On my very first day of being a qualified solicitor, with all exams and training behind me, or so I thought, I was sent by a partner in the Leeds firm I was then working for to Bradford Magistrates Court in West Yorkshire to see a client in the cells. I had been articled to the senior partner of the firm and spent my time as a trainee assisting with his contentious commercial litigation claims, complex conveyancing matters and a few high profile divorces. In those days lawyers didn’t specialise nearly so much as they do now, so overall I’d been very fortunate and had an excellent training in civil cases. But I’d never dealt with a criminal case before. I had never gone near a criminal court room in my training. I was assured it was straight forward (famous last words) and off I went to Bradford. “Tra la la la la.”
I went into the custody cells to see the client, ignoring as best I could the loud voices of police and prisoners shouting and swearing at each other in rather grim conditions that I was very unfamiliar with and, with my mind fixed on the job, spoke to the client in his cell. He was pretty hung over. He was bedraggled, leaning over the table while I sat quite gingerly on the other side, writing my notes. He couldn’t say very much. He was a bit too drunk. I read from the charge sheet that he had no fixed address and no job. He was in custody for (drunkenly) beating up his wife pretty badly and thus putting her in hospital. He was also in breach of a bail condition not to go near her, because he was also on bail for attacking her a few weeks earlier. I filled in the legal aid forms and asked him, because I thought I should from what I remembered of my criminal law, whether he wanted me to apply for bail and if so what he wanted me to say. I hoped he would say no and that he would happily be remanded into the custody of HM Prison Armley in Leeds, but that was obviously wishful thinking on my part. Instead, I remember him saying “Yes I do. That’s your job. I want to get out of here”. So I smiled at him and said that I’d do my best, leaving the cells no better informed or clearer in my mind what I was going to actually do, than when I walked in.
The next thing I noticed as I walked into the large court room, were some sharp suited ‘hot-shot’ lawyers of the day, sitting in the court with piles of files in front of them, making jokes and a lot of noise which stopped when I announced to the clerk who I was and why I was there. “This won’t take long” I heard one of the lawyers say to the clerk as they called my case on, and all of those men just sat staring at me as the client was brought into the dock and I stood up.
I think it was at that point I suddenly thought, “I’ve no idea at all what to say.” So I said “Your Worships I’m instructed to apply for bail”, smiled at them desperately and sat down again. Bail was duly refused, the client was taken into custody and the whole thing lasted a few minutes.
There was literally nothing I could think of to explain why the client should have his bail. He didn’t deserve bail but at the same time, I’ve never, ever forgotten the horror of it. There I was: a qualified solicitor way out of my depth for all the world to see. Actually, one of the more experienced lawyers was very nice. “There was nothing to say” he said – but who knows? A more experienced advocate would have at least put up some sort of an argument. Or been firmer with the client. For a while afterwards the thought of that experience, making a complete fool of myself, made me feel physically sick. I was right at the beginning of my career on the very first day I was qualified and the only way I could rationalise it was by telling myself it was make or break time. Neither the lawyer who sent a manifestly inexperienced young lawyer to court, and was sitting sniggering behind his desk when I returned, nor the experience itself was going to break me. But it did cause me a hell of a lot of stress for a long while afterwards and made me realise that qualified lawyers were only one day further on than non-qualifieds and there was still an awful lot to learn. In fact there always is a lot to learn. You never can say you know it all and those who do think like that are fools.
Thirty-odd years later I’ve tackled complex cases in court rooms, appeared regularly live on the media before millions of people and that clueless girl no longer exists except in my memory. We ensure all our newly qualifieds, and indeed all our lawyers, are treated with care. They aren’t overloaded, and there is always a team around them to help. I hope none of them ever get to the stage where they crack. But when I read of the stresses and the dire consequences suffered by so many lawyers who, for many reasons, let their work get on top of them and cannot brush it off and handle it, I fully understand why they can and do crack under pressure. Some do terrible things and pay a heavy price. So I feel a profound sense of gratitude that even during periods of the greatest stress and anxiety, handling huge cases on my own when I’ve had to work out what to do next and know the entire case depended on what I did, it didn’t happen. Cracking up, thankfully never happened to me.
So, from my perspective, there but for the grace of… go we all.
I was reminded of my experience today after reading two pieces from legal professionals. The first was written by barrister Mathew Scott and I highly recommend a read. Ostensibly about a barrister taking instructions on a similarly hopeless case it is a brilliant Brexit satire. The second is by barrister Gordan Exall, also well worth reading, about the stresses of being a lawyer. I’ve tried to dovetail both of them together.
Photo of the Bradford Magistrates Court by Tim Green via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.