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My job explained: Common law barrister

common law barristerAlex Ruck Keene is a public law and common law barrister. His cases mostly involve mental health law, community care law and professional negligence.

What inspired you to study law?

I studied history as an undergraduate and then did a course in international relations after that. I came to the bar because I was interested in how governments interact with people and how to regulate a society. Not, in all honesty, because I was wildly excited by the academic study of the law.

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

I did a one-year conversion course after my degrees, which was designed for people to get to know law very quickly. Next was the Bar Course, which I found a bit boring in places. A lot of what they are trying to teach you are things that you are going to learn on the job.

The one-year pupillage is more interesting if more stressful. It is essentially a year-long interview. Once you have been taken on as a self employed tenant it’s effectively impossible to get rid of you, so while you are doing your pupillage your colleagues will be asking ‘Can we face looking at this person for the next fifty years?’ It’s very stressful, but I learnt an enormous amount.

Can you describe a typical working day?

What I do changes from day to day. I usually get in at 8.30am. I go through emails and spend some time writing advices, which involves reading and understanding what I’ve been asked to advise on and then researching the law before writing the advice up clearly.

I have a wide range of clients, from local authorities and central government, to private individuals, and you have to write advices according to their needs. If I am advising a solicitor on behalf of someone with a mental disability, for example, I have to explain it clearly so the solicitor can then give that advice to the client, in a way they will understand.

I go to court about twice a week. I often have to allow ages to travel because I could be going anywhere in the country. Once I even went to Grenada. In many of my cases, I have several hearings before the final trial. These hearings are basically arguing about how to have the argument, and you can achieve a lot through negotiation before such hearings.

I’m not the sort of barrister who is in the job primarily because they like having massive arguments in court. I’m more interested in finding the solution. In most of my cases there are no witnesses or juries, I just appear before the judge and try to persuade him through oral submissions.

I often get nervous, especially before doing a hearing of a kind that I've not done before. In fact, if you are not nervous something is probably wrong.

What is the best thing about your job?

It’s probably the combination of all the various different challenges that I have to face. I’ve got to distill a lot of information very quickly, work out sensible pragmatic answers, and write them or argue them in a way people can understand. I also like the flexibility of being self -employed.

What have been the challenges in getting to where you are now and how have you overcome them?

The main challenge is getting the pupillage because it’s incredibly competitive. We get 350 applicants for three slots each year for my chambers. To stand out you need to have a strong academic background and demonstrate an interest in law and being a barrister. You also have to show that you are self-reliant and have strong outside interests.

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

You can’t be fazed under stress, and it’s very important to be able to switch off at the end of the day. So don’t take yourself too seriously, and have a sense of humour.
You also have to have a very strong sense of integrity because you will often be acting on behalf of someone who isn’t there. The judge has to trust you to explain a position fully and fairly and there is a real risk that justice won't be done if you are not 100% accurate in what you say to the judge.

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

When I talk to young people I tell them to try to get as good grades as possible at A-level and university. You’ve also got to do some debating if possible and get involved with positions of responsibility.