University: University of Cambridge
The public law Bar spans the full range of administrative, public and constitutional law. Specific areas within the field include civil liberties and human rights, commercial judicial review, community and healthcare law, disciplinary proceedings and the internal administration of public bodies, education law, housing law, planning law, prison law, and social services and social security law. Public law work has a European influence, with a steady stream of cases being referred to the European Court of Justice for preliminary rulings and other cases raising the issue of the application of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Drawn to the Bar by an early interest in advocacy – “I went into law with a view to becoming a barrister; I never had any intention of becoming a solicitor” – Jennifer MacLeod took some time out after university to see the world, living in the United States and South Africa and working for the UN and various NGOs, before returning to pupillage at Brick Court – a leading chambers in the field of public and constitutional law. She describes her time as a pupil: “It was very challenging, partly because of the difference between learning law at university and practising it; they are a gulf apart. Learning to be an advocate took a huge amount of teaching from my pupil supervisors and I found it quite exhausting! But it was also enjoyable and as you start to see yourself improve, there is a thrilling feeling of being able to do something that you couldn’t do six months earlier. You also start to grasp things much more quickly and that continues – the learning doesn’t stop on your first day of tenancy, by any means.”
Now a barrister of six years call, Jennifer has a public law practice that is incredibly varied – reflecting the nature of a practice area that “encompasses anything to do with the exercise of state power against individuals, be they corporations or people, and whether a state should be constrained in the exercise of that power, with a variety of human rights and international issues involved”. She explains some of the things that attracted her to this field: “If you’re at university and interested in the principles of how a state governs, then you will find public law a fascinating area to work in – I certainly do! You are at the edge of politics, law and policy, and part of shaping where things go.”
Jennifer offers examples of the huge variety of both client and subject matter that is a feature of her caseload: “At one point, I was working for a multinational tobacco manufacturer challenging the government’s decision to bring in plain packaging; for domestic violence victims in Georgia who were claiming that the state had failed to protect them; for UK welfare beneficiaries who wanted to prove that the government policy of excluding them from certain benefits was unlawful; and for Southern Rail when they were trying to stop the trade unions from striking. I’m currently working for the government on a case against pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer in relation to what’s known as ‘excessive pricing’ of epilepsy drugs. It can be so completely different from one day to the next, you never get bored. And you’re also often working on things that you can chat about to anyone – they’re important issues in the public domain.” She adds that you may find yourself in court less than barristers practising in other areas, “but you’re also often working in the public eye, which is both exciting and stressful!”
If you’re interested in the principles of how a state governs, then you will find public law a fascinating area – you’re working at the edge of politics, law and policy.
Reflecting back on one of her seminal career moments, Jennifer says: “I am particularly proud of my work on the domestic violence case in Georgia, working in collaboration with the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC). We were successful in changing the law completely on domestic violence; the government brought in an entirely new regime, worked with NGOs to develop it and gave compensation to past victims. This relatively small case made a very real practical difference to lots of people’s lives.”
Both international and domestic work is a feature: “Because my practice entails a lot of human rights litigation, much of my work is international, but that’s not to say that everyone in public law will experience that. For example, I’m also acting for an individual who wants to change the UK law on assisted suicide; which is based in human rights principles but is a domestic public law challenge.”
Life in practice
If an interest in the development of the law is your thing, then public could be your career nirvana. “There is a particular focus on legal, rather than factual, disputes, so you have to have a cerebral interest in that,” advises Jennifer. “There is not a huge amount of cross-examination or the drama of performing in front of a jury in this type of work, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you might want to think about a different area! Public law is very similar to the mooting you will do at university, so if you’ve enjoyed that, this could be for you.”
In addition, being one of the less traditional areas of law means that public attracts a diverse range of practitioners, as Jennifer explains: “People come from all sorts of background, including other sectors, state schools and a wide range of universities, so you definitely shouldn’t be put off because of your background. The most important thing is to be as clear as you can be with your analysis and advocacy.”
Jennifer is keen to pass on some advice about the job that she wished someone had mentioned to her – not that it would have changed her mind about pursuing this is a career, just that to be forewarned is forearmed. “I wish I had been told that it is someone else’s job to try to show you up, all the time!” she laughs. “It’s worth thinking about that before you start; this is not a career free from stress. You are also on a very public stage and things don’t always go the way you want. You have to grow a bit of a thick skin.”
A final heartening reflection on the nature of the Bar: “One thing I didn’t expect was being part of such a great community of people – across chambers and the profession, people are actually in the main very kind and supportive, as well as interesting and smart. I work with amazing colleagues – many of whom have become wonderful friends – and I’m not sure that I expected that. It was a very pleasant surprise.”