University: University of Birmingham
At the criminal Bar you may be called on to act for either the defence or the prosecution. Specialist criminal law chambers offer expertise in all areas, including child abuse, drug offences, fraud, human rights, mental illness, violent and sexual crime, and white collar crime. As might be expected, criminal barristers spend more time in court than those in almost any other sector of the Bar. The international aspect of criminal law includes human rights, terrorism, war crimes, organised crime, drug trafficking and money laundering. Practitioners in international criminal law regularly appear before foreign tribunals and international courts.
In her own words, Helen Law was “one of those very sad people who at the age of 14 decided I wanted to be a barrister, specifically a criminal barrister”, so there was no agonising on a ‘what to do with my life’ level for her teenaged self, at least. Later, she did a couple of placements at solicitors’ firms, but as was fairly clear from the start, they most served to confirm that the Bar was her calling. Although, as Helen points out: “The end point was clear, but the route is always a little unpredictable when you’re talking about the Bar.”
After graduating in law from the University of Birmingham, doing a master’s in public international law and working as a research assistant at the Law Commission for a year, Helen completed the Bar course and secured pupillage – or ‘traineeship’ as it is termed at this set – at Matrix Chambers, whose barristers cover a wide range of practice areas including crime. “My traineeship was certainly challenging, as you are put under a level of personal scrutiny which I don’t think you get in many other job interviews, but I found it utterly fascinating,” she recalls of the experience. “My first trainee supervisor was Julian Knowles, who at the time was a junior on a very high-profile murder trial at the Old Bailey. This meant that only a week after I started, I was in court every day for three months – the experience was incredibly interesting and I learnt a lot from day one.”
‘White collar’ crime
In the present, Helen is a successful crime barrister. “I do everything related to criminal justice, which also incorporates criminal law in a public law context – for example, challenging decisions not to prosecute,” she explains. “I also perform advisory work during the investigatory stages of criminal cases. For example, in a fraud investigation, I would advise a corporate or individual client about how the case may unfold. And of course I do trial and appellate work, both here and in Strasbourg. The core of my practice is traditionally known as ‘white collar’ crime, which involves fraud, corruption and money laundering. However, I’m also involved in other areas – I’m currently working on a corruption trial, but am also doing an appeal case concerning drug smuggling and have an immigration offence trial coming up, too.”
The workload varies from case to case, particularly in terms of paperwork: “I did a case a few years ago where there were over 100 lever arch files of used and unused evidence, all of which had to be read. In comparison, the case I’m doing at the moment involves less than 10 lever arch files of evidence. Reading through the case files is the start of the process with every case – from there you figure out a case strategy which will inform what you do in the months leading up to the trial. There will usually be a lot of preliminary legal research and correspondence, such as disclosure applications. This means that a lot of my work is outside the court room. When a case does finally go to court, I’m often in court for anywhere between one week and three months, as financial crime trials tend to go on longer than some other types of criminal case.”
On a personal level, you need to be resilient and have good stamina, as criminal law is not for the faint hearted.
Of all the interesting cases that Helen has worked on so far, one particularly stands out in her memory – partly because it was so nerve wracking: “At five years’ call, I prosecuted one of the cases in the parliamentary expenses scandal on my own, which was a daunting, but fantastic experience.”
More generally, there are several reasons why Helen enjoys the career of a crime barrister so much. “I’m lucky in that I have a highly varied criminal practice, so no two weeks are the same, and I work in a supportive chambers with some fantastic practitioners in this, and other fields,” she explains. “Crime is also a great area to work in for other reasons – it can be intellectually stimulating, but there is also a very human side to the work and you need good people skills to be successful. Your clients will be from all walks of life and they need to be able to trust you. For a period in their lives, you will be a very important person to them because in their mind at least you may be the only thing standing between them and a very unfavourable outcome.”
If there is a downside to life at the Bar, it is its unpredictability. Helen admits: “The intensity at which you have to work sometimes is totally out of your control – you can be cruising along, having a normal week when something blows up on a case, and whatever plans you had for the weekend with your family are out the window. But you learn strategies for dealing with it and get better at predicting the types of things which might blow up.”
Cuts and the justice gap
Taking stock of the state of the criminal Bar, Helen identifies one major concern above all others which urgently needs to be addressed: “The most pressing issue is the cuts to legal aid, which have made it incredibly difficult for parts of the justice system to function properly. More people are unrepresented, which slows down the system. Barristers doing legal aid crime have less and less time to spend on each case, as they are having to take on more and more cases to make ends meet. I think if any area should have its standards rigorously maintained, it’s crime, as the consequences are so serious. People go to prison, or dangerous people walk, so to lower the standards of the system is totally unacceptable. It is disappointing that the successive cuts to legal aid fail to recognise the importance of that. If the state does not provide for properly funded representation and a fully resourced criminal justice system, the verdicts produced, guilty or innocent, are not reliable. That is damaging not just to defendants, but also and equally to victims and society at large. I say that as someone who has a mixed practice who is fortunate enough not to be financially dependent on criminal legal aid work.”
On a similarly sober note, Helen observes how the cuts have unfortunately made life much more difficult for those trying to establish themselves at the Bar: “If you’re at the junior end of the criminal Bar in London, it can be difficult to make ends meet and I know people who have quit because of it.” That said, if you can make it through those early years, Helen cannot think of a more interesting, challenging and varied way to earn a living.
For those undaunted, Helen has some worthwhile advice for maximising the chances of success: “It is important to understand what criminal practice involves – this is one area of the Bar that is often portrayed on television, but not necessarily accurately. On a personal level, you need to be resilient and have good stamina, as criminal law is not for the faint hearted. Very good interpersonal skills are also essential – you need to be able to talk to people from all backgrounds. So much of what a barrister does rests on understanding people and having some insight into how what you are saying to, for example, a jury, is going to be received.”