Ten Tips to succeed at the Bar

So you want to be a good barrister? Ten Tips then to succeed. You will find plenty of advice en route and some idiosyncratic prejudices as well. Here are mine to give you food for thought.

1. Look the part.

By that I mean a smart professional. Dress code for female barristers is very clear and needs no help from me. But it would be preferable in the magistrates court if males avoid the club ties of the Old Stranglers, the Royal Marines or indeed anything which carries subconscious baggage. May I dare to suggest that one grey silk tie is worth a dozen multicolored rayon fakes and it would be quite impressive if you remembered to brush your shoes. Similarly in the Crown Court, clean stiff bands subtly mark you out as someone who gets the message. And if that makes me a stuffy conformist, I think I can live with that.

2. Sound the part.

No, this is not a plea for a return to Received Pronunciation. Not for one moment. Be yourself with the accent or otherwise of your bailiwick, provided only that you do not descend to Estuary English to disguise your persona. I mean, be a practitioner of clear, concise English, who never has to be told ‘ speak up, I can’t hear you.’ If you have any unique intonation and are rightly proud of it, simply make sure it is absolutely intelligible. And I mean by that, every single word. The point of course is not to put anything between the clarity of your thinking and it’s acceptance by the tribunal you are addressing, be it a professional or lay one.

3. Be yourself and not a contrived construct of what you think a barrister should be. This is nothing to do with 1 and 2 above. The best analogy is with political shysters plying their wares on the box. You can always spot the phonies as they strive to adopt a persona which is not them. Television is great at exposing frauds. You are under scrutiny every second in court. Your job is to enlist your personality in its most persuasive form in support of a cause. That is the essence of successful advocacy.

4. Never attack your opponent personally. Sail into their weak case, by all means. That is par for the course, even though restraint is a particularly attractive quality in an advocate. But those who take it too far and seek to wound individual fellow practitioners make no friends and accumulate judicial enemies. They need to be told that, although that frequently never happens.

5. Always show decency when your opponent makes a mistake. Don’t laugh, smirk or slag them off behind their back. Next time it will be you.

6. Try to project yourself as a firm believer in sweet reason. This particularly applies to unexpected suggestions from the Judge which may be profoundly inconvenient to you personally. Note that I am not suggesting sick-making sycophancy, but rather the air of someone who recognizes a good idea which is not their own. Be courteous and firm with the bad ideas…

7. Sexism, sadly, may be still alive, but you cannot afford to show it. Ever. One reason why SILK was such a terrible programme. I haven’t the will to define ‘boundaries’. If you don’t know the difference between a gentle compliment and otherwise, you are in the wrong job.

8. Always congratulate an opponent who has done well.

9. The time to leave your opponent alone is when their client has been convicted.

10. Never give your client undue hope of a successful appeal. It is an act of immaturity and potential callousness. Tell them that you want to consider the position and the latest cases and keep your promise to advise them in good time.

I seem to have omitted those taken for granted, Total integrity, unremitting hard work, single-mindedness just short of obsession and treating everyone the same. And making friends with the ushers. Enough for the time being. How to read Judges might be a good follow up, if a trifle risky.

Nigel Pascoe QC


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