Matthew Hardcastle

Kingsley Napley LLP

University: University of Hull
Degree: History

Criminal solicitors advise and appear in court on behalf of both accused persons and the prosecution, handling the full spectrum of offences, from minor motoring misdemeanours to more serious crimes, including murder. They deal with all aspects of the criminal justice system, from the initial police interview to trial before the court.

Despite being a history graduate, Matthew Hardcastle had always had an eye on a legal career – and in fact feels that his non-law background has enhanced his day-to-day lawyering: “I always had an interest in law but I enjoyed my time as a history student, particularly the research aspect of it. I found it an attractive prospect to spend my professional life in a job that would allow me to continue to use those skills; a career in law has allowed me to continue with a mix of research and practical application. I find that a history background has helped me to take a rounded approach to cases.”

The courtroom side of a barrister’s career initially appealed, but further research revealed that he was better suited to life as a solicitor: “Advocacy was something I was interested in, but after speaking to several people about which route to take, there was a consistent theme of the difficulties faced by junior members of the criminal Bar. I thought that the solicitor route offered more stability and, in some ways, a more traditional route to advocacy with a greater exposure to the magistrates’ courts at an early stage.”

Matthew joined TV Edwards, a large highstreet practice specialising in criminal defence, first as a paralegal and then as a trainee. “I absolutely loved it – Anthony Edwards, who was head of the firm, teaches other lawyers about criminal law, so the training I received was first rate,” Matthew recalls. “It was very hands-on experience, which you would expect in a publicly funded firm. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

After three years post-qualification at TV Edwards, Matthew moved to Kingsley Napley. He describes his current practice: “My work is split between white collar cases and more traditional criminal cases. There is a very supportive atmosphere at Kingsley Napley with the partners working very much as a team with their associates; this allows a good balance on every type of case.”

Part of what appeals to Matthew about his career is the variety afforded by a mix in type and size of work: “As a profession we get pushed more and more into specialising at a very early stage of our careers, but for me, I think the combination of large financial crime and general crime is a nice balance. Large matters can take on a life of their own and develop slowly, so they require a different approach. Having said that, underneath it all, it’s the same law and rules of evidence.”

“You can have a fantastic knowledge of the law, but if you can’t connect with your client then it will be very difficult to practise effectively”

Human beings on trial

Reflecting back on some of the most significant professional moments of his career, Matthew recalls a long-running case, acting for an individual “who was essentially in the wrong place at the wrong time”. He expands: “He had been very good at his job, without realising that his job involved working for a firm that was practising illegally. He had everything to lose and when the jury acquitted him, the relief for him and his family was palpable.”

The human element is one of the most satisfying aspects of the job, but also the one that requires a lot of skilled handling. “I meet people from varied backgrounds, who find themselves in need of advice for many different reasons,” explains Matthew. “But, if you are going to do the best job for your client then you have to understand their individual needs as well as the specifics of the case.”

He expands on the need for finely honed people skills: “You can have a fantastic knowledge of the law, but if you can’t connect with your client then it will be very difficult to practise effectively. You are often meeting them at the most stressful point in their life and you have to build a sufficient relationship so that they are able to trust your judgement – that includes when you give tough advice.” It also includes your perception of what the ‘best’ strategy would be: “You must always be alive to your client’s desired outcome as any disconnect can lead to a pyrrhic victory.”

Criminally underfunded

For Matthew, the consistent underfunding of the criminal justice system is one of the most troubling aspects of the job: “There is an extreme lack of funding at the moment and that causes systemic issues. Many good lawyers – be that for the prosecution or for the defence – are unable to progress a case in the way that they would want to because they have too much work and too little time. There is no certainty or stability in the system and a delay at any point can have a knock-on effect during the life of a case. That can be difficult to manage and I suspect it will only get worse.”

Some have suggested that the increasing digitalisation of criminal legal proceedings may help alleviate some of the problems of underfunding: “At some point, a decision will have to be made about how publicly funded work, and criminal justice as a whole, will be funded. Will there be a new approach or will there be sufficient savings derived from digitalisation to carry on in the same way?”

Getting work experience to learn more about the profession you hope to join is important, explains Matthew, but it needn’t be on a formal vacation scheme: “I got my training contract at TV Edwards, following work experience and a period paralegalling there. However, I had also walked around the area where I lived, clutching a copy of my CV, and knocking on the doors of local firms, hoping to get some experience. I managed to secure one day a week at a firm, which was invaluable in terms of what I learnt. People think that way of getting experience has gone out of fashion and it’s not for everybody – you have to have the spare time to do it for one thing – but especially in criminal law, you can learn so much from high-street experience.”

On that point, Matthew is keen to emphasise that career progression from trainee upwards is possible in the publicly funded side of the profession. “It’s a shame that some don’t consider the high street an entry point anymore because there is real expertise in the high street firms – some of the most remarkable lawyers I know are on the high street. And it is also possible to progress from the high street to the City, if that’s what you choose. Equally, I have seen first hand how consistently impressive the new qualified solicitors are at Kingsley Napley; their ability on qualification is a clear result of high-quality training they receive. Overall, the single most important factor is to ensure that you receive excellent training – it is what frames your career.”