What makes a good barrister?

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Our panel of legal experts consider what it is that makes a good barrister.

By: Jane Goodey (Law Research Unit) , Professor Gary Slapper (Law School) , Abigail Bright (Middle Temple) , The Honourable Mr Justice Calvert Smith (The High Court) , Lynn Tayton QC (36 Bedford Row)

  • Duration 10 mins
  • Updated Wednesday 22nd October 2008
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Law
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Copyright The Open University

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Gary Slapper: The legal system is a system that operates entirely on law, which is obvious in some ways, but as a consequence everyone’s case or dispute it judged entirely by law and law alone, and a barrister is someone who’s obliged to see any client’s problems in terms simply of the law. So a good barrister is someone who is able to look at a problem that’s presented to them exclusively in its legal setting, to be blinkered as to the moral surround of a case or the rights and wrong of a case, and to look at it just legalistically. The better someone is able to do that, the better he or she is to be a barrister.

Another aspect of a similar point is to do with the analysis required in a case. Cases never present themselves to barristers neatly in the way that they do in exam questions or essays, they are complicated parts of complicated lives, and a good barrister is someone who is able to be able to digest what are often voluminous expanses of facts and background information, and to be able to quickly digest that in terms of the relevant law and to give it a clear legal analysis.

Lynn Tayton: Legal knowledge obviously, an ability to absorb a lot of information in a short time, analytical ability, the facility to express oneself clearly and construct a cogent argument, integrity and a number of personal qualities, sense, good judgement and, if you are a barrister who deals with individuals in your practice, empathy.

Mr Justice Calvert Smith: The barrister must be completely trustworthy. You must be able to rely, whether you’re sitting as a judge or whether you are the opposing barrister or, of course, the jury or anyone else, on the integrity of the person who is speaking to you. This profession is still a small profession and if a barrister fails to observe that key virtue then he or she will soon develop a reputation for untrustworthiness, people will be unwilling to entrust confidences to him or her, and any chance of promotion, for instance, whether to become a QC in due course or to become a judge, will be possibly irretrievably harmed.

The next characteristic is an ability to think first of all, and then express oneself in a clear and concise and logical way. If you listen to public speakers, whether they be politicians or journalists or experts in one field or another who are speaking, say, on the television, you soon trust those who seem to tell you what they want to tell you logically, clearly and concisely, and start to dismiss what is told you in a muddled and disorganised way, and the same applies in court.

Gary Slapper: One pressure on a barrister is to be sufficiently vibrant or clear and animated in the way that he or she expresses a case to show that they are truly engaged with the facts. And that is something which is important perhaps more in jury trials, in civil and criminal jury trials, because as many commentators have observed, including perhaps most famously Cicero, the Roman philosopher and lawyer, that very often human decisions, because that’s what they are in court proceedings, pay a lot of attention in the way that the arguments are carried out to human elements and qualities to do with what people love or hate, what they have a suspicion about or what they are inherently trustful about, what they like by way of personality characteristics and what they don’t like. And so a barrister is good to the extent that they’re aware of human elements in any argument or discourse.

But the contradiction that I mentioned is to be able to handle that side of things without becoming disturbingly passionate towards a particular case, because it is a view, it’s my view, it’s not entirely shared throughout legal commentary and observation. It’s my view that a good barrister is someone who is able to be dispassionate about the presentation of a particular case, as I think that if barristers are required to be good by being passionate in a particular way it can sometimes for some barristers cloud their judgement about the clinical legal merits of a case, and it’s a difficult balance to be had but excellent barristers are people who manage to overcome that slight contradiction.

Jane Goodey: I think a good barrister is somebody who can actually put themselves in the shoes of the person they’re defending and do the job that that person would do for themselves if they had the knowledge and the skills to do so.

Abigail Bright: I think a good barrister has a certain amount of determination and doggedness about them, to be able to pursue a legal point to its full conclusion on behalf of a client or, if the barrister is a prosecutor, on behalf of the state according to the public interest. And I think with that is required an insight into when the point has been lost or when a judge’s patience is close to becoming lost. And I think a good barrister also needs to simply be affable and to be able to get along very well with the judge, the opposition counsel, the solicitor of course and the client. And that’s important.

Mr Justice Calvert Smith: You must master your brief. If you come to court not knowing your brief thoroughly that will soon become apparent. And in cases in court which are always a contest between one side and the other, the tribunal, that’s the judge in a civil case normally or a jury in a criminal case, will be more likely to accept arguments and points of view expressed on behalf of a client if they come from someone who clearly knows his or her way round the case than they would if the person who’s addressing them clearly doesn’t know his or her way round the case and, therefore, is unlikely to be completely trustworthy.

And arising from that, and the fourth matter which is key I think to success as a barrister, is the ability to give what sometimes is very, very uncomfortable or unpalatable advice to a client. Frequently a client comes to you full of hope that his or her case is watertight, is going to succeed, whatever, whether it’s criminal or civil, and you frequently have to calmly and politely tell them that it isn’t. And you can only do that if you speak logically, clearly and concisely and if you are the master of your brief, because if you’re tripped up and the client says to you well what about page so-and-so and you haven’t read it, well then your advice is less likely to be accepted.

Abigail Bright: A good barrister should also, well simply have the common touch and remember that they are a public servant, and have that firmly in mind.

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