Life at the Bar: a letter to my former self

Lawyer 2B’s tame barrister explains the intricacies of practice. This month she looks back on what she’s learned in the last three years.

Rachel Tandy

This September marked three years since I was taken on as a tenant in chambers, four since I started pupillage and five since I was called to the bar. This little landmark got me thinking. What advice would I give my past self now, if I could?

I don’t mean the obvious things like dressing properly and getting to court on time. I mean the odd day-to-day quirks and intricacies of this job that only really become apparent once you’re already in it. What would I tell myself about those?

  • If you say what your job is in social situations, be prepared for people to ask you an awful lot of questions about it. The biggest repeat offenders are “how do you defend someone when you know they’re guilty?” (answer: define “defend”, “know,” and “guilty”) and “is it just like Silk?” (answer: not really, unless everyone else at the bar is busy copping off with each other and I just haven’t been invited, which is entirely possible). But my favourite of them all has to be the time I was asked, by someone I didn’t even know that well, whether I had ever worn my wig, err, in the bedroom. Can anyone top the weirdness of this? Answers on a postcard please, folks. 
  • Empty your pockets before you empty your pockets. Friends of mine going through security on the way into court have gone to empty their change into the plastic tray and accidentally pulled out condoms, knickers and kitchen knives (yes, really).
  • You will become weirdly attached to your wheelie suitcase. To the extent that when you don’t have it with you, you will panic and then tell yourself this must be how people feel when they accidentally leave their mobile phone in the back of a cab, or their children in the pub.
  • You HAVE to get on top of your money situation, and fast. Get it wrong, and you will be (a) forever playing catch-up, and (b) at risk of being prosecuted for tax fraud. The key to everything is to realise that when you get paid for the work you do, that money sits in your account, maintaining the cruel illusion that it’s actually yours, and then after a year or so YOU HAVE TO GIVE A WHOLE LOAD OF IT BACK TO THE TAXMAN. It is the worst system in the entire world and it has brought many a barrister to their knees. Don’t be one of them. When I bought my flat and had a mortgage to pay, I knew it was time to get organised. I now have a spreadsheet that details all my income with military precision, set myself billing targets, and know how much I need to clear every month to break even.
  • Everyone has “court voice.” It’s like “telephone voice” but about a hundred times posher. What the hell is that about? Where did it come from? Who knows? It is a scientific mystery.
  • In my three and a half years on my feet, I have never, EVER had to actually read out the citation in a law report. All that time I spent learning how to do it at bar school, writing it out word for word so I understood what each weird little number meant? Wasted, my friend. WASTED.
  • Absolutely everyone at the bar has had at least one (if not many more) horrible moments in court, where they have become flustered or overexcited, misread the judge, been given the run-around by a difficult witness, or made a hash of a relatively simple point. Everyone beats themselves up about it afterwards – that is totally fine. We all live and learn, and no-one is perfect.
  • Don’t date fellow barristers, no matter what those women who run the yourbarristerboyfriend blog tell you. Why? The bar is relatively small, and there is nowhere to hide if things go wrong. I can’t imagine anything worse than walking into court and discovering that your ex who you would still quite like to stab in the eye is actually your opponent. And the arguments are horrendous. Unless you want to be cross-examined during your break-up, take a tip from me and leave well alone.

Ultimately, though, this profession is quirky and difficult, fun and high-pressure, and totally addictive and wonderful. The hard work it takes to get here is entirely worth it. Keep working hard, and it will stay that way.

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