The humanity of barristers: stories from the Bar

The humanity of barristers: stories from the Bar

The humanity of barristers: stories from the Bar

By Atalanta Goulandris

In this guest post Atalanta Goulandris, former barrister and PhD researcher at City University London, reflects on the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies’ contribution to the Being Human festival 2015: the Humanity of Lawyers, which gave an insight into barristers’ professional lives and an opportunity to engage with the practitioners and scholars who study them.

There are misconceived notions about the Bar and barristers: what they do, how they work and their professional interaction with solicitors and the public. The ‘humanity’ of barristers is not something that generally concerns people. That’s why it became the starting point for the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies’ (IALS) contribution to November’s Being Human festival.

While promoting the event – a follow up to the ‘Humanity of Judging’ at the Supreme Court – it was striking how many chuckled (or guffawed) at the notion that barristers have humanity! Common portrayals of barristers are of ‘fat cat lawyers’ or clever, slippery-tongued advocates who are cool and detached. These ignore the complexity of their role, the underpinning ethics and the difficult real-life situations in which they perform.

Many who attended our event in the Inner Temple, one of London’s four Inns of Court, confirmed it was their first visit and were astonished by the beauty of the buildings, the gardens and the interior of the magnificent Parliament chamber. If nothing else, the physical surroundings in which barristers work were revealed.

Joining us via video from the University of New South Wales, Dr Justine Rogers talked about the three months she spent shadowing pupil (trainee) barristers as part of her PhD research, which took an anthropological approach in considering their professional identity formation. Using examples, she charted the daily emotional challenges pupils and barristers face, whether it was being humiliated by a judge for getting something wrong, being shouted and spat at by an unhappy client or having to deploy strategic sympathy (sometimes real!) to a distressed client.

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Justine said the barristers she observed were generous with their time, witty and good company. And although they downplayed their ethical role as fearless, independent and honest advocates, these aspects of their professional life were a source of great pride.

Professor Andy Boon, City University London, gave a brief historical overview of lawyers and the rule of law, citing three aspects of a lawyer’s role: neutrality, partisanship and non-accountability. Focusing on two barristers, Thomas Erskine (1750-1823) who was accused of being ‘shameful’ by the Attorney General for defending Thomas Paine in his trial for seditious libel, and Henry Brougham (1778-1868) who, at great personal and professional risk, defended Queen Caroline against her husband, King George IV, he illustrated how essential it was for barristers to give every client their best shot. They can neither be morally judgemental about their clients, nor accountable for the consequences of their representation, however controversial that might be.

Both examples illustrated the importance of the rule of law, and the courage, integrity and humanity of the advocates who defended it in the past and continue to do so in the face of continuous challenges.

The audience then heard from the first of two barristersRobin Howard, of 1 Gray’s Inn Square chambers. ‘Are we human? I hope we are. Do we not bleed?’ he asked, before describing the context in which most barristers work, namely of representing clients in extremis. Whether it concerned their liberty, livelihood, home, family, possessions or health, more often than not by the time clients meet their barrister they are in trouble and the stakes are high. For him it is a privilege to be called upon in these circumstances to use his strength, effort and skills in acting for them.

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He agreed that to carry out his work professionally, some form of detachment or ‘carapace’ was necessary and that all barristers, whatever their practice, get asked: ‘How can you defend someone you know is guilty?’ Robin’s answer was you never know the client is guilty unless he/she tells you, and that the barrister’s opinion of innocence or guilt is irrelevant – every client has the right to a fair hearing. The real pressure, he said, comes from failing to secure the acquittal of someone he believes to be innocent. Those are the cases he feels bad about and remembers for years.

Mavis Maclean from the University of Oxford, spoke about her ten years of research, observing barristers, solicitors and judges in the family courts. One study involved shadowing family law barristers, during which she was taken aback by the negative view most civil servants and politicians held about lawyers generally and with regard to family lawyers. They perceived them to be profiting from taxpayers’ money (via legal aid, when available) by stirring things up between divorcing couples.

Her research found the opposite. Legal professionals did everything they could to diffuse the tense situations in family law cases to avoid contested court hearings. She was impressed by their delicacy, tact, respect and grace.

The last speaker, public law and human rights barrister Caolifhionn Gallagher, agreed that the public perception of barristers was mainly negative. Perhaps, she mused, this was because most people only come into contact with lawyers at ‘the worst time of their lives’, and resent needing them. In addition many don’t really understand what lawyers do, or appreciate the hours of work involved for what might seem a fairly short hearing. She felt, nonetheless, that many had had positive personal experiences with their own lawyer, despite the ‘pale, stale, male’ stereotype.

Although some form of emotional detachment was necessary professionally, Caolifhionn felt this should not prevent barristers from getting involved in causes and campaigning. And as long as she had done her job properly, she did not mind being ‘humiliated’ by a judge as Justine Rogers described – the only thing that really matters are the clients and acting in their best interest.


The Institute of Advanced Legal Studies is hosting a ‘humanity’ display at its 17 Russell Square address, which includes archival material from the Inner Temple Library; books, drawings of court scenes, and photographs of the 2014 strike by lawyers opposed to legal aid cuts.
Photos from ‘The humanity of lawyers‘ | Films from ‘The humanity of lawyers