Vidal Sassoon worked all its apprentices very hard, sweeping and washing hair all day and then training until 9pm every evening. It was extremely competitive and I was surrounded by some very creative, bright and talented individuals from all over the world. For the first time in my life I found a focus that I had failed to find at school.
About six years later I was doing the hair on a lot of photographic shoots and thought I might like to train to do hair and makeup with the BBC. In those days ‘A’ levels were required to train with the BBC so I went to a local college. I enjoyed the courses so much that I abandoned the idea of the BBC and decided to go to University. But I felt I had to study a subject that guaranteed a job at the end of the three years. I was from a very modest background, single parent and was the first of my family to go to university. I decided to read law without knowing anything about it other than I would probably be able to get a job after graduating.
Why did you become a barrister and not a solicitor?
In my second year, my university put me forward for a pupillage with a set of chambers that were offering a scholarship of £6000, which in 1982 was a very large sum of money. I was offered the scholarship and I accepted it, although I had reservations at the time because I found the Bar such an alien and unsettling world. By the time I got to Bar School I was having severe misgivings about the Bar. At the time the majority of the barristers that I encountered were very different from anyone that I had met before and I found the prospect of mixing with most of them very daunting. Those misgivings culminated in me giving up the scholarship and taking a position as a law lecturer at Durham University instead. I then met my husband who could not understand why, given my propensity to argue, I was lecturing and not a barrister. By then I was in my late 20’s and thought I might be able to cope with the Bar after all. I became a tenant at South Square and remained there until 2011 when I moved to my current chambers, 11 Stone Buildings where I am blissfully happy.
What is the best professional advice you’ve been given?
Never assume anything. Not the facts or the legal principles involved – always go back to basics.
Are there any people you admire at the Bar?
Barbara Dohmann QC because of her sheer grit and determination. I do not know her well but have observed her career over the years. There are very few women who manage to make their mark in the predominantly (even now) male environment of the Commercial Bar. She was a powerful presence twenty years ago and remains so.
How do you relax?
I cook and love spending time with my dog, a 6yr old Kerry Blue Terrier. I got into sailing through my husband who is from the East Coast in the States, so as often as we can we sail our old wooden 55ft Ketch.
Who has been your most memorable client and why?
An elderly Sudanese man who had been defrauded of £4m by an Egyptian. I was quite junior at the time and my opponents were much more experienced and knew it. It was a difficult case as there was no documentary evidence and the Egyptian’s defence was that the claimant had paid the money to the Egyptian’s father, who just happened to have the same name as the Egyptian. Trying to persuade an English judge 15 years ago that my client willingly handed over a cheque for £4 million to the Egyptian just because he swore on the Qur’an was quite a task but we prevailed, eventually, helped by a document that we extracted from the woodwork some weeks into the trial which showed conclusively that the defendant and all his witnesses were lying.
One of our witnesses in the trial was an Egyptian lawyer who was giving evidence as an expert on Egyptian law. When I met him in conference his first comment was: “Just tell me what you want me to say and I will say it”. Not a good start. I explained to the Egyptian lawyer very carefully the centrality of the principle in English law that experts must be independent and honest. He took me at my word and turned into the best expert witness ever and clearly relished the experience of giving entirely independent and unbiased evidence.
What have been the worst moments in your professional life?
Whenever I lose. Even when I know, and have advised, that the case is hopeless, I still hate to lose because even in those cases by the time I get to court I have managed to convince myself somehow that I might just squeeze out a victory. The cases that I have lost when I believed I should have won are the worst. Fortunately I don’t lose that often, but when I do it takes a while to get over it (although, no doubt, it takes my client considerably longer). The only way to get through it is to analyse and dissect ruthlessly and repeatedly what I did or did not do and resolve to learn and do better next time. That is one of the best things about being a barrister – there is always room for improvement, a great deal of improvement – however good you are.
Lexa Hilliard QC was interviewed by Guy Hewetson of Hewetson Shah