University: Trinity College, Dublin
Degree: English literature
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 upon 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.
“Think about all the things that members of a family can fall out about and multiply that – that’s your area,” explains Kelan McHugh drily when asked to describe family law. “Family law engages all areas of the legal spectrum as the facts can vary enormously. You might be dealing with complicated trust structures, or companies, often with international elements – the financial work does not always involve just a house and a car. And all the time you’re dealing with human beings at both their best and their worst.”
Kelan found his way to family law after a degree in English literature and two years out – he jokes that he would have taken more if he could have afforded it, as he believes the life experience is invaluable for potential lawyers. One of those years involved working as a tennis coach. “It was only ever short term but it was good to do something completely different,” he laughs. “It gave me a year to think about what I wanted to do.”
One of the key ways he did that was by applying to a wide range of different people and places for work experience – from family friends to High Court judges. Although he also did some mini-pupillages, he recommends considering experience outside traditional vacation schemes and mini-pupillages to anyone considering a legal career: “You have to see the law in action – there’s no substitute.” It was a two-week placement at a high-street solicitor with a busy family law practice that was to prove pivotal to him. “This was my first time at the coalface and it was a big turning point for me,” he recalls. “There happened to be a couple of relatively juicy matters. In one, I met the client in conference with counsel and then the next day we were in the High Court; the other was a three-day hearing for a financial remedy in a divorce. Seeing the hearing conducted from beginning to end, from preparation to presentation, was truly eye opening.”
This work experience not only set Kelan on the path to family law; it helped him make the all-important choice between barrister or solicitor. “I went in very open minded but in the end it came down to being at the sharp end of the law. It probably goes to the big difference between solicitors and barristers,” he muses. “The former are self-employed and very independent. It leads to you being given more responsibility from very early on.” However, he is very open about the fact that life at the Bar is not for everyone. “There is no infrastructure, it’s just you,” he warns. “No secretary, no health insurance – and it only ever gets more difficult. As you move up the ladder there are greater expectations and demands. You need to be able to deal with the hours and the pressure. But it is exciting – we see the law in action. It makes the job worthwhile.”
However, add to the adrenaline rush of court advocacy the life-changing matters on which he works and you have a true pressure cooker. Kelan’s CV lists not only the usual nuts and bolts of divorce settlements, but also arrangements for children and even matters involving child abduction. These are not the kind of issues you can leave at the office. “Things happen in real time,” Kelan confirms. “If there is an abduction risk, it is imminent. You can’t just switch off your phone – you have to be there for clients.” He admits that the weight of such matters can be considerable but warns that it is vital not to get too closely attached: “It stops you doing your job as well as you might. As you get older and more experienced, you do become more self-assured, more confident. All you can do is set yourself a standard and uphold that. You don’t ever become immune, but you have to learn to let go.”
I firmly believe that there will always be a market for legal services but I think that, sadly, it could end up in a two-tier system in the family division.
In a rapidly changing world, even the way that families are shaped is altering. “Lifestyles are more international,” Kelan points out. “It’s now perfectly normal to live four years in one place and then move to the other side of the world – genuinely international families. From my point of view this means I have to be able to understand different legal systems. Sometimes that involves forging links with lawyers in different jurisdictions, which is not something you’d necessarily consider.” And lifestyles are not the only things that are evolving. The criminal Bar has undergone devastating changes due to transformations to legal aid and publicly funded work. “There’s a greater demand on court services, with fewer, shorter hearings,” he explains. “Ten years ago, you might expect to get three or four days before a judge in a particular type of case. It’s much less now, which means that as a barrister you have to be a lot more surgical, present more cleverly – there’s often less time to explore all the issues.”
Although he is careful not to join the doom-mongering prevalent in the profession right now – the take up of alternative dispute resolution is one exciting development that offers a lot of interesting avenues to barristers – Kelan is cautious about the future of the sector. “I firmly believe that there will always be a market for legal services but I think that, sadly, it could end up in a two-tier system in the family division,” he predicts. “Where those who can afford it choose arbitration or other dispute resolution and the courts are left for those who can’t afford it.”
However, for the present he is focused on serving his clients as best he can. When asked what makes a good family barrister, Kelan pauses to think. “You need the courage of your convictions,” he reflects. “As a barrister you will be thrust into difficult situations while you’re still relatively junior and there’s little support structure. You need to be prepared to take points that you think you are right even if they are difficult points. However, there is simply no substitute for preparation or hard work.”
He acknowledges that the stress levels are significant. “You need to know yourself, to know what you can take,” he warns. “Early on, someone did say to me: this is your career now, you feel like you have an exam the next day for the rest of your life. And it’s true in a way. You have no one to turn to and nowhere to hide in court, and you can’t do over. And yet knowing that I would still have chosen this path. Maybe it’s a matter of self-knowledge: if that’s who you are, then there’s no better career.”