University: University of Oxford
The common law Bar remains an attractive option for those who believe that variety is the spice of life. Typically, common law chambers are multi-disciplinary and are divided into practice groups so that members can develop and maintain specialisations. Areas of practice can include actions against the police, employment disputes, discrimination law, landlord and tenant, personal injury, professional negligence, family law and criminal law.
Matthew Hill’s first full-time job was not exactly typical for someone straight out of university. Having graduated with a master’s in history from Oxford, he was offered a role on the 1998 Saville ‘Bloody Sunday’ Inquiry, which was set up to re-investigate the killing of unarmed protesters by soldiers in Northern Ireland on 30 January 1972. “For the seven years of the inquiry, I worked directly with the four barristers who were asking questions on behalf of Lord Saville and his colleagues,” he explains. “It was an amazing experience right from the first day, on which a Nobel peace prize winner gave evidence. I hadn’t had any legal training and was there on my historian’s ticket, analysing evidence and trying to draw together the vast amount of material adduced for the tribunal. It was similar to what the barristers were doing, but without any advocacy or technical law. I found that I really wanted to be involved with that side of things and it was this experience that convinced me to go to the Bar.”
As his work on the Saville Inquiry drew to a close, Matthew enrolled on the GDL, followed by the BVC (now BPTC). He soon landed a pupillage at 1 Crown Office Row. “A friend of mine has described pupillage as like wearing a pair of trousers that are two sizes too small – you’re always slightly uncomfortable and self-conscious,” he says. “Nonetheless, pupillage is a great opportunity to experience high-quality work under the guidance of senior pupil supervisors. If anything, it’s a bit of a jolt when your pupillage ends and you find yourself starting from the bottom as a tenant and your caseload becomes notably less exciting.”
It wasn’t just the engrossing work that Matthew found so valuable. “1 Crown Office Row also has a very friendly and supportive atmosphere in which questions are encouraged at all times,” he explains. “I would advise all prospective pupils to make the most of your chance to ask questions of more experienced barristers, most of whom take their training responsibilities very seriously. That’s how they learned and, in general, they want to pass it on to the next generation. Pupillage works well and is even enjoyable when both sides buy into that relationship.”
After finishing pupillage, Matthew stayed at 1 Crown Office Row as a tenant and has since built up a broad common and public law practice. “It’s a pretty mixed bag,” he says. “One of my main areas is public inquiries – I have worked on both the Al-Sweady Inquiry and the Hillsborough inquests. I am also a member of the Attorney General’s C Panel, which leads to public law work in fields including immigration, human rights and more general matters that can encompass almost anything. My first brief concerned a civil servant who had tripped over a carpet, which is about as far away from a ground-breaking Supreme Court case on constitutional principles as you can get.”
A friend of mine has described pupillage as like wearing a pair of trousers that are two sizes too small – you’re always slightly uncomfortable and self-conscious.
“Other elements of my practice are often medical in nature. I work on clinical negligence cases and professional disciplinary proceedings involving doctors and dentists. The medical sphere is also really varied, as litigation can touch on thorny legal and ethical issues such as confidentiality, consent and human rights. The ‘right to die’ litigation is probably the most well-known example of a case like this, but there are less public ethical cases and decisions that are equally important to the individuals concerned going on up and down the country every week. These issues are not just for lawyers to consider; they go beyond technical law and into the ethics of how we organise our society.”
Medical cases are sensitive and demanding, but Matthew says that they are also professionally and personally rewarding. “The highlight of my time at the Bar so far was a major clinical negligence claim that I worked on in a junior capacity,” he recalls. “The case sadly involved a young man who had cerebral palsy as a result of a catastrophic injury at birth. The mother had done a phenomenal job of looking after her son for 17 years, with very little state support. We were able to agree a settlement with the relevant NHS authority after it admitted negligence in the case. That settlement ensured that the client would be provided with care and all necessary facilities for the rest of his life. Walking away from the court after saying goodbye to the mother, it was extraordinary to think how the outcome of the case had utterly changed her and her son’s lives for the better.. As a common law barrister, you encounter legal and ethical issues that are of profound significance to the lives of the individuals concerned. It can be deeply frustrating, but also immeasurably rewarding. One of the reasons that I like common law is that it is about people.”
It is also about the best interests of the clients, rather than the kudos of courtroom victory. “It’s not just about winning or losing,” Matthew explains. “Litigation is often very distressing for both parties. Sometimes the best way is to come to a sensible and fair solution through an out-of-court settlement – helping to facilitate this as your client’s counsel is an important part of the job.”
One downside of the Bar is that work commitments can impact on your personal life: “Barristers are essentially self-employed, so we are theoretically able to set our own hours and control our destinies, but the reality is that you have to work bloody hard – particularly at the start while you’re building up a practice. But barristers aren’t alone in having to sacrifice time with their families and we shouldn’t complain too much. Throughout London, cleaners arrive at offices as the lawyers leave and I’m sure that they would like to spend more time with their loved ones, too.”
One issue that really does concern Matthew is the levels of debt with which students are now leaving university, something he fears may prevent a lot of people from accessing the Bar. “When I was student in the late 1990s, I was very fortunate that my debt was relatively low – I was able to graduate, get a job and come to the Bar later without excessive financial difficulty. I’m concerned that people leaving university with £40,000 of debt will be put off the Bar, especially when they consider the extra £18,000 it costs to go through Bar school. Various chambers, including ours, and the Inns have put in huge amounts of effort making substantial progress towards an open Bar, but our efforts risk being completely overshadowed. It’s also easy to suspect that the BPTC providers are happy to ‘oversupply’ the market, charging young people a lot of money when many of them will not go on to get a job.”
For those still undeterred, Matthew has some advice: “Be realistic – that doesn’t mean give up, but you have to consider seriously your job prospects at the end of all that expensive training. You should also consider whether you will be good at advocacy and whether you will enjoy it – it’s important to identify weaknesses and work hard on improving them. Contrary to the stereotype, the best barristers are the humble ones, who pick up lessons from every court appearance and every conference.”