It’s a question I’m sure we’ve all been asked as law students; ‘What area of law do you want to go into?’.
My answer has changed dramatically since the beginning of my degree The main reason for this is I was fortunate enough to go on a mini-pupillage and explore two areas of law, one I had completely ruled out at the beginning of my degree, and one I was certain I wanted to do.
In this article, I will explain what changed my mind, and I hope to encourage the value of work experience and trying things you never thought you’d like.
At the beginning of my degree, the only thing I’d say is I didn't want to do criminal law. If pushed, I’d tell you my main interest was family law.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to win an internship. During my two-week internship, I was fortunate enough to sit with a judge in Warwick Crown Court for three days, shadow a few criminal barristers on various cases in various criminal courts, and do a one-day mini-pupillage with a family barrister.
To my surprise, I loved being in the Crown Court. As the cases I sat on were all public, I’m permitted to tell you the kinds of cases I sat on. One case was neglect in a care home, and this is new legislation and a relatively new charge, it was interesting to see how these cases are prepared. The case I sat with the judge on was a historic sexual assault charge, as well as seeing several sentencing hearings.
I was thoroughly engrossed reading the sentencing reports prepared for the judge, which consisted of letters from different services, original witness statements, police reports, previous convictions, and victim impact statements. These were all looked at along with the sentencing guidelines, aggravating or mitigating circumstances were considered before the judge gave his sentence and judgment.
I was also fortunate enough to be invited into the judicial dining room. Hearing judge’s discussing the cases over lunch was an interesting moment and reminded me that they’re people too. They laughed at ridiculous statements from their courtrooms, they shook their heads at delays, and didn’t always agree with the jury. They also discussed various advocates, very respectfully, and different advocacy styles they admired. A straight-talking fairly loud barrister was praised, but so was a genteel, softly-spoken scarily intelligent advocate.
I would like to share what the judge thought about Open University law degrees too, his words were; ‘Wow, I have a lot of respect for anyone doing an Open University degree, studying law is hard enough without doing it at a distance whilst working and having a family. It takes a lot of maturity and dedication and that is to be respected’. So, for anyone worrying, there you go!
I was invited along with a more senior barrister to sit in on a stabbing. He sent me over the case files the night before telling me if any of it bothered me, I was free to let him know and not attend. This is the moment I realised crime might be for me. Because I was excited. What that says about me as a person, I’m not certain, but I was excited to see such a big and serious case.
My main dread with criminal law was sex crimes. I thought due to the ‘cab rank rule’ that whatever landed on your lap, you’d have to take. However, I spoke to two criminal practitioners who refused to do any sex crimes cases at all. I didn’t realise this was allowed.
One barrister told me after a certain case they had approached the clerks at chambers and asked them not to send any sex cases to them from now on. Another said they had done the same thing after they had children, it became too difficult to hear of child sex offences, so they also asked to avoid sex crime cases.
Whilst barristers cannot refuse to do a case they don’t like the look of, apparently, they can rule out specific areas. This makes the criminal bar much more appealing to me than before I did my mini.
I also sat in on various other cases such as GBH, domestic violence cases, criminal damage cases, a multi-handed drugs case (this means many different defendants and barristers, these are long and complex cases, it took over an hour just to select the jury!), cases involving knife possession and even a bomb hoax case.
I was also incredibly pleased that during cross-examination, I noticed something the witness said contradicted part of the official statement. I subtly pointed this out to the police officer (never speak in court, 1) it’s bad manners 2) everything is recorded and those microphones are incredibly sensitive!), this was then passed on to the barrister and they questioned the witness about it. I was proud to have noticed something nobody else seemed to have, and that what I noticed was used in questioning, and maybe it even helped.
I found it all fascinating. And I certainly never expected to find myself in the cells underneath the Crown Court at any time in my life! I also found I was frequently surprised; I could never predict how things would turn out. Like one defendant I felt quite sorry for, he’d taken big steps to turn his life around between the event and his sentencing hearing, but I was certain he’d be sent to prison after seeing the sentencing guidelines. He was aware of this and had brought his bag to court ready.
After some masterful advocacy from his barrister and careful consideration from the judge, the judge decided prison would harm his progress and did not give him a custodial sentence. His efforts, but also his barrister and a fair judge, had made a huge difference to the outcome that day.
Another thing I would like to share is how welcoming everybody was. Barristers chatted with me, clerks chatted with me, judges chatted with me, chambers staff chatted with me, solicitors chatted with me, even police officers chatted with me. Nobody ever made me feel like I was below them, or unworthy of talking to, everybody was incredibly welcoming.
Now I’ll move on to my experience in family court, and why I decided it wasn’t for me. Now the family court is very different, privacy-wise. None of the hearings are in public, which means I’m not permitted to say a word about the case I was sitting on, but as it wasn’t the case itself that put me off, I can still share some of my experience. Barristers also do not wear wigs and gowns in family court.
In family cases, there are a lot of interested parties, as one might expect. As one might also expect, these parties may have different interests in any given case. On a case it’s typical to have social services involved, these will have legal representation, and the social worker who has been working the case will be there. So that’s three people, to begin with; the person representing the local authority, their legal counsel, and a social worker. Next, if there is a child in the case, there is the guardian. The guardian’s job is to be the child, for the purposes of the case. Obviously, babies and children cannot come to court, so the guardian is there to be their voice. That’s four people. If the mother is involved, in some cases the mother will have legal representation. That’s six people, including the mother herself. If the father is involved, they will have separate legal representations to the mother. That’s eight people. The social worker may also have other family members’ views to put across, like grandparents and aunts.
Whilst the mother, father, and family won’t be in the room discussing the case, there are still several different parties with different interests in front of them. Sometimes half will agree against the other half, with the judge then deciding matters in the courtroom, other things will be expected to be agreed outside of court. Some judges and guardians also have a nasty reputation, which I found worrying.
I honestly found it exhausting. Whilst it was very interesting and I feel privileged to have had that insight, I cannot imagine doing it every day for the rest of my working life. The tragic thing about a lot of family cases is that the most important person, the child, often seems to come second. But then if children were always put first, family courts would not have much work to do.
Seeing the law in practice is very different from studying it. It’s been said before by many others, but it’s worth me saying it again. I’m now hoping to get some experience in other areas, and maybe some more in crime, so I can be certain that will be my goal after my degree is over. Be very careful ruling out areas you’ve not experienced, you may be ruling out your true interest and end up in an area of law that ultimately makes you miserable.
Thank you for reading
Written by Chloe Lydell.