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My job explained: Criminal lawyer

female criminal lawyerSophie Shotton is a barrister specialising in criminal law. Cases she has worked on include sexual offences such as rape, dishonesty offences such as robbery, drug cases and violent crime.

What inspired you to study law?

I was always being told off for talking too much at school and I always liked arguing. It didn’t take me long to realise that getting paid for doing those things as a barrister would suit me perfectly! I also liked the idea of being involved in the process of justice and helping the individual against the weight of the state.

Criminal law was the only kind of law I really had any feeling for prior to studying law, mostly as a result of books and TV programmes. It’s very different in real life. I have never, for example, cross-examined a witness who has crumbled and said ‘Yes, you are right, I did it!’ like they do in television dramas. They also never show the hours of preparation, just the glory moments.

How long did it take to train and what did the training involve?

I spent four years doing my undergraduate degree in law because I studied for a year abroad. It was very hard work but it was good to get used to putting in a lot of hours since that is what life at the bar is like.

After a year at Bar School I spent 18 months as a pupil. You have to complete 12 months of pupillage before you are fully qualified but pupils in criminal chambers are often expected to do 18 months of pupillage before they are considered for tenancy. This is because chambers want to see how good you are in jury trials before they make a decision to take you on and normally you would not be instructed in such trials until after 12 months of pupillage.

Can you describe a typical working day?

Basically a criminal barrister spends most of the day in court. If it’s a large case then you might spend a few weeks in chambers pre-trial to prepare papers, but most of the time you will be cross examining witnesses and stating your case to the judge or jury. Then it is back to chambers in the evening to prepare cross-examinations and legal arguments for the next day at court and to write advices and have conferences in other cases that you have been instructed in.

What is the best thing about your job?

Appearing in court every day gives you a real adrenaline buzz. I love it. During a trial, you constantly have to think on your feet because the facts of a case can change very suddenly. You may only have a split second to decide whether to undertake a new line of questioning. I also love the fact that I have to try to persuade a tribunal to accept my interpretation of the facts or the law. It’s a wonderful feeling when you succeed and very addictive.

Have there been any challenges in getting to where you are now?

I came from a single parent family. My dad brought me up. We didn’t have much money and nobody in the family practiced law. When I was 15 my dad moved to Brazil and I was more or less living by myself and looking after the house. I worked through school and A levels and then got a full grant to study law at Cambridge. Whilst you are a student at Cambridge you are not allowed to take a job, which made me extra careful about money. One time I was invited to cocktail party that cost £5 to get in and when I told the organisers I couldn’t afford it they didn’t believe me! I was awarded various bursaries at university, and then I got a scholarship to pay for Bar School. During pupillage I was fortunate enough to get another scholarship that entitled me to live rent free in a flat for a year in Inner Temple, my Inn of Court.

What qualities and skills do you think are important for your role?

Integrity is the most important quality, followed by a combination of intellectual ability, advocacy skills, and the ability to work hard.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about following in your footsteps?

If you don’t like homework, this isn’t the job for you! You really must be prepared to work long hours, often at short notice which will mean cancelling pre-arranged social engagements and sometimes even holidays. You have to be incredibly dedicated.

Don’t be put off if you are from a low income background. There are a lot of opportunities for funding during Bar School and pupillage, although it’s often merit based. Scholarships generally go to the best candidates from any social background, so it’s really important to study hard during university and show commitment by doing mooting competitions and by organising work experience in chambers and legal firms.