Learning to Read

I was born in early 1960, a child of that optimistic decade by a handful of weeks. I learned to read early and was a bookish child, living in imaginary worlds remote from the ordinary suburban house in south-west London where my brother and I grew up. My first literary world was that of the Greek gods, as re-told by Roger Lancelyn Greene, followed by the Railway Children and E Nesbit’s other stories; Narnia, although tainted with the dejection of discovering at the end that it was a religious allegory, and specifically a Christian allegory; Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe books, written in her ancient Fenland manor house and describing the adventures of a solitary boy who befriends the children of the house as they come to life from a 17th century portrait, and many others. The Lord of the Rings, which, like many, I now disdain as interminable Elvish self-indulgence, beguiled my convalescence from appendicitis. I remember my mother reading The Wind in the Willows to us as small children, stumbling over the chapter heading Dulce Domum, as much because she was unfamiliar with the Latin as she was with the entire world from which the story came, a world of whimsical reverse anthropomorphism of various types of Edwardian men of the leisured classes into creatures of the English countryside. She herself had been born in Prague in 1924 and left without her parents, as a young Jewish refugee after its occupation by Germany in 1939, first for Denmark, then Sweden, and eventually, after tortuous correspondence with the Home Office, to England in 1946. English was the fifth language she had learned to speak and write.

Later, the Brontes and the vivid imaginary worlds into which they escaped from their childhood in Haworth seized mine. On one happy Friday afternoon at school in my mid-teens I found an abandoned copy of Sons and Lovers in the changing room at the sports field, and spent the afternoon peacefully ‘keeping’ goal in a largely unsupervised lacrosse game played with other hopeless rejects from the first team, reading it undisturbed. By the time I left for university I was deeply immersed in Dickens, walking in the footsteps of his characters and imagining the river, streets and buildings of mid-19C London as if I could see them as he had done. And as a young child I wrote poetry, composed as I walked around the suburban streets with my father when he came home from his office in inner London.

The houses and street names of the hills of south-west London: Richmond, Kingston, and Wimbledon, where we lived, defined the place and reflected the imagination of those who built them. At the top of the hill, the ancient place-words of Warren, Coombe, and Chase survived in private roads of grassy verges and gated mansions. Downhill in New Malden on the steep escarpment of Kingston Hill were 1930s suburban streets, although few were called “Road” or “Street”, but the pointedly less urban “Avenue”, “Drive” and “Way”. These were built by someone with an affinity with Derbyshire, from where their names: Cromford, Buxton, Matlock, Darley, all came. South of the stations in New Malden, Raynes Park and Wimbledon, where even in the early 1960s a few steam trains still ran along the line into Waterloo, the streets were Victorian, memorialising figures of the age such as Gladstone, Palmerston and Russell in terraces of red brick. Decades later, in Lincoln’s Inn, I was sent some instructions to advise about an employees’ benefit trust connected with one of the small local department stores I’d often visited as a child. Within a moment of reading the instructions I felt as if I was back there with my mother, a little girl shopping for felt squares for kindergarten handicrafts in the haberdashery department, or for a school blazer and velour hat for my first day at Wimbledon High School in 1965. As I wrote my opinion I imagined a singular form of impostor syndrome, that I would be asked to advise in conference in the directors’ panelled room, but be unable to pretend to be anything other than a little girl from 1960s New Malden.

In 1970, when I was 10, I won a prize in a poetry competition in the ‘Young Observer’ pages of the Observer magazine. The prize-winners had tea with the Poet Laureate, Cecil Day-Lewis, and I still have the black and white photograph of us taken by the Observer’s photographer: two bright eyed boys, a small me with a fiercely intense gaze, wearing a Marks and Spencer child’s dress and NHS glasses, and three tall, beautiful adolescent girls, all of us grouped around an old man with an open smile and penetrating gaze, sitting in a carved chair. The other prize-winners had written far more impressive and grown-up poems than me — one, a professor’s son, had imagined thoughts of the emperor Claudius, and another winner, absent as it was too far for her to travel from Northern Ireland, had written about the Troubles in Belfast. Mine was a childish verse about the stuffed whale and dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum coming to life and enjoying a midnight party after all the visitors had gone.

Tea with Cecil Day-Lewis, the thenPoet Laureate, in early 1971

It was the ‘Young Observer’ that introduced me to the idea of being a barrister, when I was about 13. I remember reading a page describing a barrister’s work, probably a typical day in a criminal court of its time, and thinking this was something I’d like to do when I grew up, and it stayed in the back of my mind from then onwards. But in the early 1970s there were few women barristers and I quickly learned that family connections seemed necessary even to attempt to set foot in the Inns of Court in search of a pupillage. We had no family connections of any kind with the law that I was aware of. My paternal great-grandfather, born in 1862, had come to England as a young man in the late 19C, together with five brothers, from a place that was then in Russia but is now in Poland, escaping the oppression of the Jews by Tsar Alexander III. He was naturalised in 1903, and spent the rest of his life in Stoke-on-Trent, living at first in great poverty, as most migrants do, and working as a picture-frame maker and small shopkeeper in Hanley. His oldest son, my paternal grandfather, would have liked to train as a doctor, but lack of funds and connections appear to have precluded that. He became a pharmacist, and settled in Crosby, a suburb of Liverpool, where he worked as a retail pharmacist with his own shop until he retired. My father, his oldest son, was the first generation of his family to go to university. In the 1930s a shopkeeper could afford to send his sons to a provincial public school like Merchant Taylor’s, Crosby, where my father did well academically, and gained a place to read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Compulsory national service intervened, as he left school in 1943, during the Second World War. He served in the Navy as a wireless telegraphist, learning to decode Japanese Morse, and by the time he was free to take up his place at Cambridge, had decided to read economics instead. A short period of work experience in a solicitor’s firm in Liverpool, which he found extremely dull, also influenced his decision. He had a long career as a business economist, mostly working for a multi-national industrial gases company — one of the surviving British institutions of a post-Imperial world. In his last years there in the 1970s he worked closely with lawyers in the USA, as the company was subject to an American reverse takeover bid, and he found the anti-trust litigation that ensued absorbing, and might, with hindsight, have pursued a career in competition law.

My grandfather’s shop in Queen’s Road, Crosby, Liverpool, early 1930s, probably my father as a boy outside it

My mother, as I have mentioned, was a first-generation refugee from Nazi Europe. During the war her education had been abandoned and she had worked in childcare for one of the Danish farming families who had taken in her small group of refugees, and then in Sweden as a nurse. In Prague she had been a studious only child, and, like my paternal grandfather, had wanted to be a doctor. Her lost years of secondary education made this impossible, as was nursing training at an English hospital, although this may have had more to do with a lack of English roots or social class than formal education. Her father had somehow survived the war and settled first in London and then in Ulster to work in the textile industry, where she joined him and studied English in order to take an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Queen’s University, Belfast, before moving, eventually to London. She worked as an industrial chemist, and then as a chemistry teacher, breaking off for some years when my brother and I were young.

Prague 9 October 1939 — a drawing of the Charles Bridge and Hradcany (Prague castle) made by the leader of the youth group with which my mother left Prague for Denmark as a refugee, aged 15, on 9 October 1939

Unsurprisingly, given the transforming role it had played in their lives, both my parents valued education above virtually all else. They were uninterested in and largely oblivious to any other form of social elitism, but chose that both my brother and I should be educated at independent selective day schools in London. Apart from our cat, homework was our only household god. It’s only in relatively recent years that I’ve become aware, or been reminded, that a rigorous academic education for girls, following the same traditional curriculum as boys in similar schools, was not by any means expected for or offered to all girls in the 1960s and early 1970s. In between a little childish needlework at the age of 6 or 7 and some voluntary shorthand & typing lessons as “light relief” in the post-A level term preparing for the Oxbridge entrance exam, I did not have a single school lesson intended to prepare me for a future as a housewife or mother, or to equip me with any kind of finishing school or secretarial skills. It was expected of virtually all of us at my secondary school, St Paul’s Girls’ School, that we would go on to good universities and pursue serious careers if we wished to, as many of our predecessors had done ever since the school was founded in 1904. During the mid-1970s the now absurd-sounding debate about admission of women to traditional men’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge was at its height, and a number of girls from St Paul’s went to the newly co-educational colleges as they started to admit women, as I did myself. The phrase “girly swot”, first used as a political barb between men, and then appropriated with pride by Baroness Hale and other Cambridge-educated women lawyers of approximately the same generation revealed a simple truth: that girls did have to work harder to compete on a privileged playing field to which they did not have level access.

From Learning to Earning

Glanville Williams’s “Learning the Law” 1974 edition, with its reference to a woman’s “trouble”, an unfortunate echo of a widely-used euphemism for an unmarried young woman or teenage girl’s unintended pregnancy

By the time of choosing A level subjects and later, university admissions, I was absorbed above all by English literature, history, classics and modern languages, and didn’t then see myself becoming a lawyer or studying law. My first contact with law inside a court room was a trip to the Old Bailey as one of the activities arranged to fill the time between O levels and the end of school term, in the famously hot summer of 1976. We sat in the public gallery and watched some of the trial of John Stonehouse, a great cause celebre of the mid-1970s. Stonehouse was an MP who had staged his own disappearance, leaving his clothes on a beach in Miami to make people believe that he had been eaten by a shark, whilst in reality he had gone to start a new life in Australia with his mistress. He was discovered (the police were also looking for Lord Lucan, who had disappeared at around the same time) and arrested and tried for fraud and related offences, for which he was eventually convicted. He conducted his own defence, and it was both striking and puzzling to sit in the public gallery looking down on this notorious but diminished figure talking about himself in the third person. But otherwise the trial was only interesting as momentary theatre and escape from the relentless heat of the City, not as a formative moment in a vocation.

Even in the mid-1970s, a time of great economic upheaval and very high income taxation, many of the girls I was at school with came from far more wealthy, worldly and well-connected families than I’d met before. They weren’t so much titled or ‘old money’ families, as bourgeois bohemians — people who wrote or painted or conducted music for a living, and lived in large but slightly shabby houses in the sort of London postcodes that only foreign wealth can now afford, houses that might have a portrait of a grandmother painted by a society artist hanging on the wall, but none of the shiny modern fittings of many expensive houses now. There were other parents who had been very successful in their lives in various fields, including some distinguished lawyers — not that I took the slightest cognisance of that or explored any possible connection with any of them at the time. My parents were suburban intellectuals, a different species from the bourgeois bohemians or the politicians and journalists and lawyers, and their circumstances, although perfectly comfortable, modest and frugal by comparison to many of my friends. I was embarrassed to remember this when, many years later, I first dealt with a Court of Protection case involving a family whose older generation were Windrush arrivals from the Caribbean (I have met many more, since then, as some of that generation have died, leaving inheritance disputes to be resolved by successive and scattered generations of their families). The matriarch who came to court sat dignified in her Sunday best and hat, as her children, about my age, described the extreme poverty in which they had lived, in West Kensington, a few streets away from where I had been at school, at about the time I was there. Their rented home had had broken windows and no heating, and there were usually not enough pairs of shoes for all of the children to go to school every day. I was ashamed to reflect how entirely unconscious I had been of this harsh and different world, so close at hand at the time.

I left school in 1978 and in 1979 I went to Cambridge to read English. At the end of my second year in 1981, I thought quite seriously about switching to law between Part I and Part II in my third year. I decided not to, partly out of laziness, having been told I’d have to work hard yet expect to drop a grade in final exams, but mostly out of lack of commitment either to studying law with a view to a career in law, or to my fellow-students. I did have friends who were studying law, and had talked to them about it a bit. But when they showed me a supervision or exam topic — of causation and remoteness of damage in tort law, as they would have recognised it — I could only think of irrelevancies such as the colour of the trousers the hapless pedestrian was wearing when he was run over by a milk float, or dwell on the facts with a novel-reader’s impulse to change or unravel them. And I was less engaged by the lawyers at my college as a group than I was by the English students, some of whom are still close friends. On my very first evening of my first year at Cambridge I had found myself sitting next to some third year law students at Emmanuel. All hard-working and ambitious, their conversation was entirely focused on the pressures of the forthcoming year, and the timetable in which the prestigious City law firms would send out their offers of articled clerkships (training contracts). All had a sense of focused certainty about their future lives, for many of them entirely fulfilled. Some of the others in my year were not aiming for the City but came from legal families in provincial towns and cities and were equally certain of their future in their family’s firm. In some ways I envied their certainty, but was more inclined to run away from it.

At the time, I wanted to be a journalist, and was very involved with student journalism, and although not politically active, a close spectator of student politics. Looking back, our activities were absurdly anachronistic. They were focused on an imitated, and then overwhelmingly masculine world, a Fleet Street of printers’ ink and pubs that was already dying, but which some of the student journalists aspired to join. Some others, like the student lawyers, had a sense of certainty of destiny, which for them began with the BBC’s graduate training scheme and continued with staying there for life, setting the national news agenda, or pursuing a mission civilisatrice of documentaries and culture programmes. At Cambridge, our Thursday nights and the small hours of Friday were spent in a cold basement room lit by a bare light bulb, “pasting up” (preparing the pages for printing) the student newspaper, Stop Press, using manual typewriters, Letraset dry transfer text and cow gum — whilst in the real world, media and broadcasting were changing out of all recognition. “Eggcup House”, the post-modernist home of the new breakfast TV channel TV-AM in Camden, was hurtling towards its launch in early 1983, at the very beginning of the era of daytime and multi-channel broadcasting, but I don’t remember even considering sending a CV there.

I didn’t succeed in reaching either Fleet Street or the BBC, and left Cambridge in a directionless limbo, not knowing what to do next. My English student friends had variously dispersed to accountancy training, postgraduate study in the USA, and to a journey to Nepal by tandem to live there and do aid work in a remote village. My final year had been disappointing, and I regretted my choice to do English Part II. I was left cold by some of the intellectual fashions in literary theory of the time, particularly structuralism, and although I’d read a lot in a superficial way, I was distracted by my many extra-curricular interests and social life, and unprepared for the depth and maturity of thought that the traditional core papers of Part II English demanded.

I came back to London determined not to be dependent on my parents, and did secretarial work until I found a better job. I’d learnt to type, originally on a manual typewriter, in pursuit of my journalistic ambitions, had typed both of my undergraduate dissertations at my parents’ house with a great deal of sotto voce swearing and Tippex correcting fluid, and had done a lot of temporary secretarial work in the university holidays. But I had no desire to carry on doing it, or even to see it as a way in to a better job in publishing or broadcasting — a step that was often recommended to young women then, when there were endless jobs available for girls who could type fast enough, advertised in language which might astonish young women now. Whilst I had been at Cambridge, the revolution in computing that took data processing out of vast mainframe computer suites manned by acolytes with punched cards or bulky reels of tape, and onto the desktop had been happening. I had looked down my Paradise Lost-reading nose at my contemporaries (all men) who studied engineering and who spent hours in the college bar playing Space Invaders, then a novelty, but they had a far better grasp of the zeitgeist than I did. Many of them stayed in Cambridge and worked for or set up new technology companies, some so successful that they could buy the college an entire new bar and have it named after themselves if they wanted to.

More by drift than by design, I ended up working in the computer industry as well, not doing anything technically skilled with hardware or software, but writing and editing manuals for people who were using computers in their work, often for the first time. It seems extraordinarily archaic to look back to a time in the early 1980s when even the office desktop personal computer was a novelty — a squat beige box with a monochrome screen and programs operated by text commands, without either Windows or graphics. Early home or mobile computers and mobile phones were expensive and primitive, and email and internet were essentially non-existent. Between 1983 and starting to study law in 1988 I mostly worked for two companies: firstly, one which was small, modern and youthful and which provided data services to the advertising industry, and then one which was a subsidiary of the National Westminster Bank, and had a completely different culture, much closer to that of traditional retail banking than of Silicon Valley. There were no women in management at this company, or in programming, which was the most highly skilled and vital part of its work. I worked in a small marketing and public relations department with three men and a bashful young woman assistant who was forever apologising for some mistake she imagined she’d made. All of the men were middle-aged, wore dark suits and white shirts buttoned from neck to wrist, and had previously worked for the bank. One of them had a job that was a sort of semi-retirement sinecure and consisted of no more than arranging and hosting golf days for the bank’s managers, to promote the computer company’s services. He drove in from the suburbs every day in his company car, his bottom warmed by a rug which his wife dutifully heated on the radiator for him before he left for work. This was very different from the first company I had worked for, which had a woman director whose partner owned a fashionable restaurant, and several other youngish women in positions of responsibility and as graduate trainees. This company had its offices in Berkeley Square, in the West End, which was an attractive place to work, convenient for shopping and going out after work, and with amusing opportunities for people-watching amongst the very rich inhabitants and passers-by of Mayfair. Women in mink coats would buy a tray of premium cat food from the shop on the corner as they returned from lunch at Claridges. The Bank’s computer subsidiary had its offices in Aldgate, just outside the City, where it had taken over an Edwardian office originally built for the Co-op, and the Bank had added a large data processing centre in the 1970s. Since I worked there, the Edwardian offices have been converted, and the data centre demolished, and both sites are now luxury developments of flats. But in the mid-1980s, before either Canary Wharf or the Docklands Light Railway had been constructed, and when print workers were in bitter dispute with Rupert Murdoch’s News International at the then-new Wapping plant, there were no espresso cafes, but traditional pubs in the streets nearby which advertised strippers at lunchtime, and one, next to a large police station, which was reputed to have raucous lock-ins on Friday evenings.

After a couple of years, I couldn’t imagine myself carrying on doing this work or anything connected that it might lead to for a lifetime. In fact, a discipline of understanding a set of rules and explaining them to someone who doesn’t understand them isn’t an irrelevant skill for a lawyer at all, but I didn’t make that explicit connection then. I found what I was doing increasingly narrow and uncongenial, and felt more and more restless and frustrated. I was eventually pushed out of inertia by a sense that friends and contemporaries had much more satisfying working lives, particularly those who had undertaken professional training and started doing post-qualification work. By contrast, I found it could be too easily assumed that I had no particular skill to take from one job to the next, or could be relegated to some trivial office function considered particularly suitable for women. I also had to confront some jarring and unforeseen events in my life in 1986–7: I was involved in a car accident, which although much less serious than it might have been, was a shock in the way that a sense of physical fragility is always shocking to the young, and led to weeks off work and some surgery and rehabilitation, and a few months later, my mother died very suddenly, shortly after she had retired from her principal teaching job. I was 27, and in New Zealand, about as far away as it was possible to be. Now that many of my friends have children about that age, I realise how relatively young that is to lose a parent, even though I no longer lived at home. In a world of loss, I felt I had nothing more to lose by simply starting my adult working life over again.

It would be virtue-circling but fibbing to say that I was motivated towards the law by a keen interest in justice or desire to help the dispossessed. I wanted to turn my mind to things of that were more serious and mattered more to people than I had yet done at work. The week after my mother’s death in late February 1987, the Herald of Free Enterprise sank at Zeebrugge — one of a number of disasters of public safety in the late 1980s. I watched the progress of the public inquiry on the news, and its trenchant findings of the “disease of sloppiness” in the ferry company. This and other similar public inquiries added to a need to feel a greater sense of purpose and achievement in a day’s work than I had done, to talk to other people more in the course of a day’s work, and to use some kind of demonstrable intellectual skill to help people solve problems in their lives. I thought, and still do, that the law was the best fit of work to the skills I had. I had sufficient vanity to like the idea of being “on stage” and of having my name in the Law Reports, and I liked the idea of independence at the Bar. As I knew absolutely nothing about civil litigation, I had no idea how collaborative it is, nor how increasingly, and especially since the reforms of 1999 and onwards, it would come to involve the skills of project and budget management, as it does now. I wasn’t motivated by money in the sense of wishing to become very rich, but I was motivated away from a life of cycling home from the cheapest seats in the concert hall to a damp basement flat, and otherwise living little differently than I had done as a student, and without any long-term financial security.

All of this led to starting the graduate diploma in law (the GDL) at the (then) Polytechnic of Central London in September 1988, followed by the (then) Bar Vocational Course at the Inns of Court School of Law in 1989–90. I had no secure belief that I would succeed either in obtaining pupillage or a tenancy, but reasoned that I would at least have some better opportunities in life if I passed the exams, and focused on that for the first two years. I enjoyed studying again, and made some lasting friendships. There was a huge variety of people of different ages and backgrounds at the Poly — men and women who had been actors, teachers, social workers, policemen, as well as those who’d come straight from university. These included some daughters of judges and QCs, fashionable young women who preferred Vogue to Archbold, and others who would have far rather been doing something else, but whose parents were prepared to fund their law studies and not acting, or women’s studies or whatever else their children really yearned to do. I also learned a lot through mini-pupillages and through working for the Free Representation Unit, of which I became the treasurer in 1989. I remember my first FRU client, a middle-aged woman in a clerical job who’d been unfairly dismissed by a courier company, for whom I managed to win some compensation — beginner’s luck, as I’m now horrified by how much I didn’t know either about the law or about advocacy. But, as I perceived the mediocre middle-aged-male management culture of the company to be not dissimilar to that of the bank subsidiary I’d worked for, it felt like a positive step in my escape from that world. I did several commercial and shipping mini-pupillages, because I thought this was the sort of work I might like to do, and discovered that it wasn’t. Shipping was a particular disappointment, because it seemed so attractive from the outside, intertwined with English maritime history, and involving ships and ports with memorable names and its own evocative vocabulary. The reality, as I discovered, was so very much more bulk tankers than “quinqueremes of Nineveh”. I was taken to watch one case which went on for several hot July days of argument about what seemed some infinitesimally small point of law in relation to a time charter (for some reason, I can still remember the names of the ships in the previous cases discussed in argument). One of the barristers had the habit of wiggling his finger through a hole in the back of his gown as he spoke to address the court, quite unconscious of the similarity of this little reflex gesture to the appearance of a Puritan bridegroom between the sheets. Other than being momentarily mesmerised by this, I thought I had never come so close to an involuntary experience of being literally bored to tears in my life.

I also did some Chancery mini-pupillages as, to my surprise, the subjects I enjoyed studying most were trusts and land law, and eventually decided that this was the field I would like to practise in. I didn’t think that I had the stamina or the courtroom presence for criminal law, and I resented the assumption, which still widely existed, that women might naturally gravitate to family law, because of some special affinity with domestic relationships and childcare. In fact the work I came to do is really a different species of family law, and I have some regrets about not doing more. Family law deals with profound questions of life and identity and connection between people. My professional lifetime has also coincided with a rapidly expanding recognition of new forms of relationships and of personal identity, and with advances in medical technology at both the beginning and end of life. Another area of practice I never seriously considered was defamation, as nothing attracted me about the work of managing the reputation of celebrities. The modern law of privacy, and the limits of speech and publication and use of media as it has developed since I was at law school, would have interested me far more if I could return to the beginning of my career again.

I applied to many Chancery sets for pupillage and was rejected by most of them, which was dispiriting. They gave me the impression that I didn’t measure up academically, even though I had done well in the GDL and BVC exams, and that I didn’t fit in. I was about to give up when, right at the end of the applications season, someone I knew through FRU encouraged me to apply to his chambers, which was and is a leading property set. I hadn’t applied there because I didn’t think I had a chance of succeeding, but they offered me a second six months, and another set which had put me on a reserve list then immediately offered me a first six. In the end, I didn’t go to the property set, because the chambers where I practise advertised a second six months with a view to a tenancy, and I was offered and accepted that instead. The application was a properly rigorous selection involving a written exercise, which was unusual then, followed by a quite intimidating interview on it, conducted by about half of chambers, two of whom were at the time also fellows of All Souls.

In many sets of chambers in Lincoln’s Inn, traditionally the home of the Chancery bar, and probably in the other Inns as well, there were still father-and-son legal dynasties flourishing, as could be seen from the distinctive names painted on the traditional signs outside chambers. I had tried to avoid applying to any of these when I first looked for pupillage, but it narrowed the field quite a lot. Chancery practice was still then an essentially masculine world, and a predominantly white masculine world. It had its grandees, too, men who owned stately homes and grouse moors in the north of England, but not all the successful men had come from such backgrounds, and there was more social mobility for men of non-patrician backgrounds in the mid-20th century than is sometimes remembered — as the obituaries of two men who became judges in the House of Lords: Sydney Templeman (Lord Templeman) and Donald Nicholls (Lord Nicholls) show

Extract from obituary of Lord Templeman © The Times
Extract from obituary of Lord Nicholls © The Times

The chambers I joined for my second six months and where I have continued to practise ever since then had two father-and-son dynasties, and had made its modern reputation in the 1960s and 1970s in applications under the Variation of Trusts Act 1958, and in advising on the taxation of trusts. Margaret Thatcher had briefly been a pupil there, before she left the bar for politics. In the late 1980s the trusts work was beginning to develop into the growing field of pensions, and there was also a lot of work in connection with wills and inheritance disputes and general property rights and disputes. Our former senior clerk had a knack both for courting the solicitors who were long-standing retainers to old money (the senior partner of Trowers solicitors could see the light on in the clerks’ room on Christmas Eve, and hastened there with some urgent work, according to one old chambers story) and keeping a loyal following of “old friends of chambers”, mostly small firms and Masonic connections that he had along the south coast of England and in the west country, who dealt with the estates of people who’d moved to the seaside to retire and die. Several former members of chambers had had very distinguished judicial careers: Lord Templeman, Lord Brightman, and Lord Justice Nourse, and they were later joined by Mr Justice Hart, who as Michael Hart QC was a dominant and modernising force in chambers when I started in practice, and whose chambers friendship circle I became part of, and who we greatly mourned on his early death in 2007; by Robert Walker QC who joined as an established silk in 1991, became a High Court judge two years later and very rapidly rose to become Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe; Mr Justice Norris, and Lord Justice Henderson. The presence and progress of these men, and others, all very different in personality, essentially shaped the culture of chambers in the first decade of my professional life. It was not until the mid-2000s that either QC or judicial appointments were made by any kind of objective assessment process, and there was simply an assumption that anyone who joined chambers and was reasonably serious about their career would one day benefit from the secret soundings or tap on the shoulder and take silk, and perhaps later a High Court appointment (even an appointment as a circuit judge was tacitly regarded as not really worthy of distinction) and more would follow in due course. Neither of the two women senior to me in chambers had reached anything approaching this stage in their careers.

Looking back, we seem to have been extraordinarily complacent about numerous aspects of the status quo, rather than consciously working to change it. One consequence of the absence of any objective framework for assessment of competence for advancement was a failure, certainly on my part, to regard my career as something to be actively managed, rather than as something which would unfold in accordance with haphazard destiny through having the chance to appear in notable cases.

As soon as I started pupillage in October 1990, I realised that nothing I’d learned in the previous two years had really prepared me for it at all. I always had the words of Edward Lear’s limerick about the “old man of Thermopylae who never did anything properly” at the back of my mind, and I would still occasionally hear an echo of them for years after I started in practice. Like most of my contemporaries, early practice featured weekly appearances at the Wednesday “winders” court in the Royal Courts of Justice, which mostly involved pronouncing three sentences of solemn rigmarole in order to obtain the “usual compulsory order” for winding up a company. You did not really need to have been to law school to be able to do that. The registrar had deep-set eyes in a bony face, and a rather lugubrious voice which, combined with the Victorian Gothic setting of the large courtroom, gave an impression that when you had addressed him and he pronounced the three words “usual compulsory order” in response, he was standing over the company’s metaphorical grave. Occasionally, this imaginary cemetery swallowed up some cheerful neighbourhood restaurant I knew well, struck down for failure to pay its VAT by the Revenue, whose counsel came to court every week with a boxful of winding-up petitions.

The first real advocacy I did was at the end of my second six months’ pupillage, instructed by a Chinese solicitor on behalf of a Chinese client — a middle-aged woman who had lived for decades in the same house in Ilford as a Chinese husband and wife as a concubine, but who had been abruptly evicted by the wife several years after the husband’s death. I set off for Bow County Court in Stratford, which in those days was not a place with a gleaming branch of John Lewis above the station and an Olympic park beside it but an unremarkable and rather run-down suburb of East London. On arriving at the court building, I found it closed for refurbishment and all the hearings redirected to the Royal Courts of Justice. My instructing solicitor put on a pair of blue reflective sunglasses and drove us all to the Strand in his ancient Ford Capri. I had to address the High Court judge who was dealing with vacation business, feeling nervous and out of place as I squeezed in between much grander and more senior Chancery barristers asking for multi-million pound worldwide freezing injunctions, but the judge had a kindly manner and gave me an injunction for my client to return to her home. Weeks later, at Bow County Court, another judge refused her permission to bring an Inheritance Act application for reasonable provision from the dead man’s estate beyond the original time limit for such claims — quite unjustly, I thought. I was not to know it then, but the jurisdiction to seek reasonable financial provision under the Inheritance Act was to be a part of the law which has remained very significant in my legal practice, largely now as a mediator rather than as an advocate at trial. The law has expanded to include survivors of relationships of settled cohabitation as eligible to make claims, and of civil partnerships and same-sex marriages, as these relationships have become recognised in law since 1990. It has revisited the claims of adult children against a deceased parent’s estate, most notably in Ilott v. Mitson in the Supreme Court in 2017, re-considered the discretion to permit late claims to be brought, and has introduced a better real-world test of what it means to be maintained by a person who is not a parent or partner. As I have got older and have been professionally involved in many such cases, it has made me acutely conscious not only of the endless variations in people’s lives and relationships with each other, but in particular of the financial precarity of many women in their 50s and 60s, survivors of relationships with men older than them, left without survivors’ pensions or their own earnings and prospective pensions, yet with relatively long life expectancy. These encounters have made me very conscious of the great educational and occupational privilege I have had the benefit of.

In my first few years in practice I did quite a lot of work arising from failed legal arrangements based on exercise of tenants’ right to buy the local authority properties they lived in, a flagship policy of Margaret Thatcher’s first administration, which had been introduced in legislation in 1980. Although tenants who exercised the right to buy would lose the benefit of the discount earned through their previous rent payments if they sold the property on within a fixed period, there was no rule against the immediate creation of a trust, and many people made such arrangements. Typically, the purchase from the local authority would have been made with the benefit of an older tenant’s valuable discount, and of a mortgage taken out by a son or nephew or grandson of earning age, and sometimes the arrangements involved the generations moving in together. Some gave rise to problems through bad legal drafting, others through the unforeseen pressures of living together, or of inability to keep up with mortgage repayments because of redundancy or other financial catastrophe. It’s a mistake to think that the law of trusts only concerns the very rich, and that it does not extensively touch on the homes and life-long savings of ordinary people. Some of the saddest cases I can remember are those of trusts of relatively small but meaningful value, trusts of pension scheme death in service benefits of a mother dying young, or in the will of a generous benefactor towards an employee’s children, selfishly mismanaged or spent on themselves by family trustees to the pure loss of the children concerned.

In terms of legal consequence, the two most significant cases of my career have been Jennings v Rice [2002] EWCA Civ 159, in which I acted for the defendant estate at trial and, successfully, in the Court of Appeal, and Re P [2009] EWCOP 163, which was one of the early decisions under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Jennings v Rice was one of a number of important decisions in the developing jurisdiction of enforcement of testamentary promises in equity. When I was at law school I read and was struck by the apparent injustice of the case of Lucy Gonin, a woman who had sacrificed her brief freedom as an adult during the Second World War in exchange for an unenforceable promise made by her parents. I believe her case would be decided differently now. Jennings v. Rice took me into a world far from any in which I had lived. Mrs Royle, the woman whose estate it concerned, had been born in a Somerset village and was a young widow of the Second World War who went to work for two bachelor brothers who lived in a prominent house in a nearby village. She spent the rest of her life in that house, marrying the surviving brother on the death of the first, and outliving him and inheriting his entire estate, then dying intestate, despite the promises of inheritance she had made to Mr Jennings, who had originally come to work as a gardener, but increasingly took on a role as her carer, especially in the last few years of her life. My first contact with the case was a meeting with Mrs Royle’s sister, who was the principal intestacy beneficiary. She was herself elderly and bed-bound, but bright and alert nonetheless, surrounded by her family in the fire-lit kitchen of the Somerset farmhouse she and her son lived in, a place I would never have found but for following my solicitor’s car down unlit country lanes on a dark December evening. The trial revealed much about long-standing hierarchies and loyalties in the village in which both Mrs Royle and Mr Jennings had lived, and it did rightly reward Mr Jennings with something meaningful for his years of unpaid service to Mrs Royle, although not as much as he had expected.

Re P was a case about a statutory will — a will directed by the Court of Protection on behalf of an adult who lacks testamentary capacity, and it had an extraordinary and fascinating story behind it, although one which is largely hidden from public view in the judgment. It’s an important case in the modern law of adult mental incapacity, which since 2007 has required making a structured value judgement, a best interests decision, for a person who has either lost or never had capacity to make that decision autonomously. Many such adults are older people with later-life illnesses that deprive them of the cognitive ability that they previously had, others are younger adults with learning difficulties or acquired brain injuries through illnesses and accidents. Re P and other cases which involve acts of altruism, raise quite profound questions about how an incapacitated person might wish to make the decision if s/he could, and about how people are remembered after their death. Most of the ‘altruistic’ cases are about wills or lifetime gifts of property or money, but the question can arise in a medical context to, as in a 2018 decision about taking blood from Sergei and Yulia Skripal both unconscious in hospital after their suspected Novichok poisoning, for analysis by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

One of the most noticeable changes in my professional world since I started in practice has been the greater visibility of women at the Chancery bar. There were no female Chancery judges until 1993, when Lady Arden was appointed, and hardly any female Chancery QCs. I was the third woman to join my chambers, following one who had been called to the bar in 1982 and one in 1988. Neither of the two senior to me was from a privileged background, but both were clever women who had been very determined to succeed. One, who was from the north of England and who had refused her school’s encouragement to apply to Oxford or Cambridge for her degree, gave up practice when her three children were small, but studied for a masters’ degree in her 50s and returned to work as a lawyer for a voluntary organisation. The other, who was mixed race, and thus in a double minority, moved chambers quite early in her career to do more commercial Chancery work and is now a High Court insolvency judge. Since I started in practice, many more women have joined chambers and stayed, both at the end of pupillage and later in their careers, and in 2021 five of our silks in chambers will be women. One woman who joined from another chambers mid-career, and who is now a circuit judge, followed a much more typical modern judicial career path than the men who had been in chambers in the 1980s and early 1990s. She began sitting part-time as a Recorder, and then took a full-time appointment which she found to be a better balance with her family life, and in which she has had increasing promotion and specialist responsibility. It now isn’t at all unusual to be at hearing or mediation where all the barristers are female, and in a Court of Appeal case in 2019, three female advocates from chambers appeared before a court in which two of the judges were female. As for other minorities and discrimination against them, in his valedictory speech in December 2020, Sir Terence Etherton, retiring Master of the Rolls, righteously indicted the “perfectly outrageous soft policy” of a former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, which had prevented a gay man like him from becoming a High Court judge as recently as the early 1990s.

There have also been lots of noticeable changes in the texture of everyday life at work. Both men and women dress much more informally when not in court than when I started in practice, when women were still not permitted to wear trousers to appear in court, and the perpetual anxiety of laddered tights was an unwelcome distraction. Until I started pupillage, I had never been in an office where I had been expected to dress so formally. On the day I started the GDL, I possessed a single suit which was vaguely suitable for barristers’ chambers, and which was a very 1980s suit of navy blue pinstriped material and rather masculine cut, worn with a hambone frill blouse of the type favoured by Princess Diana. After I was taken on as a tenant, I bought some funereal suits from a brand that my grandmother had worn in her sixties, and feel that my work dress style has been getting progressively younger and less funereal since then. There was virtually nowhere to get an espresso coffee in Holborn or Chancery Lane, and Pret a Manger was just beginning to replace old-fashioned sandwich shops where people queued for bespoke variations of chicken mayonnaise on cotton-wool bread. Or for a restaurant lunch, there was an Italian restaurant in Cursitor Street where the waiters looked askance at ladies who lunched on mere salad, and who chose water rather than wine to accompany it.

We had desktop computers in chambers, but they were not networked, and not everyone used theirs. There were few mobile phones, no email, or even telephone voicemail — messages about missed calls came in the form of a note left in your pigeon-hole by the clerks. We had virtually no screen-based legal resources — there was a primitive version of LawTel, but otherwise, looking things up for legal research involved looking in a volume of statutes or law reports, or going to Lincoln’s Inn Library, precarious to the balance and to personal modesty if it involved delving into any of the Commonwealth law reports series kept on the first floor, up a spiral staircase and with an open ironwork floor from which without due care, if wearing a skirt, your underwear might be seen from below. One of the few benefits of this deprivation of the electronic resources we now take for granted was a far better demarcation between working and private time.

In 2020 of course, everything has changed abruptly because of the coronavirus pandemic. Working from home and on multiple screens and devices is tiring and isolating, but I am grateful to have the work to do. In addition to my own work, during the autumn of 2020 I attended a hearing remotely of a case I have been interested in and written about, my first experience of being a pure spectator since those long ago shipping mini-pupillages of 1989. One of the barristers participating in it, a Lincoln’s Inn QC of very long and distinguished career, sat in a room of some apparent grandeur, his legal arguments accompanied by the sound of chiming clocks as each quarter hour struck. As the live stream ended on the last day of the hearing, it was as if the sun had set on an empire of Chancery practice as it was thirty years ago.

Thirty years feels simultaneously like an absurdly long period of time and no time. I am glad that my life has led me to a long career in the fields of law I practise in. There is a continuity between my literary and historical interests and the long narrative of lives and generations in my work, and in the fact that reading and interpreting documents and weighing their integrity and the meaning of words is still at the heart of much of what is now called traditional Chancery work.

I’ve told my story not because I’ve had a particularly outstanding legal career to boast of, but as a thread in a much larger fabric of stories of women’s careers in law, as an illustration of the kind of social mobility that can take place over two or three generations rather than in one, and because careers aren’t just about their beginning or their end, but the resilience and longevity in between. No-one would become a barrister without self-belief, but self-belief can be rapidly assailed by the sharpest and most destructive self-doubt, however long you have been in practice. Even after thirty years, just as on the first day of being driven from Stratford in a Ford Capri for your first appearance in the High Court, to starting the Zoom meeting for an online mediation in 2020, you are alone at what a friend calls the “wigface”, entirely responsible for what you say to everyone in the room, real or virtual, how well (or not) you have prepared to say it, and what will come of it in other people’s lives.

English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity

English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity