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Interview with Charlotte Trace, junior barrister

3rd August 2015

Nice to have you back in the Vardags offices! Everyone missed you terribly. Did you enjoy your secondment here?

Yes I absolutely loved it; I found it very hard to leave!

You chose to extend it didnt you? Would you recommend the experience for other junior barristers?

I did. I ended up being here for almost three months. I loved it. Its a great team. I made really good friends and I was involved in very interesting work. I think its great for barristers, particularly young ones starting out because you get a real experience of what its like on the other side, and I think thats important. Youre then going to go through the rest of your career working with solicitors and you get much more of an idea of what they like and what they need and their role in the whole process. Luckily Id already been a paralegal for a year before I started my pupillage [at 29 Bedford Row] and I thought that really assisted me during my pupillage. Having done pupillage I think doing a secondment is invaluable and will really help, moving forward, in the early years of tenancy. I would definitely recommend it.

So thats the stage youre at now: youve secured tenancy?

I started tenancy in October . I started my pupillage the year before that, but I found out about tenancy in July and then started being an official tenant in October. But what happens is you start practising on your feet on your own from April, so you kind of feel like a tenant before you become officially a tenant from October.

Can you tell me about your background? Where are you from?

I was born in Hammersmith and I grew up in Kew, but I went away to school from the age of eight, boarding. I went to a school called Cottesmore in West Sussex and then to Uppingham School in Rutland. My parents moved to the Leicestershire countryside when I was about eighteen, just before I went to university, so thats where they now live and where home now feels like for me. From there I went to Cambridge University.

Yes I think we overlapped at Cambridge from 2006-2007…But you didnt go to Cambridge to study law but converted later. Did you know that you wanted to become a lawyer – or even a barrister – before you did your undergrad degree?

I wasnt sure what I wanted to do. At school I was obsessed with debating: I did loads of it, competitions and things for my school. I always knew I liked public speaking, and I thought about law but I wasnt decided, and as I thought there was a possibility of me going to Cambridge, I wanted to try and do something for the joy of studying it at somewhere like Cambridge. I didnt want necessarily to put myself down one particular route at that point because I wasnt sure. Theology was perfect because it involves a lot of disciplines that are in fact used in law – it involves argument, logic and analysis – and a lot of religious issues had come up in my debating experience, so its quite a natural step. It was whilst I was at university that I started to think about law more seriously. My dads a lawyer, so I was already aware of that world, and I started doing some work experience in my holidays.

I thought about teaching for a bit, and I taught at Cottesmore School during one of the university summers; but it was while I was doing law experience that I thought this is really for me. I really enjoyed it and I just didnt get the same buzz out of anything else. So then I decided to apply for a law conversion course after university had finished. But in the end I did it a year later: I took a gap year first and then I applied for law school in London.

It seems like you became quite focused quite quickly…

Yes, but it wasnt until the latter years of university. A lot of people decide much earlier than that. It was when I left university, in that gap year that I did the majority of my work experience in order to get into law school and then continued on from there.

How did you land upon family? Because its not something you study on the GDL is it so youre not necessarily exposed to it by default?

I wasnt sure which area of law I wanted to do, so I did experience in everything! It was when I was doing experience in family law that I realised it was for me, and it was quite quick while I was doing it because I was just much more interested in it. I really like the human aspect of it and you just dont get that in any of the other areas; perhaps in criminal law you do, but I wasnt attracted to criminal law. So once Id done one bit of experience in family law I then thought: I want to do some more, get more experience to see if this really is for me or if it was just one lucky week. It just embedded it even more. And then in my BPTC year I did a domestic violence option and a family law option which helped a lot because then I was actually studying it. Its a real shame that they dont do it during the GDL.

Ive heard a lot of people say this, and weve got lawyers here whove come from corporate backgrounds and many of them say that they wanted a more human aspect. But because it must be one of the most emotive areas of law, does that ever make it difficult to leave it behind at the end of the day?

I think you have to professionally detach yourself otherwise you cant do as good a job for your clients. And thats why were involved, to try and remove that element. I think sometimes therell be some cases that you feel more, naturally, because to be in this job you have to care to a degree. So there are some where I have felt it more and I have taken it home more than I perhaps should. But I think in a way that just shows that I do care about my job; I think if you never took it home, then it would be quite cold and I dont think youd give the same to you clients. At the same time, if you took it home all the time it would be very dangerous. So, I think there is an element of that because youre seeing people at the more difficult parts of their lives, but Im always professionally detached while Im with my clients.

You say you always like public speaking. When I interviewed Matthew Brunsdon Tully I asked him firstly whether he thought that being a barrister is like being an orator or whether there is a performative aspect to it. He thought not and he doesnt like public speaking, but that being in court was fine because its more intimate than public speaking. How do you feel about this? Is speaking in court performative or more like a private chat?

I think its a very different skill. I dont think its exactly the same as being a debater. But I think being natural on your feet helps in both types. In debating you have to be able to respond to the other side saying certain things, you need to be able to rebut on your feet and you need to be able to think quickly, and I think those are skills that directly translate into being a barrister because the judge is going to ask you questions and you cant just read off a spiel of something; you have to be able to respond quickly on your feet; and that kind of pressure, and whether you enjoy that, I think directly translates to the role of a barrister.

Do you find it stressful?

Not particularly. Its strange, when I first started being in court I was nervous, and there are still some applications or some areas where its newer to me where I do get nervous, but I think that keeps the adrenaline going and actually, if you werent a bit nervous you maybe wouldnt do the best job because it pushes you to prep the hardest and to be as prepared as possible.

Going back to your earlier question I agree with Matthew, particularly when youre not in the High Court, when youre in the courts around London, it is more of an intimate process. It is often just you and your client and the judge and then the other side and their representation in court, and its much more of a conversation rather than a big debating display and a show. But I still do think that there are elements that cross over from the love of debating.

I suppose the performative aspect is more if youve got a jury to play to in a criminal case rather than family…

Exactly.

So preparation is key. How do you prepare for a case?

I get my papers and I always read my brief as soon as they come in even if Im not necessarily going to prepare that case that day because it may be that I then need to plan the rest of my time in accordance with what my briefs requiring me to do. Then when Ive got the time to prepare the actual case Ill sit down, read the whole of it cover to cover and flag up important parts of it and write notes that just come to mind whilst Im reading and thinking. I will initially email or call my solicitor to acknowledge receipt of the papers and to ask any questions that have arisen from the papers or ask for any documents that arent in there. Then I will write my Note and prepare a draft Order because that really helps formulate your ideas and makes your argument succinct. Obviously youve got to comply with the practice direction and get the note off in time anyway. By that stage I feel prepared, I feel like Ive got the case. Sometimes Ill have to have a conference with the client or speak to the solicitor more and further updating will come. Then Ill turn up at court beforehand to have a conference with my client, deal with anything arising out of that, and then do the hearing.

What do you think are the most important qualities for life at the bar? Both for doing the job and for getting in?

For doing the job I think you have to be organised. Because you may find out youve got a case then next day and suddenly get papers at 5pm, and you need to have been prepared in order to then deal with that. Or, you might get three hearings in three days and you need to be able to organise when youre going to do the preparation for each of those and how youre going to manage your time, because time management is definitely quite key.

I think youve got to be confident because youve got a lot of time when youre alone, actually, particularly as a young barrister because solicitors dont tend to come with you as often, so you have to quickly get the trust of your client and also, obviously, be able to persuade judges and deal with everything on your feet in court. I think youve got to be hardworking and disciplined because you do have to make sure you know the detail, you do need to make sure you read all the papers, you do need to make sure youre on top of things; you cant be lazy.

And I think, particularly in family law youve got to be personable. Youve got to be able to get on well with solicitors and get on well with clients and be able to do that whilst also dealing with the legal aspects of the case. Especially is this so because you are dealing with people who are struggling, and often I have clients who get very upset or who are very angry and you need to be able to help them cut through that to get to a sensible solution.

So in many respects youve got to be a people person, but youve also got to be quite happy with your own company and be able to organise your own time?

Yes, which is interesting actually: youve got to be able to get on with a lot of people but also be able to be on your own a lot.

Because youre self-employed.

Exactly. The self-employed element is something that I think you have to be prepared for. It offers great things in that you can potentially leave at 3pm if your case has finished that day, but it also means that you have to manage everything that youre doing and often youll get up in the morning, go somewhere like Watford, go to court, then come back and sit in your room, prepare for the next case and not necessarily have that much engagement with other barristers. I do try and have quite a lot of communication with my solicitors because the solicitors have had the client with them for a much longer period of time and they know things that they can help impart to you. And although often you get a very good brief and you get the necessary papers, having a conversation is that extra help for moving forward with the case.

In terms of travel: I have an idea of barristers sometimes having to hop on a train at a moments notice. Is that an accurate description of what its like sometimes? Or more at the beginning?

I would say probably more at the beginning; I cant know exactly because I am at the beginning so thats my experience. Its never: get on a train immediately, but it can be: get on a train at 9am tomorrow morning and youve got the papers this evening. So you do have to be prepared to travel around, but I really like that aspect of it. Ive seen parts of the UK that I dont know, and thats quite exciting. I dont mind travelling. As people get more senior they tend to do a bit more London-based work, well in my chambers particularly, much more in the Central Family Court and in the High Court, but I like the variety.

Have you been anywhere really unusual? Anywhere that surprised you?

Bournemouth for 9am is quite a struggle because its a really difficult train line! It takes over two hours. I think thats the furthest that Ive been on an early morning.

Have you ever had a dressing down from a judge or a negative or embarrassing court experience?

I actually havent had an embarrassing thing happen in court yet. Everyone seems to have some awful war story, so Im sure that mine will come at some point.

Its to your credit that so far nothings gone wrong…

Maybe I have been lucky, Im not sure. Im trying to think if anything really bad. No, nothing embarrassing has happened yet, so thats quite lucky. I remember when I was doing pupillage at 29 Bedford Row right at the beginning and I was nervous about being on my feet for the first time in April and when I spoke to barristers in my chambers lots of them said: I had this nightmare, or this happened to me and I found their honesty very refreshing because of course its never going to be smooth sailing forever. Its important to remember that, and its important to know that you should prepare your case fully and you should do absolutely the best that you can. But it is a case that youre working with and you can only be as good as your case is, in a sense. It was refreshing to hear that from people rather than people just saying: its all smooth sailing and its all so easy.

Are you a fan of courtroom dramas or legal dramas? Or are you somebody wholl shout at the screen?

Oh no, Im a big fan of courtroom dramas! Ill never shout at them because you know theyre just TV. I really liked Silk when it was on.

Of course. Maxine Peake is amazing.

Yes, Maxine Peake, thats it. And I like Suits, as well, but thats American so its very far away from what life at the Bar here is like. I actually dont watch The Good Wife. I hear its amazing. Actually Silk helped a lot of my friends understand what I was doing last year because a lot of people dont really know what pupillage is, and I remember when Silk was on a lot of people asked me: is your life really like that? And actually, people get to know the terms like tenancy and pupillage a little bit more because its been televised.

Did you find it fairly realistic or is there a lot of licence?

Oh theres a lot of licence. Theres all sorts of corruption and drama going on in the TV shows!

Do you find it easy to maintain a work/life balance? Do you get a chance to switch off?

At the moment Im at the early stages and I really want to push with this career. I really want to do well and I want to take on as much work as possible; I want to meet lots of solicitors and get lots of experience. So, probably Im a little bit more on the work side than I am on the life side in terms of my balance right now, but I do think its very important to have a work/life balance and I do very much try to stop and cut off, because I think I do a better job if I do have times like that. What you have to do is just ride the wave. I have found that there are very busy weeks, and then there are slightly calmer weeks, and you just have not to worry when theres a slightly calmer week and enjoy that time, and then work hard during the very busy periods. Because often youll hear barristers say that either their diary is too empty and they feel theyre not busy enough, or theyre too busy and they wish it was empty; its always easy to see the other side, so its best to try and appreciate it when its not as busy and take a break so that youre ready then for the next peak thats coming.

If you could unilaterally enact one reform in family law, what would it be? I find that lots of family lawyers have certain things that are real bugbears; do you have any?

Thats really difficult. I dont have one particular bugbear. I think at the moment weve got too many litigants in person because of the fact that legal aid has gone to such an extent and its a real problem. Sometimes Im up against litigants in person and the process is much slower, so actually, rather than saving costs, its making it far more difficult and cramming up the court system and probably costing more money in the end. When youre against a litigant in person you have a duty to the court and you obviously have to be very careful in the way that youre communicating with them because theyre not represented. You cant, in the same way, get to the bottom of something or try to reach agreement as you can with counsel. Obviously you can try and reach agreement but you have to make sure that theyre under no pressure to do so and that they fully understand the process. Whereas with counsel you can say, look were saying this, youre saying this and cut through the emotion, you cant quite do that when youve got a litigant in person. So if there was any way to change that…

Basically, the legal aid cuts have completely ruined everything…

Yes, its really unfortunate, because it means also that the people who are just able to pay privately, their system is also clogged up. And its also affecting them. So I dont think its saving costs or anything; its just making everything worse.

Its a false economy?

Yes, its also just so difficult for litigants in person. You know, court is quite a scary process for litigants in person, its not simple enough yet, its not easy enough for them to work their way through, I dont think. Obviously I always make sure that the litigant in person against me fully understands whats going on. But its a scary place and we should have much more support for them. So Id say thats probably the most important.

When you were applying for pupillage can you remember any of the things you were asked in your interviews or what that was like?

Each place is very different in what they ask. Which is very interesting, because you do get to know a chambers through the interview process and what they ask, I think. Quite a few of them gave you a problem question; you might get a case study or something that you would then need to discuss. I suppose that doesnt really help because youll just get the case when you turn up! Im trying to think about questions. They asked things like: what experience have you done? why family law? why us? why you?

It wasnt really my experience that they were out to get you in the pupillage interviews, and I think in my interview with 29 Bedford Row, I felt most comfortable with them and I felt most engaged and engaging, and I think its because there is an element of being a certain fit with a place, as there is with all jobs.

I do think that doing experience in family chambers is really important. Everybody knows youve got to do mini pupillages, but I do think you cant really know what a place is really like unless youre in that chambers and you can see what day to day life is like. I didnt do a mini pupillage at 29 Bedford Row, I did some at different family sets, so it doesnt stop you getting in if you dont do a mini pupillage at that particular place, but being able to say that youve followed a barrister around and really seen what their day to day life is like I think is very helpful.

Is there anything else that you would recommend for people who want to get into the profession? What should they be doing if theyre at school or university?

Mini pupillages are really important, or vacation schemes if youre wanting to be a solicitor. It should happen naturally because you want to go into it, but there are lots of different, new things going on about family law in the news, and I do think its important to be on top of that; be interested in it and be reading about it.

I would advise you to just keep going, to just keep pushing, because it is really hard to get there. I made the decision to be a barrister about five years ago and Ive just got tenancy in October . And I faced a lot of rejection on the way. I applied during my GDL year and I didnt get in and then I applied during my BPTC and I did get in. After a year of applying and not getting anywhere, some people would give up and do something else, but I do have friends whove got in fifth year trying. People do keep going. I just think if you are applying a second time then you need to make yourself better than you were before.

Being a paralegal was really helpful to me and made pupillage easier because it meant that I was already in that world before I started. I was working as a paralegal when I got my pupillage at 29 Bedford Row. I would advise a lot of people to try and do that as well if they can; I know a lot of people at Vardags were paralegals and then thought about training to be solicitors or barristers. I would just say persevere and keep going and dont take a rejection as youre not good enough because its just not the case. There are so many excellent people, who might not get there and it doesnt mean theyre not excellent. There is, as with everything, an element of luck as well, and I think you just need to make sure youre doing all you can in terms of experience and reading around and obviously doing well in your exams.

But also, especially if youre doing something like family law, it is important to also have a life and be an interesting person. I do think thats important. There are some people who are so narrow-minded to pursuing a career in law that it can be all their life is about and – well thats a sadness anyway – but I do think particularly when you are having to engage with all sorts of people all the time, I do think you need to have an element of a life behind you too. I went travelling before I started the GDL – I backpacked across South America – and Im so glad that I took the time to do that. I dont think thats a waste because I wasnt pursuing law in that little bit of time; I think that helped me because Ive seen more of the world.

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