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Interview with Nicholas Yates, barrister

To start off, in honour of the late Cilla Black: what’s your name and where do you come from?

I was born in 1972 – I’m therefore 43. My name is Nicholas Yates. I’m a barrister. I grew up in Watford and then Pinner in North London. My father is an accountant, or was, he’s just retired; my mother was a physiotherapist. I have two sisters – one of which is older and one of which is younger. The interesting thing about my sister Lindsay is that she read law at Cambridge before I went there, and is now ordained; I read theology at Cambridge and am now a lawyer, so we swapped.

A nice bit of chiasmus you might say… And you have a wonderful middle name: Gilmore. Is that a family name?

It’s kind of a family name – it’s an abridged version of my mother’s maiden name which is Gallimore. I don’t know why they didn’t keep Gallimore.

Yes, Gallimore sounds quite chivalric…

I know, more ‘old English’.

Most of my childhood was taken up with music. As you know I do quite a lot of music still, but I sang as a treble in the local parish choir at Pinner Parish Church. And the remarkable thing about that place is that the choirmaster there, Michael Turvey, who taught me how to sing, has now done 54 years in the job, and he’s still going!

But that’s what most of my childhood was taken up with. I was a very late developer academically. I didn’t really shine until A Levels.

You’re the second barrister to say that, which is strange because I think there’s an idea that barristers are superhuman – because it’s so competitive – you have to be the best of the best. But clearly it didn’t do you a disservice. 

No. Well, as my sister was at Cambridge before me, I went up one day – I was later at Trinity, she was at Selwyn – I went up to sing in their end of term concert – this would have been about 1989, 1990. And I had such a wonderful day, I thought “I want THAT. That’s what I want to do.” So I thought “hmmm, I’d better actually start putting my house in order.” So I got the syllabus out for the A Levels I was doing, thought “Right, here we go, I’ve got eight months”, and just went hell for leather, and did it. But it was that, really, that spurred me on.

Was it the musical life that did it?

It wasn’t just that, it was the whole ambience. These are people who really know what they’re doing – they’re so intelligent, they’re just so on the ball – everything is done in such a perfect way. Well not everything, but that’s the impression you gain when you’re an impressionable sixteen, seventeen-year-old. And I just thought “this is what I want to do for three years, why not? This is absolutely marvellous.”

You say you studied theology? 

I did. I got a choral scholarship to Trinity because I sang in the choir and I studied theology. I absolutely loved it. We had to do New Testament Greek so we did languages, philosophy, history, religious studies…it was a very broad degree. It included studying things like Parsifal, Middlemarch, ‘In Memoriam’ by Tennyson; it wasn’t what you may perceive as a straight-laced syllabus. And I was fortunate to have a brilliant teacher called John Bowker, who’s still alive, who has written lots of books – most of which are incomprehensible, one of which is called Is God a Virus? – that was always a challenging one. He was just brilliant, and I’m still in touch with him. He encouraged me probably more musically than he did in terms of theology, but I just had a great three years there. And again, it was only for my finals that I decided I really had to try and work to make sure I got a 2.1!

Why did you end up converting to law? 

I thought about going into the church. And I think I made the very wise decision not to for various reasons. But I’ve always been quite good at – I wouldn’t say arguing – but explaining things to people, changing their view, persuading them, negotiating – and I just thought: “well, where does one use those skills the most?” At the Bar.

Or the pulpit. 

You’re absolutely right. And my sister, as I said, went to the Bar. She read law at Cambridge, went to the Bar, left the Bar and became ordained, and again I got a bit of insight into what happened here through speaking to her and thought “well I’ll give it a go”. I applied here – we were 1 Mitre Court buildings then, but we moved here ten years ago – they offered me a pupillage, I accepted and that was the end of it.

So it was always the Bar, you never considered being a solicitor? 

I never, ever wanted to be a solicitor. That sounds awful doesn’t it? But I just wasn’t attracted at that time to doing everything but the bits I wanted to do, which were the speaking, the persuading, the advocacy part. I still much prefer that part of it than reading through six files beforehand. It’s the bit in court I like doing. In fact, now I’ve seen so much of it, it’s something I probably would have quite happily done, but as a 21, 22-year-old, it didn’t have any attraction at all. I just wanted the glamorous bit as quickly as possible.

Do you think that you are fulfilling a performative role in your work? 

I think you do have to perform. Undoubtedly. Those who don’t are not as good, or are perceived not to be as good.

So you can’t just rely on intellect?

That is taken as read – you’ve got to have all those attributes, but you do have to perform…

To the gallery… 

To the gallery, to the clients, the solicitors. You’ve got to do it with a bit of panache. You’ve got to convince. You’ve got to impress upon people that it’s really important.

I remember Nicholas Wilson who’s in the Supreme Court saying to me when I was starting out: “You’ve got to make the tribunal you’re appearing in front of believe that that’s what you personally believe” – not “these are my instructions”. You’ve got to really give the impression that that’s what you would do.

Your speciality is complex matrimonial finance: lots of detail, lots to remember. How do you prepare for your cases, particularly if you’re going through a very busy period? 

I am ruthlessly organised. Both in terms of my personal diary, the way in which I organise my affairs, the way in which my room is so tidy as you will note now; I’m the tidiest member of chambers. I just have to be really, really well organised and that helps me. And I’m very hands-on with my diary in terms of its management. So, if something is in my diary and I don’t think I’ve got enough time to prepare I will say to the clerks or ring up the solicitor and say “Look, can we move it – I’m sorry, I want to make sure I’ve done it properly, I don’t want to squeeze it in.” That isn’t always easy, but I’ve always been someone who prepares very thoroughly, which means spending more time on the papers than I think a lot of people do. I go through it very forensically, and I make these documents as I go through, which are my master plan for the whole case. So when I go back to it I don’t have to reread all that detail, I’ve got most of it there. When I start a case I probably frontload a lot of the preparation and I spend a lot of time at the beginning going through it in some detail.

Do you ever get nervous when you’re actually doing the “glamorous” bit in court? 

I used to get nervous when I started off. But the only thing that makes me nervous is not the preparation because I’m always pretty well prepared. The thing that I find very difficult is when judges are rude and needlessly combative. That I really find hard.

Is that a common occurrence?

It’s becoming much less common. But when I started out it was more prevalent, and I think junior people used to get picked on a bit more. It is much rarer now but that’s the only thing that irks me still is the sudden rudeness from the bench, which does, sadly happen. And it’s a job! We’re all doing it; I just can’t understand why at the very least people can’t be civil and pleasant. And by far the majority are. But that has changed over the last ten years.

What’s the worst experience you’ve ever had? You don’t need to name any names… 

I should have known you were going to ask me that!

Yes, I can tell you the worst experience. When I was either at the end of my pupillage or the first few months of my tenancy I got given a case by the clerks – one clerk who’s no longer here – which was a criminal juvenile case. Now as you know, we do absolutely no crime here, we never have. How this case came to chambers and got through that net, I do not know to this day. I couldn’t return the case – I didn’t get it until six o’clock the night before – and I had to turn up at Turnham Green magistrate’s court to represent this juvenile on some assault charge. That was the worst experience of my life. I had to go down to the cells to meet him – that was a fairly unpleasant experience because I’d never done it before in pupillage, I’d never had any kind of experience of it before. I had to go into the cell and speak to him. I hadn’t really much idea what I was doing. I can’t even tell you now what happened in the end, I just can’t remember. But I do remember that being by far and away the worst experience, because I was completely at sea: I didn’t know really what was going on, I had no expectation of what was going to happen. Yes, I was metaphorically holding his hand, but it was that and no more. I think I told him he was likely to receive some kind of sentence; I think he did and he was expecting that. But it was a very unnerving experience.

When you were talking about “going down to the cells”, it made me think of episodes of Silk. Where do you stand on courtroom dramas? 

I used to like them. I used to really enjoy watching Rumpole before I came to the Bar, but only because it was just so well written and the acting was impeccable. But increasingly I don’t enjoy them. I watched a couple of episodes of Silk. Either it’s like watching someone in the office or it’s just so ridiculous a plot as to be unbelievable, and normally a mixture of both. Therefore, I don’t really enjoy watching them anymore. 

The great thing about Rumpole is that it was so funny, it was a whole caricature. The modern ones are a bit gritty, a bit too realistic. I mean, if you do that every day do you really want more of that in the evening? Not really. You want something entertaining and transporting.

Are you at a stage in your career where you can be quite balanced in terms of when you work and when you don’t and your interests outside chambers? 

I take decent holidays, I always have done. Some advice I was given when I started out actually: “it’s a hard job; we get great rewards, but it is a very demanding job and if you don’t take a decent amount of time off you can find it hard to keep going.” I mean there are people who take very little holiday, but that’s never been me. I take August off every year and I regularly take half terms off. I have three young children and they won’t be young forever. But I do take good holidays. I also do a lot of music in those as well, and that’s quite time-consuming.

Are you able to do that even when you are working?

Less so. I mean term time is so all-consuming, both in terms of family routine, three children at school and work here, it’s quite hard. I do, and we do concerts because my wife also sings – we sing in many of the same groups – but it is quite hard to do that very often doing term time.

You recently brought your daughters in to the Vardags offices to do ‘Fathers at Work’, where they get a peek into their parents’ day jobs. Did they enjoy the experience? 

I think they did actually. They especially enjoyed coming to Vardags! We went into the ballroom and you’d laid out lots of treats for them, and Georgina was there, and Cathy and Lois, and they just thought this was absolutely marvellous: only women apart from me, this wonderful room, things to eat; they could ask any questions and it was a really relaxed atmosphere. I think they found that quite impressive. Because we actually had been to another firm beforehand which was very traditional – very good – but this was something they weren’t expecting, that it could be this kind of alternative, relaxed, modern, cutting-edge… they thought that was very impressive.

They may not be old enough yet but do you know if they have any plans to follow you into the law? Did they come out of it saying “I might be a solicitor now, Dad?”

I think it’s quite possible that my middle daughter might, but they don’t know yet. It’s too early to tell.

Are any of them musical? 

Oh yes. Nine music lessons a week is what they have between them. My eldest is a very good trumpeter, she is 14. She’s a music scholar at Guildford, she plays the trumpet and the piano and she sings. My middle daughter, Beth, who is 13, plays the violin, the piano and sings very well. My youngest, who is eleven, Eve, she plays the bassoon – which is quite rare – the piano, the violin and she sings, though she’s about to give up the violin because it’s just going to be too much.

Music is obviously a very important part of your life and your family life. Do you have any great ambitions for your group, Voce? 

VOCE: Voices of Cambridge Ensemble, that’s what it stands for. We have a website which only went live this week!

We have about 25 people and at any one concert probably up to 20 will sing; it depends who’s available, who wants to, depending on where the concert is. We do about four or five concerts a year. But it is really a social thing as well as a musical thing, and because it’s a social thing based on those of us who were together at Trinity, everyone’s living in disparate places now. In fact, someone travels quite regularly from Edinburgh to come and sing. We only rehearse on the day of the concert. So everyone has to be – as we were at Trinity – very good sight-readers because we have to bang through all our music within about three hours.

Do you have a repertoire that you can draw on?

We do repeat stuff, of course we do, but even so that’s quite a tall order to get through a full concert in that time. So, the rehearsal is quite stressful sometimes!

You don’t make it easy for yourself.

We don’t make it easy. But when the concerts go well, it’s very, very enjoyable.

So as a musician, do you have any desert island discs?

I do, but I should have said when I left university, or just before I left, there was an all-male vocal ensemble called the Trin Men. It was always something that the men of the choir formed to do close harmony and sing at the balls and stuff. But we turned that into as proper all-male vocal ensemble of eight of us. And as you’ll remember Trinity was founded by Henry VIII, so we called it Henry’s Eight. And we recorded for Hyperion recordsand we travelled round the world: South Africa, Israel, Europe, and I came within a hair’s breadth of doing that professionally – well I did do it professionally for a number of years and we got paid very well. And I had to choose really between that and the Bar. And you can still see online – if you Google Henry’s Eight, Nicholas Yates or Hyperion you can see all the CDs that we did with Hyperion records.

It’s fairly esoteric Franco-Flemish Renaissance music. It’s pretty hardcore stuff. Think sandal wearers, long beards, that kind of thing. But some of the music is absolutely fantastic – not just what we did – but that type of music is just glorious. Composers like Nicolas Gombert – we did a couple of CDs of music by him, and we tried to do music that hadn’t really been recorded before, which was kind of the vogue thing to do then, and it was just glorious, we were doing music that really hadn’t ever been heard by many people for hundreds of years, and it was just glorious, bringing this old art back to people was a real privilege. It was absolutely fantastic.

But you still made the choice to turn to the law – by that stage had you converted to the law? 

When I was doing my conversion course at City University and then Bar school, I was kind of running two horses during those two years – I was doing all that and still doing Henry’s Eight and a lot of music – which actually was very time-consuming, and I had to make a decision when I was applying for pupillage whether I was going to do it seriously or not. The problem with the music industry is that you have to be exceptionally good if you want to have a decent income from it, and it has its huge downsides as well, and I thought “well, I’m going to give the Bar a go, because that’s really what I want to do, I want to do that advocacy”. And I suppose if I hadn’t got pupillage somewhere or I hadn’t been very good I might have carried on being a musician, but I got into one of the best sets and I didn’t look back.

And you can still do both…

And I can still do it pretty seriously!

Do you have any musical guilty pleasures? Having three daughters, do you secretly like Taylor Swift? 

One of the things I really like doing in the evenings and weekends is: I have this very decent stereo system, which I spent far too much money on, and I put on the Radio 3 high definition feed, open a bottle of wine and I’m absolutely set for the evening. I put it on far too loudly and the children complain, and it’s just marvellous, that’s probably my biggest guilty pleasure.

That’s quite a sophisticated guilty pleasure, that’s not what I would term an embarrassing guilty pleasure. But each to their own! Getting back to the law… 

Don’t you want my desert island discs?

Oh yes – you haven’t given me your desert island discs…fire away. 

It’s funny because most of my desert island discs are not the choral music that I sang and was brought up on, although I do treasure that enormously, I mean some of my favourite stuff I like singing is by Francis Poulenc, the French composer.

But probably: Sibelius’ violin concerto is at the top of my desert island discs, Bach: St John Passion, Christmas Oratorio, B Minor Mass, those hugely deep works, I just absolutely treasure, having sung them for years and years. But I increasingly like orchestral music: most things by Shostakovich – Shostakovich 10 for example – and Strauss opera.

If you could unilaterally enact one reform to family law, what would it be?

There were always two things that really bugged me. And they are being largely addressed. One always for years was ‘leave to remove’, when someone marries someone in this country – let’s say they’re American – they come here, they get married, they base their family here, they have children and then they get divorced and want to take their child back to their original country. There are cases where that is appropriate, but it always grated on me in all the cases that I did that the presumption was that yes, they should go back, and just completely ending in effect, any relationship the child had with the parent who remained here, normally the father. That I could never ever understand. And although it has changed to some degree, I think there should be a presumption against that, but we’re not there yet.

There was a judgment recently where the judge determined that we’re too reliant on Payne v Payne and that should be reviewed, so it probably will change. 

It probably will, and it has changed. Although we wouldn’t say it, it’s much, much harder now to get permission to remove a child from this jurisdiction permanently. But it’s not an area of law I do much of anymore; in fact, I haven’t done a case like that for a long, long time, I only do finance now.

Therefore, in terms of the financial arena: maintenance, I think, has been out of step with society – and I’ve lectured about this at our seminar a few years back – but again, the tide is starting to turn on that.

What aspect of maintenance – the quantum?

Duration and quantum – mainly duration. The way in which the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court have tended to deal with these issues has been some years behind what actually is happening in the Burton-on-Trent County Court! It’s true – it’s not a criticism, it’s just the way the system works. The disparity in the way in which the appeal courts will deal with this issue, and actually what happens on the ground in most of the county courts is just completely different.

But the tide is turning, I think there is now a presumption moving away from joint lives maintenance orders – what are rather unkindly referred to as “meal tickets for life”. It’s simply the point that with rights – women’s rights – come responsibilities, and I think a lot of women are unhappy about the way in which they are considered to be second-class citizens and have to be looked after, going forward. We are moving towards a better way of understanding how maintenance should be dealt with, but we’ve still got some way to go I think on that.

I wonder whether the change in parental leave laws might eventually alter that, because if you’ve got more scope for childcare to be more equally shared, then hopefully carers won’t need to be compensated for missing out on paid work.

Absolutely. I was reading somewhere in the paper about these new internet companies – Yahoo, that’s it – because the lady who is the managing director is having child. They now provide a year of leave, and I think it’s the case that either primary carer can elect. So that’s just unbelievable. OK, they are way out on a limb, but it is changing. And you’re right, families may decide that it perhaps shouldn’t be the mother who stays at home, it should be the father, and it’s all going to become very much more blurred. But even taking into account that we’re not there yet, I think the courts have just been too generous.

One of the things that I always found extraordinary, getting into the detail of it, is that when you have a joint lives maintenance order, the appeal courts have said the burden must be on the person paying to come back to justify a cessation of it. That I just find completely the wrong way round. And so that is still in need of further reform.

Do you have any predictions for how you think family law is going to evolve more generally?

Well I think that prenuptial agreements should become binding. They will, but having done a number of cases, I just cannot understand how courts can interfere with prenuptial agreements that have been entered into, with legal advice, between two adults, I just do not understand it; save in the most exceptional circumstances, which would apply in normal contractual law.

And then you’ve got Baroness Hale who’s so set against them…

I know. Well I’m afraid I think she’s wrong about that. But I find it insulting to people and of course it allows people to have the benefit of hindsight to go back on what they’ve agreed – that is just not fair. And I don’t think it’s a proper use of court intervention. So I feel very strongly about prenuptial agreements, and I think they will become binding as a matter of law in due course, it’s a question of when. Because the government has decided they’re not able to fund family law in the bespoke way that we have known it for the last twenty years, and that is going to be one of the ways of reducing the burden on the courts, by encouraging people to enter into these nuptial contracts, which will then govern outcome.

I believe we should even consider going further than that: I know we’re not a kind of European legal system, but perhaps there ought to be some type of entering into a property regime upon marriage which would save a huge number of arguments.

Like the French system.

Yes. Because basically the government won’t fund the bespoke system we’ve enjoyed for the last few decades. For that reason I think family law will become more clerical – it is already becoming more clerical – I mean child maintenance moved out of the court arena years ago. More will happen: the Central Family Court was overrun for years and they’ve simply now managed to reduce the number of cases coming into that court. But it hasn’t actually done anything to the problem, they’re just having to go to other courts around the country. So in reality, the system that was put into place with the 1973 Act s.25 really can’t be afforded anymore, and if you can’t afford proper consideration at a reasonable price, people are going to want some certainty of outcome and therefore there is going to be some formulaic outcome; I think it’s inevitable.

So it might change out of necessity rather than ideology. 

I think so.

Do you have any thoughts on extending legal rights to cohabitees? 

I think there needs to be more amalgamation between the two. I know some people who say that marriage should not be equated with cohabitation and vice versa, I understand that; but, I think it is becoming an iniquity that so many people are living as what they understand as common law husband and wife when in fact nothing like that exists. There needs to be some better system. Schedule 1 may need to become more generous, or there needs to be some other version, but there does need to be something done about this, it’s too unfair.

Do you have a favourite bit of legislation? It doesn’t have to be family law, it could be anything.

I love legislation that deals with equality, sex discrimination; that’s always the legislation that I have thought as being the most important. I can’t abide the prejudice and inequality that has been around for far too long. Even if you look at the age of consent only being lowered to sixteen for both heterosexual and homosexual couples in – when was it? – 2000, something like that? That’s very recent. So it’s all that kind of legislation that I think has been the most effective. I do think in family law the Children Act is a particularly good bit of legislation, but I don’t use it very much anymore.

What advice would you give to someone at school or university who is considering a career at the Bar or in law in general? 

It’s very hard, I think, for someone who’s an undergraduate somewhere to really know what it is like to be a lawyer, because it’s just very hard to know until you do it. I think to be a barrister, which I can really talk about, you’ve got to really want to get up in front of people and argue things. If that in any way frightens you, you’re going the wrong way. You’ve got to not be afraid of hard work, serious hard work, and be prepared to fail at things. It’s highly competitive and I think the bars to entry into this profession need to be broken down further instead of funding and outreach – we’re still not very good at that.

Do you think that’s got worse since you were doing pupillage? 

I don’t think it’s got any better; although pupillages are funded better, the costs of getting to that point are so much higher than they were when I did it, when in fact you didn’t have tuition fees and you used to get grants to go to university. The level of debt people actually have accrued to get to this point are vast, and are they going to take the risk of adding to that by not actually getting a training contract or a pupillage? And we have seen, I’m told, the number of applicants going down, and that must be the reason. It’s very sad; it’s becoming something available to the few rather than open to all, and I think that’s a great shame.

Do you agree, then, with the idea that the Bar is not as diverse as it could be?

It is not as diverse as it could be; it is more diverse than it was, but it was hardly diverse fifteen years ago, and it needs to do very much more. But it is largely things outside of its control, and it’s the level of debt that people now have when they actually come to the Bar stage.

And I imagine that must be harder for a pupil barrister because you’re self-employed? 

Correct. It’s much easier as a solicitor because the big firms often, I understand, pay your Legal Practice Course fees, and give you a grant. That, I don’t think happens at all at the Bar, or if it does only some of the big commercial sets; it’s very rare, so you take a huge risk. It’s a very complicated problem, but we do need to be better at dealing with that in the future.

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