Lucy Barnes: Becoming a Barrister
Lucy works as a Barrister in Brisbane, specialising in Child Protection, Family, Employment and Consumer Law. Lucy’s journey to becoming a Barrister was fairly unconventional as Lucy never worked as a Lawyer in private practice which is often what I have heard you should do prior to going to the Bar. Lucy gained experience working for the Government in Child Protection prior to commencing her law degree and this experience gave her invaluable insight and experience which really helped Lucy to work out where her passion within law was. Lucy’s first law job was working as a Registrar and after three years in this role Lucy decided she wanted to pursue a career as a Barrister. Lucy shares what her work looks like day to day, what the process of becoming a Barrister involves and her advice for anyone who may be considering a career as a Barrister in the future.
What being a Barrister looks like day to day
Lucy says there is no such thing as a ‘typical week’ when you are a Barrister as what your week looks like depends upon how many matters you have on, the kind of matters they are and whether you have decided to take a holiday (because you can do that whenever you want to!). One of the things that attracted Lucy to becoming a Barrister was the flexibility that she could have. When you are a Barrister you are your own boss and you have the flexibility to decide when you want to work and how little or how much work you want to take on. Lucy doesn’t like routine and she likes things to look different each day and so being a Barrister means that Lucy enjoys her work and the variety that comes with it. Lucy explains that while there is a lot of flexibility being a Barrister, it doesn’t mean that you don’t work long hours. When Lucy is preparing for a trial she will often be working in her Chambers from 4/5am in the morning until 7/8pm at night. So being a Barrister can look like this but it can also look like reading briefs from beside a pool or conducting phone hearings from your hotel room while you are travelling somewhere. Lucy says that while her work can be stressful and a lot of hard work, it can also be really flexible and allow you to do lots of things outside of your work and choose how you want your career to progress.
Lucy’s law journey
Lucy’s path, like many of us, has been a little unconventional. Lucy started university in 2005 to undertake a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Psychology and had no intention of becoming a Lawyer at the time. Once Lucy graduated she commenced working for the Department of Women, Youth and Child Safety and in this role Lucy hit the ground running — going out to family’s homes to investigate allegations of serious child abuse/neglect. Lucy really enjoyed this work but after doing the job for a little while she started to think about how she could advocate for these people rather than intervene and that’s when Lucy decided to study law. Lucy continued to work full-time in human services roles during her time at law school. Some of Lucy’s work involved shift work where she would go and stay overnight with young mothers and support them to look after their new born babies. All of this experience that Lucy gained while she was studying law helped her to gain insight and perspective into the challenges that people in those situations face. Lucy enjoyed her work and for this reason she thought that family law would be a good fit for her. When Lucy finished her law degree she was unable to secure any of the legal roles that she was interested in and so she pivoted and applied to the Government to work as a Registrar in the courts. Lucy was successful and during her time working as a Registrar, she learnt a lot about Civil Procedure (which is really important if you want to work as a Barrister) and it helped Lucy gain the confidence to make informed decisions and communicate with parties about the legal process. So while Lucy didn’t work in private practice, this experience that she was able to gain was just as valuable. Lucy says that there is almost unlimited opportunities within the Government once you get your foot in the door, particularly in the Courts, but Lucy did start to feel like there was a limit on the flexibility and challenge of her role and she wasn’t sure that she would be satisfied staying within the confines of a Government role. Lucy decided that before she got too comfortable with a steady Government income, as she knew there would be a decrease in her salary for the first couple of years of becoming a Barrister, that it was time to do something she was passionate about and pursue a career as a Barrister.
What becoming a Barrister looks like
Initially you are required to undertake a couple of pre-exams that test your level of competency in three areas: Ethics, Civil Procedure and Evidence. Lucy found Ethics and Civil Procedure straight forward but because she had not worked in private practice, Lucy hadn’t had much exposure to the rules of evidence in preparation for trials and so she had to study hard in order to increase her knowledge in this area. After the exams, you enrol in a Bar Practice Course which is about 8 weeks long that is intense and time demanding and in which you are assessed by other Barristers and Judges of the Federal and State Courts and if you are successful — you come out the other side with a Practising Certificate. At this point you are what is called a Reader and for six months you undertake a period of Readership and part of this is selecting one junior and one senior mentor. You generally meet with your mentors once a month in order to discuss the matters that you have taken on, discuss any questions that you may have, however, Lucy found that she was in contact with her mentors a couple of times a week. Both of Lucy’s mentors (who were family friends who Lucy knew prior to completing her law degree) were really generous with their time. As a junior Barrister Lucy has found that all of her colleagues have been very generous with their time and have been more than willing to assist and support her. If you don’t know any other Barristers, you would approach them via email or phoning their chambers and asking if they would be willing to be a Mentee. Lucy’s friends that did not have family friends to ask like she did have not had any issues in securing their mentees.
How long until I can become a Barrister?
I have often heard that you need to be a Lawyer for a number of years before you can become a Barrister, however, as Lucy explains there is a big learning curve once come to the Bar regardless of your experience in private practice. Lucy explains that Lawyers who have worked in private practice in a single area often find that they are not offered much work in that area when they come to the Bar and so they need to learn the procedure in other areas of law. Lucy explains that being competent at Civil Procedure is very important if you want to come to the Bar — you can have the best evidence in the world but if you don’t know the procedural rules then you may not be successful. Lucy does not believe there is a set amount of time to work either in private practice or the Government before you decide to come to the Bar, as long as you are willing to work hard and seek help when you think you need it — you will be able to learn as you go.
If you are considering a career as a Barrister
Lucy wouldn’t discourage anyone from becoming a Barrister and says that Court advocacy is something that Lucy finds very exciting and rewarding. Lucy says that if you are interested in becoming a Barrister then going to Court and observing hearings is a great way to work out if it is something that you would be interested in pursuing. Lucy’s Chambers also often hires law students to work as Legal Assistants or Secretaries and that may be a good option for anyone who is considering a career as a Barrister as it will give you a good idea of the hours they work and the kind of work that they do.
Skills/strengths that make a good Barrister
Being organised as well as being able to adapt are skills that Lucy thinks are important. Lucy explains that if you have four or five matters that are coming up to trial then you need to be extremely well organised in order to plan appropriately. Lucy plans her days hour by hour and says that it is always better to overestimate how long something is going to take you rather than underestimate. Lucy explains that if you don’t plan your time well and you aren’t organised then you run the risk of attending Court unprepared and that this is really unacceptable. As a more junior Barrister, Lucy explains that being given matters last minute is more common where no one else is available to take on the matter. In this situation, it is important for Lucy to be prepared and to do a good job in order to prove to the Lawyer and the Client that she is a very capable and passionate advocate even when she is briefed last minute. Lucy explains that having good systems in place is really important, especially when you are given a brief last minute, as you need to be willing to set other things aside so that you can ensure that you are as prepared (if not more) than everyone else in Court.
Working independently and autonomously
Lucy says that you definitely need to be confident working autonomously and being independent as there are lots of hours spent working alone in your Chambers. Unlike working in a firm, you aren’t always surrounded by colleagues that you can speak to and go out to lunch with, etc. and you may be working alone for a week at a time without any/limited social/professional interaction. Lucy explains that it can be a very lonely job at times and that is why it is important to be able to acknowledge that and seek out opportunities to socialise with your colleagues and seek support from your colleagues/mental health professionals if you are feeling isolated.
Not being over-confident
Lucy says that being overly confident can be dangerous and that you should always feel some nerves when you are going to Court. Lucy says there should be some element of confidence in backing yourself but that you should always self-reflect and know that there is always going to be someone who is smarter and more experienced than you.
Lucy believes that there are few things less enjoyable than having a great day in Court, so if you don’t enjoy going to Court then maybe that is because you haven’t had the right support to develop those advocacy skills — but if you don’t like Court work then perhaps being a Barrister isn’t the best choice for you!
What Lucy wishes she had of known as a law student/early career lawyer
Lucy says that you need to be mindful that there are many different ways of getting to where you want to be and just because there is one particular path that lots of people take, it doesn’t mean that it is the path that you have to take. There are lots of ways to develop skills — so if you’re working in an area of law that you’re not particularly interested in, it doesn’t mean that you can’t use that experience to develop your advocacy skills. Lucy says be flexible and take all of the opportunities that are presented to you and if you’re not enjoying the work you are doing — seek out other ways to gain skills that interest you because enjoying what you do is really important!
Having a good support system
Lucy explains how recent events (COVID) have demonstrated how important it is to have a good support system around you. Without a good support system, especially in the legal profession, it can be a really lonely and miserable life. You have got to have people around you that you can bounce ideas off and to reach out to when you are struggling and need support otherwise you can feel like you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders alone and it can be really discouraging when you feel like that. Lucy is more than willing to offer support to anyone (regardless of where they are at in their law journey), alternatively there are legal associations that you can join, young lawyers social events, etc. I have a Facebook Group called Future Law Leaders where you can reach out to fellow students and also Lawyers for support and to answer any questions you have (and of course, you can always reach out to me). From my experience, if you reach out to someone (whether via social media, LinkedIn or email) and ask for support or help, people are always willing to give you their time to help — it’s just a matter of asking!
Develop skills that set you apart
Lucy believes it is important to develop skills that set you apart from others. As a Barrister Lucy has done work with a voice coach in order to engage well with the decision makers in Court and with clients. Lucy believes that the better you are at your job then the more interesting you will find it.
Working out what your passion is
Lucy explains that it is super important to find out what drives you — or what area of law interests you — as you need to enjoy the work that you do. Lucy knew she had an interest in the style of advocacy that is used in the Family/Federal Circuit Courts — no frills advocacy and there is no addressing juries. Lucy found this more informal style of advocacy more rewarding and because of Lucy’s experience working in Child Protection for the Government, she always knew that she wanted to work with families and help them with the problems that they were facing. However, despite having a clear idea of what she was passionate about within the Law, Lucy has found herself working in areas outside of family law as a Barrister — in particular, Lucy has found that she quite enjoys working in Employment Law as it gives her a break from the heavy emotional side of family law.
Lucy’s awesome tips
Don’t be afraid to take a less conventional path — just because everyone else is following a particular path to reach their end goal, doesn’t mean you have to!
You don’t need to work in private practice or wait a specific amount of time before going to the bar if it is what you are passionate about!
If you love flexibility, working independently and advocating for your clients — then a career as a Barrister might be for you!
Make sure you have a good support system so that you have people to bounce ideas off and to reach out to for support when you need it!
Develop skills that set you apart from others!
Be flexible when starting your legal career and take the opportunities that come your way — even if you don’t enjoy the area of law you are working in, there will be valuable skills you can learn!
Work out what motivates you and what you’re passionate about — you need to enjoy the work that you do!
Lucy is happy for you to reach out to her on LinkedIn if you have any questions -
Lucy’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/barneslucy/