I’ve never been afraid of talking, something that anyone who has met me can attest to. When I was at school I remember meeting with the Careers teacher who asked me what I wanted to do for a living. “I want to be paid to talk” was my instinctive response. Now of course there are people who’d probably pay me to be quiet, but more on that later.
From the seven year old who could barely be seen (yes, I was once even shorter than I am now) but whose voice filled the local church reading during the Christmas carol concert to the somewhat older (and marginally taller) man I now am, I’ve always had a big voice. That was, until the first day of my second six.
I remember the Friday before being told that I had a first appearance at Harrow Magistrates’ Court. The building is no longer there, one of the many that has been closed over the years though it’s unrelated to my attendance on that unusually warm March morning. Remember, correlation is not causation. All I had to do was apply for an adjournment. This was in one of the final days before we were all reminded to ‘Stop delaying justice’ unless of course you are a List Officer, or the person who holds the MoJ purse strings. It seemed easy enough. I needed to say about 30 words and hope I’d persuade the bench.
But somewhere between Harrow and Wealdstone station and meeting my client, I started to doubt my ability to form simple sentences. Were some of the things I proposed to say actually words? I mean they sounded like real words, but I couldn’t be sure. I could look them up on the internet but the iPhone was yet to be invented and mobile data was slower than an asthmatic tortoise going uphill. I’d just have to hope all would be fine. Matters weren’t helped by not getting called on until just before lunch. I said the necessary words and the bench muttered to each other. “Yes, you can have your adjournment Mr Kolhatkar” was the response and first day in court was done. I hadn’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978*. I went back to chambers and drafted an overly long attendance note.
(* With apologies to Irvine Welsh for the slight misquote. I was a mere month old when the game took place)
If your second six is just about to begin, here are some tips on surviving six fairly intensive and tough months. It’s aimed at those going to court regularly and is based on my criminal pupillage but I can see it would apply those doing family, or areas of civil such as PI where you get sent hither and thither and yon.
1. Find your Leo McGarry
We all need a Leo McGarry. For those of you who haven’t watched The West Wing (a) why not, please remedy that asap, it’s some of the finest TV ever produced (b) he was President Barlet’s Chief of Staff who the President described as the ‘Smartest person he knew’.
President Bartlet went to Leo whenever he got stuck. You’re going to get stuck and quickly. When it happens, you want a plan of who you can contact to ask for help. You’ll likely need multiple McGarrys as inevitably someone you want to speak to will be busy in court or in a con. The key is to have a small selection of people you trust and won’t mind you calling. A mix of pupils, junior tenants and some more senior including a pupil supervisor or two would make a good team. The telephone number for chambers is a good backup too.
Note, it’s daunting to call people in chambers for help. Particularly as some or all might have an influence in your tenancy decision. You might want to consider if there are people out of your chambers who might be able to help.
The Bar Council has its own group of Leos. Specifically the confidential Ethics Enquiries Service Team. They will triage your call and find someone who can call you back, urgently if required. Their number is 020 7611 1307. I’ve used them before to help in a particularly tricky situation.
2. Read your instructions carefully
It sounds obvious but then people do the strangest things in high pressure situations. (52% of the population know exactly what I mean). Find your instructions and read them carefully to understand why you are going to court. What if they are missing or incomplete? Ring the Solicitor but not before you consider the initial point of who the brief belongs to.
If it’s not your brief and you are covering for another member of chambers, speak to them first. For one, they will know the history of the case and probably why you are going and second, it’s basic courtesy to do so.
If it’s your brief then hopefully you’ll have a full set of instructions but if it’s the classic post it note with just a few details then it’s time to ring your Solicitors and take a full note.
3. Read the brief
If you have time or the matter is for trial you can and should read the entire thing. If you’re under significant time pressure and really can’t read everything, at the very least you need to read the backsheet, any attendance notes and the case summary. The papers might be voluminous and particularly if the brief is someone else’s you might be able to get some help and/or focus as to what to read first or what doesn’t need to be read for the hearing you are going to. Ultimately you might be asked about something on page 723 and you need to be comfortable that you know the brief well enough.
4. Don’t be afraid to say no
A judge or a clerk might try to force/convince you into something you are uncomfortable or unqualified to do. Or course consider your professional responsibilities properly, and really think about whether you can do it – just because something is the first time doesn’t mean you can’t do it – but if your firm professional view is that you should not be taking a specific action then be firm but resolute in your refusal. If you turn down one of your clerks also inform your pupil supervisor and give them the reasons why – they will be able to protect you if the clerks cause a fuss (which they absolutely will not – but better to be safe than sorry).
5. Work out where you are going
Some people are blessed with the directional skills of Ferdinand Magellan, others can get lost walking 5 minutes in the city they call home. Pre Google maps, I used to print out a map from Maporama (RIP) and fold it into an approximate iPhone size rectangle to navigate from train station to court and back. The task is plainly easier now with the advent of the iPhone (or an Android phone if you’ve made terrible life choices) so you can plot your route with ease.
The bigger issue is to check that you are going to the right building. The County Court at Hither might sit in Thither on Tuesdays when the moon in full and you can be sure that’s the day you are going. Others (fewer now) have confusing names. In London we used to have Southwestern Magistrates’ Court and West London. One was in Clapham, the other in Hammersmith. I set off for the wrong one more times than I care to remember. Then there was Wantage which was in open countryside and miles from anywhere. Or the time I went to a Cambridgeshire market town where the Crown Court sat once a year and post mention had to walk through the town in my wig and gown to have lunch in a pub with the Mayor. That was fun.
Always get the train before the one you need to take. The one you want will be delayed or cancelled because our public transport system is ‘Mainly shambolic with flashes of brilliance’. Coincidentally that was my entry in various legal directories.
If you get there early, treat yourself to breakfast. If it all goes badly wrong, ring your clerks who will help pour oil on trouble waters with the court concerned.
6. Pack your bag the night before
Yes, yes, I know it sounds like being back at school but pack your bag the night before. Do you need to robe? In crime, this is easy. In civil it appears to be a mind-field best resolved by consulting a set of rune stones. Or asking someone. The latter is better advice.
Of course I rarely took my own advice which is why I often had to go back home to fetch my wig, the right brief or once, the right jacket to match the waistcoat and trousers that I was wearing. Not strictly an item that should have been in my bag, but you get the idea.
7. Clothes and shoes
On the topic of clothes and shoes make sure you are always the smartest person at court. Lay clients like that sort of thing. If you travel to court in comfy shoes, then make sure you change them before you meet your lay client. Beautiful as your Veja trainers might be, they aren’t strictly court attire.
8. Don’t forget to eat
Hopefully you manage to get on well before lunch and can enjoy the culinary delights of wherever you’ve been sent. I once ate Cromer crab on the beach in the aforementioned town. But usually I managed little more than a can of Diet Coke and some crisps from Tesco Metro on the way home. Do not count on being able to buy anything at or near court. Not even a cup of tea. In a curious cost cutting exercise they’ve now decided that court users do not require sustenance. The Bar can be terrible for your diet so take some healthy snacks with you. A bit of fruit, some Low-GI snacks and a bottle of water can rescue your day.
Whether you get them past an overzealous security guard who thinks you are going to use them to overthrow the Justice system is really another point, but do try. To eat and keep hydrated, not overthrow the system.
9. Speak to your opponent
Whether it’s a CPS rep who might have some papers for you, or opposing Counsel, go and find them and have a chat but please remember, there is no such thing as ‘Counsel to Counsel’ confidentiality. While some observe it as custom, it doesn’t exist formally so be careful what you say. Your client may be unpleasant but you owe a duty to them. It’s all too easy to forget that when speaking to the other side. Remember too your demeanour when speaking to your opponent in sight or earshot of your lay client. They understand you are fellow professionals but look too chummy and they will feel like a pawn in a game, that for them it is probably the most important thing in their life.
10. The Usher is the most important person in the building
The usher will decide when your case is called on. Being courteous will get you on fairly swiftly if your case is ready. Being rude and or unpleasant and you may as well get out your sleeping bag and camping stove because it will be a long day. Nice but not smarmy. Polite but not obsequious. Don’t say your case is ready when it isn’t and don’t give them an unrealistic time estimate for your hearing or you will be at the back of the queue next time.
11. Go into court and listen to your tribunal
There were Judges (all retired, names to protect the innocent) who were worth watching as a spectator sport:
- HHJ X – woe betide you didn’t know what was in the interview on page 7.
- HHJ Y – refused to sentence a defendant unless the list of antecedents was printed after breakfast that morning.
- HHJ Z – woe betide. Ill tempered was his best setting.
Back to the present day, if your case isn’t called on first, go into court and listen. Get a feel for your tribunal be they a lay bench or Lord Justices of appeal. Understand their pace, what they ask and how they ask it. Unfortunately some judges are completely unpredictable. I’m not going to name them here, but you will no doubt be warned about them by your pupil supervisors.
12. Slow it down
You can’t and won’t know everything straight away. Don’t get steamrolled by an opponent or a Judge. If you need some time, ask. The response might not be particularly friendly or fun but it’s better to incur the wrath of a busy Judge than a hearing going irreparably wrong.
13. Less is more
Sometimes in court you need say little more than you endorse what someone else has said. Sometimes you need to speak for some time. Less is often more. You aren’t being paid by the word. Speaking with economy and skill is an art. One day I’ll get there. Hopefully you will far sooner. Don’t be the person in a multi-handed hearing that feels that they need to repeat everything that’s already been said. Not until you are in Silk. Then go for it.
14. Speak to your lay client (and professional client if they are there) afterwards
Make sure they understand what happened. Of course that means you need to understand what happened and that might take a moment. Your lay client in particular will want to know what happens next and when.
15. Ring professional client and clerks
If your professional client isn’t in attendance, ring them straight away with the result of the hearing. Then ring your clerks so that they can update the diary and know that you are free. Also find out from your clerks how they want to hear from you, whether an email or a call. Whatever they say do it straight away. Remember that even if your clerks prefer an email sometimes you will have to call, especially in urgent circumstances, don’t be afraid to do so – use your judgement
16. Endorse your backsheet and write an attendance note.
A clear endorsement is worth its weight in gold. Whether you write directly on it as the hearing progresses or transcribe from the scribbles in your blue book, make sure it’s complete and helpful even if its your brief. Write it as if someone else is going to read it.
Always write an attendance note. As a self employed person you’re not just a professional you’re also running a business. Every interaction with your professional client is a business development opportunity, either by (subtly) showing what a genius you were in court or simply by demonstrating that you’re the reliable sort of advocate who always sends off notes on time and is on top of their paperwork. Always do it, and do it as soon as possible on the same day. Remember though, it needs to be an accurate note of what happened in court. Not what you wish had happened.
17. Don’t dwell
If something went wrong or you felt it didn’t go as well as it could, by all means go and speak to someone within chambers or externally, in both cases remembering your duty of confidentiality to your client. It probably wasn’t as bad as you thought. But most importantly, like taking an exam that you didn’t feel went well, don’t dwell on it. Learn by all means but dwelling on what was or could have been will only impinge on your next hearing.
18. Relax and try to enjoy yourself
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it– Bueller, F (1986)
Try to relax both within and without court. Try to enjoy the career you’ve worked so hard to become a part of. You need some down time. On the way back from court, try and read something other than case papers. Listen to a podcast or stare out of the window with some music on and let the world go by. Plainly that last one is better if you are on a train than driving.
I hope these tips are of some assistance. Enjoy what is the greatest job in the world but keep one eye on your sanity and wellbeing. Both you and your clients are relying on you doing so while being fab in court.
My thanks to the small group of people who read this blog before I published it. In part for their proof reading but also for improving some of the content. They are all too modest for me to name them, so I won’t.