
On reflection I have had to accept that I am not very good at sticking to my own rules but, despite the stress, my work and my children and my horse all make me smile.