It might have been the Tuesday afternoon that I sauntered into chambers to discover the nine lever arch files, the angry client, the 40 pages of argument from my opponent, (Stephen Cobb QC – as he then was – I’m bowing as I type, m’lud...) and the (sparse) instructions for the seven day hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice, starting that Thursday. (One of my old colleagues still has anxiety attacks about this – he wasn’t even involved.)
It might have been that case – and if this was a screenplay, I’d definitely claim it was – but, actually, I’m not so sure…
I’d been a member of the Bar since 1986 (as a junior member of my chambers once, helpfully, pointed out, “I wasn’t even alive then”) and I’d ended up with a decent practice, specialising in family work. I’d also had the great honour (and good fortune) of being elected as head of chambers at 3, Dr Johnson’s Buildings. My wife, Holly Carter, was also at 3DJB (with an excellent practice) and we had the benefit of great friends, brilliant colleagues, financial security and a beautiful home in South London.
Despite all of this, we became increasingly restless with our rather comfortable lot (I know – this bit sounds incredibly ungrateful…) and started to look for other things to interest and engage us. Holly did a post-graduate degree and began working for Relate and I started teaching court skills to expert witnesses. We began to spend our spare time travelling out to the countryside and became ever more resentful of the hours spent prepping papers (the endless chronologies!), writing case summaries and drafting orders. The drive home on Sunday evenings became the most depressing time of the week, with the knowledge that (usually) there would be another set of “urgent” documents waiting to be read and assimilated for Monday’s hearing. Neither of us had any enthusiasm for joining the judiciary and I started imagining my future as one of those elderly gentlemen that you see trudging to court each day to do a few minor applications and tell fruity anecdotes in the robing room.
Slowly, however, we realised that we didn’t have to be barristers forever and that there were always alternatives. Over many country walks, we talked it through and came to the conclusion that we’d endlessly regret not taking the chance. And so we took it.
After a short search, we found a beautiful (but slightly run down) thatched cottage, on an eight acre smallholding, in rural Devon. (Urban, it is not. It’s at the end of a rough track and the nearest neighbours are a mile away.) We took a deep breath, sold the London house, packed our things and headed west. I continued to commute to the city for a while – to finish off old cases and to help with the handover to the new HOC – before a memorable leaving do at the end of 2013. So, with a leap and a bound, we found ourselves outside of the London legal world that had been our professional home for so long. Instead of drafting case management documents we found ourselves building chicken coops and pig arks. A small flock of Balwen sheep arrived. Pigs came and er… went (lovely sausages, though) and an ancient tractor was brought back from the dead to putter around the paddocks. The 7.46 to Blackfriars (standing room only) was replaced by the 2 minute stroll to the upper field. It wasn’t the most difficult of transitions (despite the odd chicken death) and, in truth, it’s been (look away now, ye cynics) rather wonderful.
We learnt a few other things, too. Out in the real world, public perceptions of the Bar remain untouched. Despite the best PR efforts of recent years, barristers are still regarded as clever but mercenary, privileged, cynical and hideously overpaid. (Interestingly, the couple who sold the cottage to us told the locals that we were “business people” rather than lawyers. We’ve since ‘fessed up. No torches have been lit or pitchforks brandished... In fact, despite the dire warnings about “country folk” from some of our urbanite friends, everyone we’ve met has been welcoming, friendly and helpful. All of which goes to show that false perceptions are everywhere.)
Now that we’re away from it all, Holly and I have also had the time to reflect upon our own feelings and experiences of being at the Bar. Rather surprisingly, we realised that the actual status of being “a barrister” was more important to us than we had ever previously thought or would admit to. We had used our profession to define ourselves to the outside world and (to an extent) ourselves. The loss of that easy definition (and everything that it implied) was slightly unsettling – at least for a while.
The second realisation was the level of unacknowledged stress involved in a career at the Bar. I’m not comparing it to jobs involving daily exposure to disaster, pain and suffering (a paramedic say, or Chris Grayling’s press officer) but it’s a job that’s always just “there” – somewhere in the back of your mind. If you care about your cases (and everyone I know at the Bar does), it’s very hard to escape that nagging feeling (usually at 3am) that there’s just a leeetle bit more work to do. In the middle of it – when it’s your day-to-day experience – it’s hard to appreciate just how pervasive this stress is, but it mitigates all areas of “real” life. We look back, occasionally, and shudder.
None of this is to suggest that the Bar isn’t a great profession. It is. A fair society needs a strong, independent Bar, drawn from all parts of that society and long may it continue. Hurrah!
Holly works for Relate in Exeter and is a trained mediator. I still teach court skills, so we are still in touch with the law – but our real life is at home. I haven’t found that there are that many transferable skills – I’ll avoid the comparison between running chambers and shepherding– it’s just a very different life.
It’s never boring – there’s always something to do (in a good way) – we’ve spent the last 6 months renovating a little thatched barn into a self-contained b&b (visit us and we’ll give you a free field to shout in about the Legal Aid Agency) and have set up a website: www.smilingsheep.co.uk.
It’s now Sunday evening. There are no lever arch files or last minute instructions in front of me – just a crackling log fire. The animals are safe, a roast is in the oven and a decent Malbec has been uncorked. So – you ask – do I miss the Bar? Well, what do you think…?