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At the crossroads

Adam Chaffer | 01.09.2010

As a law student wishing to go on to practise law, Adam Chaffer had to choose whether to train as a barrister or solicitor.

Last year I wrote an article for the BSA website about starting university. Now a year later, my second year as a law student at Northumbria University is over and I have decided which route of the legal profession to follow.

After completing a law degree, students wishing to practise in law in England have a choice of becoming either a solicitor or a barrister. There is a different training route for each, so I had to choose which to go for. A barrister's role is more focussed on speaking in court. Solicitors are the people a client normally approaches for legal advice, and solicitors may instruct a barrister where appropriate.

When I started university I did not mind which route I followed. However, over the last two years I have been drawn increasingly towards practising as a barrister, and that is the option I have now decided on. In part the independent and self-employed nature of the bar attracted me. By the same token, I felt that my ability was suited more to being a barrister than a solicitor. Ideally I would like to practise in Civil and Family law, helping individuals, and especially those with disabilities.

Reading those last paragraphs makes the choice sound very simple but in reality it wasn't. It took time and was based not only on my own aspirations but on the advice and guidance of many other people. In particular, one factor I wanted to consider was whether my stammer would be a problem. Knowing that the decision would have an effect on my future I decided to take positive steps back in September last year.

Asking for views

My first port of call was my old sixth form college to talk to the careers advisors and law teachers who had advised me while I was there. As always it was an invaluable trip. They recommended that I contact a former college governor who had practised as a solicitor and now practised as a barrister. I wrote to him and he agreed to meet me at his chambers. There we discussed my career plans and why I had concerns of following the barrister's route. Looking back my main worry was that I would not be able to fully represent a client in court. He suggested that I do as much public speaking as possible through debating and 'mooting', which is a legal style of debating over a point of law. (In fact, the previous year I had started a public speaking group at my University, because it did not have one and I wanted somewhere to practise this.)

At university the message was much more mixed. One of my lecturers felt that I would make an excellent solicitor, and should follow that route. Another lecturer recommended that I consider becoming a solicitor and then transferring to the bar when I was older, an idea which was on my mind. However, I felt that I would not enjoy the solicitor route as much as the barrister route. A lecturer who teaches on the Bar Vocational Course who I had never met before formed the opinion that nothing was stopping me, that academically I had the potential and the CV was better than most fourth years - she went on to recommend that I contact the Inns of Court.

The Inns of Court are four societies which have the ability to call students to the bar. They provide dining facilities, accommodation and most importantly training for students and barristers. I have since joined Middle Temple but originally sought the advice of all four Inns. One of them put me in touch with a Clerk in the High Court who has a stammer. I spoke to her on the phone and she rightly pointed out that I shouldn't let my stammer deter me from what I wished to do with my life.

Taking the risk

One of the best pieces of advice came from a former student at my sixth form college who is now a solicitor in London: "so, my advice would be to take the risk and be a barrister, as it sounds as though this is your preferred route." This sticks in my mind out of all the advice I received, simply because it summed up my own decision in the end.

In January 2010 along with three friends from university I undertook some marshalling with a Judge at a local crown court. Marshalling is basically sitting on the bench next to the judge and observing the cases before discussing them with the judge. Before the court started, the judge spoke to us all. He was impressed that I was considering a career at the Bar especially when I had a stammer; he called it a "pioneering move" and fully endorsed it.

It isn't necessary to speak perfectly fluently to be a good advocate. It is much more important to communicate ideas clearly, to be persuasive and to be confident. These are the things a stammerer can do as well as anyone else.

There are two final sources of advice; I have saved these till the end because, though all the advice I received was valuable, these two pieces really helped me to finally reach my decision. The first comes from Charles Robinson, a former solicitor, who provided some extremely useful advice. Two pieces stand out: firstly, "It isn't necessary to speak perfectly fluently to be a good advocate. It is much more important to communicate ideas clearly, to be persuasive and to be confident. These are the things a stammerer can do as well as anyone else."

The second thing which Charles said and struck a chord was, "Whatever you end up doing, you'll need to be good at it and happy doing it. If you have the qualities you need to be a barrister, if you want to be a barrister, then you should work out how you as a stammerer, can be a barrister." Taking what Charles said on board, and with the encouragement of my parents and friends, I took part in the McGuire Programme in April 2010. This has radically improved my confidence in becoming a barrister. It has taught me a controlled and eloquent style of speaking, exactly what is needed as a barrister. Indeed flicking through the 'Devil's Advocate' by Iain Morley QC, a book of advocacy training, he inadvertently places great emphasis on the teachings of the programme; such as speaking from the lungs, slowly and with eye contact. All these are things which Morley suggests make a better barrister.

Family and friends

The second piece wasn't so much advice, more discussing the situation. Sometimes the best guidance comes from those who know you best. When I was considering my options I turned to my parents and my friends. They were all supportive in my plans, and I found that discussing it with them made it much easier.

So that is how I reached the decision to follow the barrister's route. Choices are never easy to make, but there are ways that making a career choice can be easier. The first piece of advice is really planning. When I look at the small mountain of papers and booklets about being a barrister, it makes me realise just how important the planning stage is. The more you know about the career, the better it is long term for you. This is even more crucial with the current state of the economy. Another thing which to me is crucial is speaking to people. Talk to people in the career, ask to shadow them. These people are the best ones to tell you about their job and it will provide a useful insight to what you will be doing one day in the future. Finally, and if there is only one thing which I hope you will take away from this article, then this should be it: If there is a career you want to follow and you have the ability to do it then simply go for it! I am and I can't wait to start.

From the Autumn 2010 issue of 'Speaking Out', pages 16-17