Six under thirty

Being a young lawyer doesnt mean you have to become best friends with the photocopier. Jon Robins meets six lawyers, all under 30, who have already made their mark on the profession


Six under thirtyYou did not put yourself through the hell of a law degree, plus another year of the LPC, only to spend the first few years of your legal career learning the dark arts of pagination or being chained to a photocopier in some dank corner of a law firm. Well, it does not have to be like that. To kick off the new year, here are six inspirational stories from young lawyers (by young, we mean under 30) who have either managed to climb the career ladder in double-quick time or have simply been doing great work. So do not despair, there is hope out there

“Eating unfertilised frog spawn in Shanghai was the highlight of my year in so many ways,” reckons Jo Bower, corporate counsel and deputy company secretary at engineering company IMI. The 29-year-old lawyer was in China on one of a number of trips last year to the Far East to help the company set up a series of joint ventures.

“I dont eat fish because Im allergic to it, and Id asked the translator, whod told me it was egg white,” she recalls. However, her colleague later put her straight as to what the dubious-looking white substance on her plate really was. “It was a revolving restaurant and so I was already starting to feel slightly nauseous, and so to be presented with frog spawn was the last thing I needed,” recalls Bower.

Dodgy meals notwithstanding, Bower closed the deal. Being close to the heart of a business, signing off strategically important deals and making exotic trips to foreign lands were the reasons why she left Pinsents (now Pinsent Masons) to become a corporate counsel a few years ago. She is one of a team of three lawyers in a 17,000-employee global business. She is an enthusiastic advocate for in-house life and is one of the youngest lawyers to be a regional chair of the Commerce and Industry (C&I) Group.

“When I moved in-house, there was a perception that I was going for an easy life and a straightforward and mundane nine-to-five existence doing a few contracts,” says Bower, who runs the West Midlands C&I Group. “But it isnt like that at all, I am delighted that it isnt and frankly, I didnt think it would be anyway.”

So what does she think the in-house legal community makes of a young whippersnapper such as her? “You definitely bring a different perspective, because most of the chairs are people who are close to or at the top of their career, and therefore they have different ideas as to whats important,” she says. “Im from the different end of the spectrum. Im somebody whos still trying to build their career, still trying to make it.”

Young in-house lawyers have, what Bower calls, “a delightful naivety”. She says: “We think we should be celebrating that were in-house lawyers and what a great job it is because were still fresh and green and after five years I still think that.”

In the last few weeks, Shaheed Fatima, a 28-year-old barrister at Blackstone Chambers, has been on the winning side in two of the most politically charged legal actions of the last 12 months. She represented the six Roma gypsies who were trying to escape persecution in their own country but who were blocked by UK immigration officers posted at Prague Airport to pre-clear passengers heading for the UK.

Just before Christmas, the Law Lords declared that the system discriminated against Czech Roma gypsies. The human rights group Liberty claimed that the ruling exposed “the racism at the heart of the Governments asylum policy”. It added: “The message was absolutely clear: Roma not welcome in UK.”

“The lead judgment on race given by Baroness Hale, who said that the Prague operation was inherently and systematically discriminatory, was very powerful indeed coming at that sort of level,” explains Fatima.

The barrister was also involved in the controversial legal challenge by the family of an Iraqi civilian, Baha Mousa, who was allegedly beaten to death by UK military guards. He won the right to an “independent and effective” inquiry into his death in the High Court. The families of five other Iraqis allegedly killed by UK troops had their applications for judicial review rejected because the relatives had not died in military custody. However, they were granted permission to appeal.

The ruling has been welcomed by opponents of the war in Iraq as a blow against the Government. “I dont think actually it is,” argues the barrister. “I imagine there are lots of people who, even if they agree that the war should have been fought, wouldnt agree that we gave our troops carte blanche to operate in any way they see fit.” In a way, the judgment is “far deeper than that”, reckons Fatima. “Its about how Britain conducts itself in any situation when outside the UK jurisdiction,” she adds.

The last year was extremely busy for the barrister, who was called to the bar only three years ago. She was in the European Court of Human Rights on a crucial test case as to whether a law passed by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus providing for a body to hear the property claims of Greek Cypriots displaced from Northern Cyprus was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. She also appeared before the Privy Council in another case brought by Hindi parents against the Government of Mauritius over their claims that a system for allocating places at Roman Catholic secondary schools was discriminatory.

“Ever since I joined chambers, Ive been very fortunate in doing work which has been very interesting and Ive always had a substantial role to play rather than just being stuck doing paginating or photocopying,” says Fatima. “Its fairly unusual, but a reflection on the sort of work chambers does and the sort of people we have in senior positions.”

So how does a young lawyer manage to avoid ending up being a partners dogsbody? “It might be a slightly politically incorrect thing to say, but a lot depends on the quality of the trainee and how prepared they are to take stuff on,” reckons Clare Algar, who at 29 made partner last year at Collyer-Bristow.

“My idea was to go to a smaller firm and jump up and down try to be as good as possible. And if you do that, you dont end up doing the paginating,” she says. “Provided the firm is busy and partners are busy, they want to get rid of work and give it to someone who they know can handle it.”

To make it to the heady heights of partner before hitting 30, you really have to get cracking early on. When Algar graduated, all her contemporaries went to the bigger City firms. “I was pretty sure that I didnt want to do that because I thought it would be better fun to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond,” she says. As an ambitious trainee, Algar recognised that she had to specialise in something to, as she puts it, “make myself a valuable person”. She decided intellectual property (IP) was interesting, “albeit slightly terrifying”. Her firm sponsored her to do an LLM in IP-related subjects at the University of London and backed her involvement in the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys, where she now chairs a subcommittee. Last month she was in the Court of Appeal acting for the defendants in a dispute over the copyright in the Doc Marten logo case (Griggs v Evans).

Is youth ever a disadvantage in the legal profession? Experience counts for a lot in the law, Algar answers. She cites the example of a colleague who, at the age of 35, was said to be the best barrister in his field. “That probably doesnt happen,” she says. “Being a lawyer isnt like being an artist, where you can be fabulous at the age of 15. The more experience you have the better youre able to be.”

That said, Algar has not noticed any discrimination on account of her relative youth. “As long as you put in the work and make them a lot of money, theyll be perfectly happy to promote you,” she says.

Last month Nina Leigh, a 29-year-old clinical negligence specialist at Irwin Mitchell, represented the family of a nine-year-old child suffering from cerebral palsy in a claim worth a record 6m. “The cerebral palsy was the result of a road traffic accident as opposed to clinical negligence, which was most unusual,” she says. “In the end we settled for 40 per cent of liability because of the difficulty of having to prove the force of the accident on the foetus, and so we ended up with 2.4m.”

Clinical negligence, where the disciplines of law and medicine cross over, is one of the most difficult areas of the law. It must be an intimidating area for a young lawyer to take up? Leigh acknowledges that there is a “very steep learning curve”, because lawyers deal with everything from birth injuries to failures to diagnose breast cancer. “But whether youre one-year qualified or ten-years qualified, youre still going to get that case you havent some across before,” she says. “Its up to you to do the research and make those inquiries.”

She originally wanted to practise in family law but has very personal reasons for choosing clinical negligence. A friend of hers, when he was a 19-year-old student, suffered a serious head injury after he was involved in a car crash and thrown through the window. “His life has been devastated he cant work at all and lives in a secure unit now,” says Leigh. “He used to be a promising student who could do The Times crossword in seconds. Now he cant walk or live alone.”

Leigh has had an interest in head injuries ever since. “Its an injury that people cant see,” she says. “Theyre quite often dismissive of people with such injuries, when actually its very disabling.” Leigh is chair of the West London branch of head injury charity Headway.

It is a far cry from matrimonial work. “I still love family law, but because of my personal experience I realise what a difference you can make to peoples lives with compensation,” she says. “Its a way to get to rehabilitation early on and it makes such a huge difference.”

To be 25 years of age and holding your own in the criminal courts is no mean feat. James Bennett, a barrister at Guildhall Chambers in Bristol, who both prosecutes and defends, is taking it all in his stride though. “Once you have that wig and gown on you could be any age, and you do your best for your client and you get stuck in,” he reckons.

Bennett recently prosecuted at a Bournemouth Crown Court case that smashed a people-smuggling ring which had been responsible for 75 bogus students arriving in the UK. One of the ringleaders, Guram Mgeladze, landed six years in jail after he and two illegal immigrants were found guilty of charg-ing up to 3,000 to give migrants new identities and bogus places on courses at a language school in Bournemouth.

The problem with beginning a career at the criminal bar is developing a caseload. “Its difficult to start off because you have to build a reputation, and you only build that reputation by getting good results in court,” says Bennett. “One of the reasons I chose to practise in Bristol was because I knew more work would be available for me as a junior barrister.”

Bennett spent a year in Texas in 2000 fighting on behalf of Marcia Pertilla, who faced the death penalty for shooting two women to death in a convenience store. This gave him “a head start”, he reckons. He was sent to the US by the charity Amicus, which campaigns against the death penalty, and arrived just before Pertillas trial to work alongside her other lawyers. “We did everything from going to the crime scene, taking photos, tracing the route of the police car, speaking to witnesses, as well as preparing arguments on the death penalty, preparing to cross-examine witnesses and sorting out questionnaires to select the jurors,” he says. The barrister points out that the woman was a drug addict and had suffered severe domestic violence at the hands of her husband. “We managed to save her life,” he says. “She was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment, which was a good result.”

What is Bennetts view on Texan justice? “I wouldnt want to criticise it,” he replies. “They have the death penalty and they implement it. I dont believe in it because I dont believe its implemented fairly and innocent people are at risk of being executed.”

The hackneyed image of the fresh-faced young lawyer being given all the dross does not apply to the bar, Bennett reckons. “I love coming into work,” he says. “Its exciting and fun. Talking to juries is a great way to earn a living.”

The recent case of Abdulaziz Al Bassam had all the ingredients of a great tabloid story: a wealthy Arab who claimed he could trace his bloodline back to Mohammed and who, it was alleged, was secretly married to a Jewish air hostess in London. So it was no surprise that the red tops followed the case in which, after the death of Al Bassam, the woman in question, Lesley June Burke, claimed his entire 30m fortune on the grounds that the couple had married in 1986.

“When you first become a lawyer people always say that you should try and distance yourself from cases, but its quite difficult when youre dealing with emotive issues like the possible forgery of a will and the cremation of someones brother,” says Oliver Court, a 27-year-old associate at City firm Macfarlanes. He acted for Abdullah Saleh Al Bassam, Abdulazizs only surviving sibling, who argued that his half-brother was a devout Muslim who would never have married a Jew and would never have arranged to be cremated.

The three-year battle was the biggest case that Courts lead partner, Charles Lloyd, head of Macfarlanes contentious trusts and probate group, had ever advised on, and it was the only work that the then trainee undertook in his first six months in the litigation department. “It was fascinating that for the first time in my career other people that is, non-lawyers were interested in what I was doing,” he says. “Certainly as a trainee it was the most interesting thing I was involved in.” Court has since qualified in the firms private client department.

Did he feel that, as a trainee, he played a full part in the case? “I was lucky to be treated as a member of the team rather than just a dogsbody,” he says. “We would have conferences with counsel and Id be expected to contribute.”

So how do trainees avoid being left with the menial work? “Yes, there are times when you are left to do the crappy jobs. But if youre careful about the firms you apply to, you can limit that.”