University: University of Oxford
Personal injury (PI) law falls under the law of tort. It involves civil claims brought to obtain compensation for injuries so as to put the injured person back in the position that they would have been in had they not been injured. The subject matter varies considerably, and can range from controversial, high-profile disaster cases through to road traffic accidents and health and safety cases. A related, specialised practice area of PI law is clinical negligence, which involves injuries suffered during medical procedures.
Explaining the supportive culture that she has experienced at 12 King’s Bench Walk (12KBW), Charley Turton says: “When you’re a pupil and a very junior tenant you’re looking to get advice from the more senior people. As you climb the ladder you then give that advice back to the more junior people. So, it’s a bit like the ‘circle of life’ – there’s a real give and take of advice and reassurance.”
Coming to her pupillage at 12KBW straight after an English degree at the University of Oxford, the Graduate Diploma in Law and Bar school in Birmingham, Charley says she was “extremely nervous in the runup because I had no idea what to expect but I honestly loved it.” She moved to London the day before her pupillage began and – while she would not recommend such a last-minute move – was made to feel at ease and settled in quickly to life at 12KBW: “Everyone in chambers was so kind and understanding because they have all been through the same experience. Pupillage is a really intense year that goes by in a flash but the people at 12KBW take you under their wing.”
Breadth of expertise
Recalling her pupillage experience, Charley says: “The pupillage year is split into three four-month ‘seats’ in which you are supervised by three different senior barristers. In your first seat you mainly work on the cases that your supervisor is working on, which is exciting and sometimes daunting because you are fresh to the job and often find yourself working on multi-million-pound cases.
“In the middle seat you continue working on your supervisor’s cases, as well as branching out to work for other people in chambers, all of whom have their own unique practices. And in your second six months of pupillage you are released into the wild, to attend court hearings such as small claim and fast track trials.”
The breadth of expertise at 12KBW is one of its selling points: we have practice groups dedicated to industrial disease, international and travel law, clinical negligence and employment. You are able to pursue your own particular interests.
Charley notes: “The breadth of expertise at 12KBW is one of its selling points: we have practice groups dedicated to industrial disease, international and travel law, clinical negligence and employment. You are able to pursue your own particular interests.”
Now a tenant at 12KBW, Charley finds the biggest difference between her work as a pupil and her current practice is that she is increasingly seeing her own cases through from start to finish: “As you become more senior, people start to involve you from the beginning of a case and ask you for advice.”
Having originally planned to be a family lawyer, Charley built up a practice in personal injury (PI) law almost accidently: “I never really saw PI law as my calling. I got lucky though because it really suits me – there is a huge variety in the work we do and I particularly enjoy the medical side”.
She acts for both claimants and defendants: “The claimant side comes with a lot of responsibility because you’re working for an individual. Whereas on the defendant side you’re often working for a company or an insurer and so have slightly less autonomy.”
While she enjoys both claimant and defendant work, Charley predicts that as she becomes more senior, she will choose to focus more on one than the other and, considering her interest in clinical negligence, her future practice is likely to be more claimant-focused: “I love speaking to experts about the medicine involved in a case, particularly in clinical negligence cases. I find it satisfying to drill down into the nitty gritty details as I am really interested in the science behind it all.”
Opportunities to make a difference
Highlighting a particular pro bono case that she recently worked on for a claimant, Charley explains how important advocacy work is for certain clients: “I represented the family of the deceased at an inquest – it was a young man who had sadly committed suicide. I don’t think I have ever seen a starker example of the difference that advocacy can make. It was pro bono, and if the Bar Prono Unit (now ‘Advocate’) didn’t exist, the family would have had no mouthpiece for their questions, no-one to scrutinise the facts on their behalf – whether that was me or someone else – which is what they really needed to make them feel that the inquest had been worthwhile.”
The freedom associated with being self-employed is a particular perk of Charley’s role as a PI barrister, but it also brings with it a certain unpredictability: “A lot of the time you do not know where you are going to be or what your workload will be from one day to the next.” This unpredictability has been heightened even further as a result of the global pandemic: “Coronavirus has been really difficult. It has created a backlog of cases not being heard. Before the pandemic, I was in court three to five days a week and now it is more like one or two hearings a week.”
Expanding on the impact of coronavirus on the legal profession and in particular PI law, Charley says: “Doctors and nurses are taking a personal risk in being exposed to the virus and in many cases without proper PPE. They are also often required to work outside of their specialisms to enable sufficient cover – this was certainly the case at the pandemic’s peak. It now raises novel questions about standards of care, which is something that any lawyer working in PI or clinical negligence must get to grips with.”
Listen to your client
Looking back to when she was trying to secure a pupillage and the advice that she was given by practising barristers, Charley outlines several key skills that aspiring advocates must develop: “PI barristers would stress the importance of giving practical advice and I never fully grasped what they meant by that. However, now that I work in PI law, I understand that while academic discussion of the legal principles involved in the cases is obviously important, it does not in itself get your client very far. Your client wants to know their next steps.”
On top of providing practical advice to clients, budding barristers must be able to retain information: “If you have reports from several different experts, it is important to remember what they say, how they interact and where contradictions or inconsistencies in the evidence are.” The skill is in being able to retain and later distil that information into a coherent and persuasive case theory.
Charley encourages those interested in a career in PI law to make sure their communication and listening skills are up to scratch: “There’s such variety in what we do as PI barristers – I could be speaking to an expert neurosurgeon one day and be in court with a six-year-old client the next. Being able to talk to everybody is vital.”
While PI law may not be “glamorous” in the early years, with minor road traffic accidents a junior barrister’s “bread and butter”, Charley says that those who stay the course are rewarded with huge variety: “If you are interested in people, science or medicine; if you are practical; and if you want plenty of experience in court on your feet as an advocate, then PI law really is a great choice.”