Just over fourteen years ago I was called to the Bar of England & Wales. For the majority of the career that has followed, I have specialised in child care law, focussing particularly upon the lives of children and families who are involved with state children’s social care services in some way.
I could easily write with affection of the intellectual and emotional challenges of practicing law in that field because those challenges are the reason why I love and remain committed to my chosen profession. I could write of life as a practicing barrister at the independent bar and then as in-house counsel within a local authority. Of how while treading both those paths I enjoyed the simple pleasure of applying the law to complex information about people’s everyday lives and the challenges they face. I could endeavour to describe the adrenaline and satisfaction that accompanies presenting legal arguments in court. I could lace all of the above with a string of seemingly endless anecdotes (some funny, some sad) about cases, peers, and clients - after all, are lawyers not famed for such storytelling?
I could move on to write with as much affection of the many valuable and transferable skills that legal training has provided me with (public speaking, an almost debilitating level of attention to detail, a love of analysis and relational thinking to name but a few). Skills that I have been able to draw on in a variety of professional, personal and academic pursuits and at times may have taken for granted.
I could round this all off by writing with endless passion about being a legal adviser in the voluntary sector. Of the beautiful intricacy of analysing policy and practice materials relating to the child welfare system to try to identify the strengths, gaps, and tensions in the provision made for children and struggling families. Of carrying out action research which can in turn help to inform proposals for legal and policy change. For this is engaging with the law in order to contribute to improving people’s lives, and that is an easy thing to love.
I want, however, to write about relationships and the law because it seems to me that the law itself and practice of the law is in so many ways about relationships and connections. In the first instance, trite as it may be to start here, practicing law has a significant impact on valued relationships with partners and friends. These are the relationships with those special, patient individuals who gracefully accept canceled dinner dates and abandoned cinema trips. The relationships with those who see the vague humour in you joining a family holiday 24 hours later than scheduled for two consecutive years. These are the nearest and dearest who know that a variety of lovely - but foolishly impromptu - invitations to do ‘fun stuff’ will be shelved in favour of the necessary conference, court, policy writing or other preparation.
There are the relationships with our little ones. Those special and precious relationships into which a love of the law can also be wonderfully fed (posters about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the bathroom door anyone?). Relationships which however also exist alongside a large serving of guilt as demanding legal work physically encroaches so that a little face might appear confused by the sight of a fresh stack of papers occupying the dining table. Papers which might too easily spell the end of one's presence on a planned outing or at least may result in a mummy bleary-eyed and sporting a particularly ‘characterful’ hairstyle or outfit as morning arrives all too soon after a late evening’s work.
There is then the relationship between lawyer and the law. For me this relationship with the law is characterised by love and by privilege. A love of legal research, of reading the law and striving to know and understand it in all its intricacies. The privilege of being in the position to interpret and apply the law to assist others. To be, whether on an individual case basis, through empirical research, or campaigning work, a gateway for others to both understand their rights and to have their voices heard. To craft spoken and written word in such a way as to succeed in plainly interpreting and communicating legal language, concepts and processes to a range of audiences.
And finally, there is the relationship between me and the law. Though the affection is great, it is of course also an imperfect relationship. For example, there are lower retention rates for women at the Bar (see the Bar Standards Board’s July 2016 Women at the Bar report for analysis). Judicial diversity figures published in 2017 reveal that: 28% of court judges are female, and there is lower representation of female court judges in senior roles; only 7% of court judges are from black, Asian or minority ethnic groups. I am also acutely aware that pursuing legal training remains expensive and too often cost prohibitive for many aspiring to enter legal ranks. In all these ways a relationship with the law and the legal profession is a challenging one. There is, however, a busy landscape of important ongoing efforts to share information with school students about a career at the bar (see the Bar Council’s Barristers in schools programme). To improve diversity within, as well as access to, the profession (e.g., Lemn Sissay bursaries; Urban lawyer) and to better support and retain women at the Bar. All of which will help and make this ongoing relationship better.
A wise woman (also known as my mother) once told me that relationships are not about perfection, relationships are like plants: ‘nourish them, and they flourish; neglect them, and they wither and die.' With this in mind, my commitment remains to my loving relationship with the law. To sharing information about promoting the Bar (and the law generally) as a career path for a variety of young people. To accepting further invitations to speak with primary and secondary school students about my work in (and pathway into) the law, and to contribute to the nourishment of the law as a profession where I can.
Principal Legal Adviser at national charity, Family Rights Group