Late developer

Published 9th October 2019

I came to law late, as a result of getting involved in trade union politics in the book publishing firm I worked for: The firm was taken over, and major restructuring planned, but there was no one to speak for the many people threatened with redundancy. So I took on the role, needing a crash self-taught course in business accounting and employment law and advocacy alongside my day job as an editor. After a year of that, I felt the appeal of long working days, low pay and drunken book fairs fading and put myself through the conversion course and Bar School year with a year’s freelancing and a loan from the bank (I had to change banks to get that). In many ways I was lucky and well-placed to take on so male-dominated a profession: encouraged by an ambitious mother who had not herself been to university, I was one of six girls in the first year that Westminster School admitted girls in the sixth form and after a working and travelling gap year went from there to Brasenose, then in its second year of admitting women as part of Oxford’s “Jesus Plan”, in which some of the then lesser colleges – Brasenose, Jesus, Exeter, Wadham and St Catherine’s – trialled boosting their status by broadening their intake (which worked!). I read English and on graduating worked in book publishing for the best part of a decade before (via becoming the firm’s trade union rep) returning to do Dip Law at City University and BVC at what was then the only place available, ICSL. Ignoring the many voices assuring me that family life for a woman was incompatible with the Bar, and a letter from ICSL referring to my pregnancy as my “illness/disability”, I secured a first six at Devereux – slightly delayed by the birth of my first child (two weeks early) during Bar Finals necessitating a re-take – and joined Cloisters for 2nd six in early 1989. Seeking pupillage as a 30-year-old woman was a dispiriting business in those days, even without mentioning pregnancy. Cloisters and Devereux were part of a handful of “liberal” sets that offered real equality of opportunity and made me feel, at last, welcome (despite some early clerking issues, now long since overcome). I have been at Cloisters ever since. My second child was first one to be fed in a chambers meeting here, in 1992. Encouraged by those who went before, like Lady Hale and Dame Laura Cox, and supported practically and emotionally by a patient husband as I worked all hours, I built a thriving practice first in criminal defence and latterly in clinical negligence. I took silk in 2011, the first year that I had seen any point in applying: for so many years, first secret soundings (I didn’t go to the right clubs) until the 2005 reforms, and then criteria that prioritised aggressive advocacy over alternative dispute resolution, made an application too risky a use of much-needed income. Judicial selection criteria have also improved: I first applied for Recordership in 2004, when I was 48 and 16 years’ call and running a family and a high court and appellate practice; I was rejected after interview on the basis that I lacked authority – not a view shared by those who know me. On my second application I was not even given an interview. The demographics over these years shed some light on the issues and they are still not good enough, as the recent Justice report “Increasing Judicial Diversity” makes plain. When finally appointed, on my third application in 2017, I had a lengthy battle to be allowed to sit within commuting distance of my home, despite very significant caring responsibilities: Of course, such issues do not just affect women; but they are likely to impact women disproportionately. Plenty of room for improvement, and still plenty of need for women (and BAME, LGBTQ+, older people and people with disabilities) to support each other, formally and informally. I have never regretted choosing this demanding, challenging, varied, rewarding career but I have often wished that it was not so very much harder for anyone who does not fit the traditional mould to access it.

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