University: University of Oxford, Merton College
Degree: Philosophy, Politics and Economics
Family law barristers deal with all legal matters relating to marriage, separation, divorce and cohabitation, as well as issues relating to children, including contact arrangements, care and placement orders, adoption and surrogacy. Family law also encompasses financial negotiations on divorce, inheritance issues, pre-nuptial agreements and disputes between cohabitants. Some cases involve substantial assets and complex financial arrangements, or high-profile disputes between well-known personalities.
About two years after finishing his degree at Oxford, Andy Campbell had something of an epiphany. “I was working in the City and wasn’t really enjoying what I was doing,” he recalls. “I wanted to do something more fulfilling and challenging. I don’t know if I had developed unrealistic expectations of the level of glamour involved from watching films and television like Kavanagh QC, but I thought law might fit the bill.”
He set about doing a number of minipupillages in different sets to experience different practice areas and quickly identified family law as an area in which he would like to specialise. He focused on Queen Elizabeth Building and a number of other family-led sets when applying for pupillage. “Having done a number of mini-pupillages in different areas, I found family law to be the most interesting and engaging,” he explains. “It has a mixture of lots of different types of law to keep you on your toes, but the most important thing is that it’s not just retrospective. It isn’t simply looking at what has happened in the past; it also looks at what might happen in the future and how you can potentially improve things for people. That really appeals to me and a lot of other people who choose the area.”
While Andy was justified in his expectation that pupillage would be hard work, he emphasises that it was also very enjoyable. During his first six months he was shadowing other members of chambers – predominantly his pupil supervisor – helping them with the matters on which they were working. However, plenty of support was available if he was ever unsure of how best to proceed. “Everyone’s door is always open,” he says. “Whether you’re a pupil or a leading silk, you can go and speak to anyone and get as much help and support as you need.”
The support was still there in his second six, but the stakes were raised slightly as Andy started to take on cases of his own. This is also when he realised that he had made the right choice about his future career. “I was prepared for the first six months, because having done my mini-pupillages I didn’t find it too hard to imagine what it would be like to shadow others. But when you get your own cases, you can’t really prepare for that and hence it has its own pressure attached. Thankfully, I enjoyed it and that was the acid test. If you do a case, finish it and come back thinking that you want to do another, that’s definitely a good sign.”
As a tenant, Andy finds his time is reasonably evenly divided between chambers and court. Typically he will be in court two or three days a week, working on a varied caseload encompassing everything from financial matters, sorting out the division of money and other assets on divorce, to cases involving children and residence issues. Of course, those court appearances also produce a lot of paperwork – preparing notes, skeleton arguments, position statements, asset schedules and other related documents. That said, he also points out that there is no such thing as a typical week at the family Bar. “There can be a lot of sitting around and waiting to be called, so that involves speaking to clients – reassuring them and advising them while at court,” he says. “Then you also get other drafting work: doing witness statements, preparing questionnaires for the other side or analysing bank statements. Every week is different. Some weeks are filled with just one case; others you are sat in chambers doing a witness statement that takes three days; or you might find yourself doing five days in court on five different cases. There is no consistency other than the lack of consistency, really.”
“If you do a case, finish it and come back thinking that you want to do another, that’s definitely a good sign”
As in other areas, the scale of the cases that a family barrister works on tends to increase as they get more senior. However, there are times when more junior members of chambers – even pupils – can find themselves working on more challenging briefs. “Some of the cases I had when I was a pupil were more complex than a number of the cases I’m doing now,” suggests Andy. “The reason is that as a pupil you are the cheapest person in chambers, so if someone wants a barrister but doesn’t have a lot of money, a pupil may well be their only option. On the whole, my cases are now more complex; but the most complex cases in pupillage were more difficult than the simplest ones I get now.”
The cuts to legal aid made in 2013 are one reason why junior barristers are increasingly a first port of call, and the ramifications do not stop there. Not only have they seen a reduction in the amount of work that reaches the Bar (although Andy suggests that the profession is starting to come to terms with the need to restructure practices to adapt to that loss), but the subsequent increase in the number of litigants in person has also put a strain on the system – something again which the profession and the government are now trying to accommodate.
“There is a drive to make family law less impenetrable for litigants in person,” he explains. “So if somebody goes to court, they are not immediately thrust into a dispute with another lawyer and potentially their former partner. There are now more ways to resolve disputes in a better, more efficient manner – including an increase in alternative dispute resolution. The hope is that more people can come to terms before going to court – not least because of the long delays facing the court system as a result of the fact there are more cases, taking longer to resolve due to the lack of proper representation.”
Family barristers need a range of skills depending on the work they are handling at the time. As they may be faced with extremely sensitive situations involving feuding partners or children, the ability to pour oil on troubled waters is paramount. It is also useful to be able to read people and how they might react to different legal approaches in court. Andy further points out that some financial savvy is handy when dealing with matrimonial finance work: “It’s definitely useful to have a good head for numbers and to have an understanding of how things which impact on people when they get divorced, like pensions and tax on dividends, work.”