June Venters QC: “I hadn’t realised when I received the notification that it was going to be such a historical event.”

Published 29th August 2016

These are excerpts from the First 100 Year’s video interview with June Venters QC, first woman solicitor to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel. The video can be found here.

What happened was that the solicitors firm where I was working, one morning, on a Monday called me in to say they were closing the department and so we were going to be made redundant. I asked if I could go for a walk, and ended up in the office of a friend of mine who was going to Law School the following Monday. Now in those days you had to apply three years in advance to go to Law School. So I was sitting in her office feeling terribly sorry for myself and I think I was crying as well, and her boss who I’d never met before came into the room and asked what was going on, and what was wrong. And I told him. And he said ‘well, have you rung the Law School, to see if you could go on Monday?’ and I just shrugged my shoulders and said ‘well, it’s out of the question’. And I promise you this is what happened. He rang. He just about managed to get my name written down properly to say he had this young lady here [who] would like to go to Law School [and] what was the chances of joining on Monday? The initial reaction he got was ‘you must be joking’, and as he was talking, she then said ‘you’ll never believe this. We’ve been handed a cancellation. If she wants to go, she starts on Monday.’ And that’s how I went to Law School.

I opened [my firm] in Camberwell, on Camberwell Green, and I was surrounded by solicitors’ practices, all of which were owned by men. And there would be constant rumour and gossip that I was awful to work for, [that] I was really a hard task master, and no-one would never want to work for me, and so on, and so on, and so on. And at the end of the day I formed the view as I’ve always done, [that] I’ve got to demonstrate by action because [there is] no point in just simply denying those sort of allegations because at the end of the day, you’ve got to prove them. And I think the fact that I’ve had staff working for me for ten, twelve, fourteen years speaks for itself. But of course that had to develop over a period of time, but yes, that was the sort of thing I would get. And there would be equally suggestions to clients that they didn’t want to come to me because I wasn’t going to be able to deal with this, that or the other. And yes, yes, I was aware of what was going on, but I saw it as fierce competition, at my age looking back, [but] it was probably worse than that, and it was probably [gender] discrimination.

I’ve always valued male and female solicitors and I’ve never set out ever to positively discriminate in favour of women. I’ve always had an open interview and open application, and I’ve selected who I’ve thought was the best at the time. So I’ve not operated positive discrimination. But I think that on a personal level, I’ve been able to bring to my professional qualification, my own life experiences. I believe that my personality is a genuinely nurturing personality. That’s not to say that I’m sure a lot of men aren’t nurturing as well, but I think women have an awful lot to offer and I just think it’s a great shame that even in today’s times that’s not recognised and elevated to the same position as a man.

Oh gosh, my very first time I can tell you exactly, it was disastrous. My very first trial I was in the Magistrates Court, and I was so committed to my client, and making sure I’d prepared the case properly and everything else, that when he came to give his evidence he was half way through, and of course he started contradicting himself, at which point I jumped to my feet to correct him and I had to be told in no uncertain terms by the then Stipendiary Magistrate, ‘Ms Venters, your client is giving evidence, sit down’. So, yes, I wanted to crawl under a table and die. So I’ll never forget that.

I think, well, the thing I always say to youngsters when I talk to them coming into the profession, [is to] always remember that you have to prepare, because if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. So, the first thing that makes a good advocate is preparation. You cannot go into a court and expect to represent your client and to make oral representations to the judge or to question a witness, unless you know your case and you’ve got to know it well, so preparation first.

Second, I think you have to have a passion. You have to enjoy expressing yourself verbally. I think you have to be able to have a rapport. I think that when we see a lot of programmes on the television very often you will see the barrister or the solicitor portrayed in a way that actually isn’t always completely accurate. Because what we always say again, when we train advocates, is to have a conversation with the judge. You’re not lecturing the judge. You’re not shouting at the judge. You’re actually trying to engage the judge in dialogue, because you’re trying to persuade the judge to come round to your way of thinking, and if you want to persuade someone, the art of persuasion is the approach that you adopt. And although there is a time and a place for an aggressive approach at times, I try to live my life with the policy of there’s more bees with honey than with vinegar. And so when I cross-examine a witness, I tend not to go in aggressively, certainly not at the beginning, because I’d rather question them in a way that I’m entering into a dialogue with them, rather than making them immediately defensive, and them not giving me the answers that I’m seeking.

I think that on receiving the notification that I had been appointed the first woman solicitor QC, I obviously was delighted personally, but I began to realise I think over a period of a few days, the reaction from my colleagues really, because I hadn’t realised when I received the notification that it was going to be such a historical event if you like. But I began to realise that actually this was the first time a woman solicitor had become a silk, and I think when I made my speech, which I did in celebration of this, I spoke about how I hoped that I wouldn’t remain the first, or at least I wouldn’t remain on my own as the first, for too long. But I think in the [last] ten years, I’m right in saying, there’s only one other woman solicitor QC. And that’s a great shame. There’s a lot of women that I know, in my profession, that would easily qualify as a silk.

Can I begin with a male model, because I think this was influential, and it’s also another really sad story actually, and when I say sad, I mean pathetic, not sad as in unhappy. But when I was at Law School, I was twenty-one, and Lord Denning was still sitting and would sit in the Court of Appeal, and I would for my sins often go and watch him, because I was absolutely in awe of him, and of course when I was at Law School, so many cases that we had to hear about and learn, he was the Presiding Judge. So I felt that he was very important in my learning, and there came a point when he had written a book, and he was signing autographs and I queued for almost two hours to get this judge’s autograph, and I’ve still got the book at home. And when I told my friends and I was really quite proud of what I’d achieved with this autograph, I think they all thought I was completely round the twist, and they could have understood me lining up for Rod Stewart, but not for Lord Denning. So he was my role model if you like, not that I ever aspired to be anywhere near as able as him. But he certainly gave me a great deal of enthusiasm for the law and social justice.

Who’s my role model now? I think I’d have to say without hesitation Baroness Hale. I’ve appeared in front of her, many years ago, when she was in the High Court, and in the Court of Appeal. And to see her rise to the Supreme Court, I’m absolutely delighted. I’m very proud that I had the opportunity in the past to appear in front of her. I’d love to have that opportunity again, but appearing in the Supreme Court doesn’t come easily. And I would love to see her become the top one in the Supreme Court, and that’s not to say that I don’t think that the men there are all very worthy, but what an achievement that would be.

We’ve got a long way to go I think. I think that yes, we have made improvements, and I think [in] my practice there’s complete equality. It makes not a jot of difference whether you’re male or female. You get paid the salary for the work that you’re doing. I don’t think that’s the same in the larger practices, and from what I’ve heard and read, assuming that it’s all reliable. I think that’s a great shame and I think we need to really move forward on that. Whether we will achieve complete equality in my lifetime, I don’t know, but I would like to see it.