Want to be a criminal or social justice lawyer? Here’s the reality, now think again!
I have been asked to give a few lectures about my life as a criminal and social justice lawyer to students interested in undertaking this type of work. Unfortunately, at the moment, I am not able to publicise my whereabouts in advance so I can’t give lectures, but I have decided to draft my talk anyway and upload it.
If you are expecting me to encourage all law students to become criminal or social justice lawyers as its a worthwhile role, you are going to be sorely disappointed by the time you finish reading this. If I have persuaded many of you not to undertake the work, that is probably a good thing. I have been a lawyer for nearly 20 years and make no mistake, there has never been a harder time to be a criminal or social justice lawyer than now. Legal aid cuts, or in some areas of law the complete abolition of legal aid, along with an increase in court costs has created a two tier justice system like never before. In the past 6 years, the Government has managed to rip the heart out of a legal system of which I used to be proud. But, although this Government has attacked the legal system like a pack of rabid dogs, the rot had already set in under the previous Labour Government, which set in motion the legal aid cuts. The eradication of lawyers who were passionate about ensuring that everyone had equal access to justice had begun. Those same passionate people had to pay rent or mortgages, repay student loans, provide for their children, and it was becoming increasingly hard to do so on the rates we were being paid for work, which is challenging and demanding, but which is not seen as being high on the scale of important things in life. Well that is until a person becomes involved in the legal system as a defendant or claimant, at that stage they appreciate the importance of a fully funded legal system staffed by people who care about their clients and the rule of law, but by that stage it is too late.
I’m a barrister with a predominantly criminal practice, but that strays into many other areas of law relating to the criminal justice system, complaints against the police, complaints against the CPS, judicial review, police disciplinaries, parole hearings and prisoner adjudications, inquests, criminal injuries compensation, press complaints, employment, Nursing and Midwifery Council hearings…. the list is endless of the types of issue which can result from a criminal case.
No one comes to me because they are happy and their life is good, I am not only a lawyer but also a quasi social worker, surrogate mother, or for some, just a piece of common sense. I don’t work nine to five hours, and I cannot do my job on a 40 hour week. I have lost count of the amount of times I have arrived at a family dinner just in time for desert having been in court or a police station after hours, have declined invitations to social events as I am too busy preparing for a case the next day, spent my Sunday travelling half way round the country to make sure I am in the right area of the country for a Monday morning parole hearing at a prison in the middle of nowhere. I used to say that it would be difficult to do my job if you weren’t passionate about it. I now say it is impossible.
Don’t get me wrong, I bitch about my job, when I am standing on a platform at 05:30 on a cold wet Monday morning waiting to start my 3 hour train journey to a court for what will turn out to be a one hour hearing, or when I get a wake up call from a client at 03:00 as they are in trouble, and when I realise at the end of the month that I am again going to struggle to pay my rent.
This is not a job where people are going to recognise your worth. If you want to be constantly congratulated for your work, go and do something else. After 9 hours on a police carrier with twelve police officers all asking me questions like “How do you sleep at night?’ “How does it feel to know that you have managed to get a guilty person acquitted so that they can go out and hurt someone again?” “How can you even consider representing a child rapist?’ the questions become weary, but its an experience I have had more than once, and it has made me realise that actually I am not thanked by the majority of the public for the work I do. Even my family members struggle to reconcile the fact that I was brought up in a family of high morals and ethics, yet one of my main areas of work is representing people who are accused of crimes, or have committed crimes, which are beyond most peoples worst nightmares. Click on any tabloid newspaper on the internet and you won’t have to search for long to find an article which describes criminal lawyers as fat cat lawyers, with dubious morals.
This job can be very lonely at times, even more so for a barrister than a solicitor as you rarely even have the daily camaraderie of an office environment. I spend hours sitting on trains on my own, waiting at court for my case to come on, sitting in cells with clients who have such mental health issues that its enough that they are able to chat to me about what they have had for lunch, working the twilight zone night after night (some of my friends refer to me as the vampire). And all the while I am dealing with someone else’s problems, which are so personal and confidential that I can’t sit around a dinner table and discuss them even with those closest to me, hence I am constantly bottling up other people’s problems. And even if it is not confidential, its a bit difficult to go out with a group of friends for the evening and when they say ‘oh how was work today? to reply, “oh you know, not bad, I spent the day looking at photos of a dead child so badly mutilated even her own mother wouldn’t have recognised her, that’s if her mother hadn’t also been strangled with such severity that her whole body turned blue, then mutilated and dumped.”
I have a large number of high profile cases on my docket at any one time. My cases are not high profile because the client is a celebrity, but usually because their alleged crime is high profile. This brings additional pressures, making sure that I protect a client (who often cannot help themselves due to the fact they are in custody or have mental health issues) from excessive press intrusion, from actions of the public or occasionally magistrates and judges who want to grandstand in front of the press or the packed public gallery. I rarely comment to the press, I don’t permit journalists or documentary makers to visit my clients, my usual comment when they ask is that my clients are not animals in the zoo.
I am not a high profile lawyer, you won’t find me commenting on legal issues on a tv news programme or featuring in articles in newspapers. I don’t do this for the notoriety, in fact the more I can fade into the background the better. You won’t find photos of me on the internet, and as much as possible I sneak out of a side door of court after a case. I have refused to be part of documentaries and with the exception of the Save UK Justice campaign you won’t find me endorsing any prominent campaign. That way I am totally independent, I work for my client and like to think I act in my client’s best interests. In my opinion the only way that you can ensure that you are acting in the best interests of the client is to make sure you haven’t any other affiliations or involvements which could sway how you act on a case. I will refuse a case if I think my actions on one case may conflict with those on another, the client is paramount.
Not all criminal lawyers are like me, many work from their local courts and have a local client base, and will work more regular hours. I have chosen my career path, it is my fault that I work long hours, have numerous pro bono cases running at any one time, have nightmares about some of the things I’ve seen and can’t un-see, and regularly miss dinner. But whether you chose to take on my type of work or be based more local to home, you will work long hours, be paid for about half of the work you actually do, face ethical situations which you would never have dreamed you would have to deal with, and quite often find that even your own client is not grateful for the work you have put in.
But despite all of that, it can sometimes, just sometimes, feel like the best job in the World!