Clare Montgomery on Her Life at the Bar

Published 12th July 2016

In 2016 Chambers & Partners described Clare Montgomery as ‘the most formidable member of the bar’. She is a highly respected specialist in criminal, regulatory and fraud law, known for her work on legally and factually complex cases. The following article is based on Clare’s video interview with First 100 Years and is written in her words.

‘I was told I ought to be a lawyer; I was extremely argumentative and competitive as a child. At Millfield School most of the role models were male, it was a very competitive, challenging environment but there was no over sexism. It was quite liberated in the sense that there was no ‘well, you’re a girl, and you can’t do X or Y’.

When I started out I did a law degree, probably a mistake because I wasn’t a great academic lawyer. I started as a commercial common lawyer in training and people told me I wasn’t suited to the bar; I’d tried and failed to get in at places for about two years, doing pupillages and being told I wasn’t good enough. But when I ended up in a criminal set, there was a real sense of revelation when I did my first case. It’s fantastically rewarding because you have a problem, you see it through to the end, and there is a conclusion in court. Crime was instant, human, and utterly engaging. Court is terrifying, it remains terrifying, but the degree of terror reduces as you get habituated to it though.

The realization that sexism might actually make a difference to what happened to me didn’t come until I started trying to make my way as a barrister. By the time I started at the bar I was very much standing on the shoulders of those who’d gone before, the idea of female barristers had grained credence. Most of the male members would have said that they were not sexist, and I expect they weren’t, it was just their image of a barrister was white and male and middle class. So there was nothing aggressive about it, but there’s no doubt that you were an odd one out. I didn’t set out to be a role model but I wanted to be an example to male colleagues that said ‘hey, there’s nothing wrong with having women as your colleagues, that they will be as good or better than you’. So I definitely set out to be better than them.

Success at the bar is actually very, very simple. You read all the papers, you look at the legal issues, you understand the legal issues, you try and set a strategy that makes sure that you don’t make any mistakes and then the case will run its course. Frankly, the number of cases which I’ve transformed from losing cases to winning cases I can count on the fingers of one hand. High profile cases can present a particular danger to the barrister because of the press, and responding to scrutiny takes your focus off convincing the jury, the court, or the judges. When it turns out well for the individual client, if I’m defending, there’s a huge pleasure in having met somebody who’s effectively in the legal equivalent of the grip of a long illness, and you nurse them through and they recover at the end. It’s much more about those individual moments rather than ‘wow, I was in this big case’.

Judging is a very different sort of activity. It’s your job to get it right, it’s your job to make sure, even if the parties haven’t covered it, that you’ve understood all the difficulties. So it’s much more exacting. And I find it harder, because ultimately there is only one right answer. On the first day sitting in the chair as a judge, it’s almost as nerve-wracking as being down there looking up at somebody sitting in a chair.

Having a family is the question I get asked most by other women, and the answer is you’ve just got to make your life so it can deal practically with the demands of having young children. As it happens, my husband and I hit upon a division of responsibility that meant that I had much greater freedom to come back to work. It’s difficult and you have to discuss it in quite a lot of detail before you embark on it. But on the other hand it’s been fantastic, for me it does feel like I’ve had it all because I’ve been able to see my children growing up. The problem with the bar particularly is that it is a referral profession, you need people to be referring work to you. There needs to be a lot of concentration on the people who sent you work before you had children, and certainly here we give a lot of support to barristers who are going to take time off. But in the end, because you’re self-employed it comes down to you what work comes in, so there is a limit on what can be done structurally to make that easier.

My daughters are twenty and eighteen and if they had any interest in the law I would encourage them, but being a successful barrister involves a lot of luck. I have a lot of very able colleagues, male and female, who don’t have the practice they deserve just because they haven’t been in the right place at the right time, and that will take a toll on your self-esteem. I’d want to be sure that my daughters were sufficiently robust to cope with the good bits as well as the bad. But otherwise, it’s a great job, I can’t think of a better one.

When I was younger I had no vision of what it was going to be like. I went with the flow, whatever people offered that looked interesting I said yes. In terms of female colleagues I had no direct role models in law. I had people around me like Barbara Mills so there were women who’d kicked open some of the doors that you were going to go through. But as a junior barrister you’re mainly looking at your peers and to be honest when I was a junior barrister mainly my peers were male barristers.