In 1999, Baz Luhrmann topped the UK charts with ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’.
We used to play that song on the drive to school. I was 12. My mum drove a banger that we called Bessie. “Come on Bessie” we would cheer as she chugged up the hill. Sometimes Bessie let us down, but no one minded. She did her best. Bessie’s radio had a cassette player. I liked to watch it hungrily eat tapes and spit out a glorious pop sound. My mum played the Sunscreen song on repeat. I remember those days. I remember that song. And, recently, I remembered the words:
“Live in New York City once”, the song advised, “but leave, before it makes you hard”.
School was the local comprehensive. Students were the beneficiaries of textbooks-between- two, dicey Ofsted inspections and our very own Police Liaison Officer. We did our best with what we had. And, by pure chance, it transpired we had something better than wealth: we had luck.
I had the good fortune to be born to hardworking, tremendous parents. They taught me right from wrong and the grey areas in-between. They taught me that precisely nothing in this life was given for free. And that, for some, working twice as hard is required to even make the starting line.
I was determined. And I was lucky. I read. Ferociously. I liked the words. As an adult I sometimes pronounce words incorrectly because I have only read them in books. I occasionally do it in court. Judges look at me quizzically, my expensively educated opponents tilt their heads and I confuse them all by just beaming. “Here I am”, I think silently, “with people like you”.
I remember going with my dad to buy our first family PC. It was magnificent. I typed out the
words I had read. I moved them around the page until they flowed. Until they sounded just so. I did not recognise it then, but I know it now – it was advocacy. I memorised syllabuses and mock exam questions and photosynthesis and Pi and Oxbow lakes and the Somme. An A Level was not something my school offered. So I navigated Sixth Form, UCAS, bursary and then scholarship applications. I moved word after word around page after page and I persuaded people. That I knew things. That I could pass exams. That I might have some promise.
I failed often. And, each time, I returned home to my parents and their relentless cheer. “You did your best,” my mum would say. After my Oxford interview, a rejection letter landed on the doormat. I read it and muttered “two of the other candidates went to the same school, the SAME SCHOOL.”
Sometimes, I still mutter it to myself.
But luck, like rage, has a habit of holding out. I got into Law school. Words fell into place there. Sentences and paragraphs and persuasion. I was good at it. But it took everything I had. Loans. Sacrifice. Scholarships. A brutal commute when the money ran out. “It will all be worth it one day love”, my dad would offer on our bleary-eyed 6am car journey to the station. He would drive in his slippers. I would eat cereal in the passenger seat.
To become a barrister then, you had to eat 12 dinners ‘in hall’. It was a heady mix of Harry
Potter and a weird wedding banquet. I did not know any barristers – so I took my mum. We rode cheap off-peak trains, googled which forks to use and giggled in the Ladies’ loo after drinking Port.
In my final interview to become a barrister – with 2 vacancies for 300 candidates – I wore a second-hand suit from eBay. No one noticed. My words tumbled out persuasively. More so, it
transpired, than the same old boys from the same old schools. When I got the job, I opened the box containing my barristers’ wig in our lounge. We all stared at it like it was a wild animal.
Off I went. Defending people. People who had less luck, less guidance, fewer words. Many of them hoped that the courts would be fairer to them than life had been.
The words did not prepare me for the fighting. For the people I had to fight for. The terrified 14 year old girl in custody who asked me for a tampon, the shamed 55 year old who had lost his job and stolen, the addicted 21 year old with the sobbing mother, the father concealing a wobbly lip for a son who had not done his best. “Keep a professional detachment” my elders would say and I would nod before going home to lie on my bathroom floor with a rock in my heart. On and on it went. The drivers, the employees, the teachers, the students, the children, the ordinary people who thought court was no place for them until it was. Human story after human story. Stories I recognised. The grey area between right and wrong expanded. And I fought. A first court appearance then paid £35. I would have done it for free if I had not been shouldering a five-figure student debt. The cases got more serious, the money got a little better, but the relentless conveyor belt never let me exhale. I measured my success in precious ‘Thank You’ cards I stored safely in a box.
When luck runs low, I read them.
The finances have never kept pace with the fight. With what is required of me. With what is required of the mass of legally-aided barristers who ultimately have to rely on successful partners, generous families or sheer luck to get by. But, money aside, it is the conditions that deliver the sucker punch. Without a HR department the job takes and takes. There is no yearly appraisal. No occupational health appointment. No intervention. No one to assess the toll. There is a high price to be paid for seeing photos of corpses, for hearing the stories of abused children and for sitting in a windowless cell looking evil in the eye. There are no limits as to how much or how often you can wreck your well-being, your family life, your boundaries. No limit to how many blows the system will strike to your softness. The holidays you will miss, the occasions you will skip, the people you will let down. The thing about words is that they sometimes fail you. When you emerge from a 70-hour week and notice the look in the eyes of the proud parents who propelled you here – but miss you now.
And then, slowly, but to the surprise of absolutely no one, my colleagues – my friends – began to leave. Now, everything runs late. ‘Counsel will have to burn the midnight oil”, the nice Judge chuckles to the nice jury before I go home to lie on my bathroom floor again. The cases keep coming. The backlog grows. I am increasingly numb to the cruelty of telling broken human beings that the worst thing that ever happened to them will not be resolved for years.
Trial dates creep into 2023. Then, 2024. I edit police interviews for free. I prepare pre- recorded cross-examinations for free. I write sentencing notes for free. I teach new barristers for free. I offer suicide-prevention advice for free. The government issue statements saying everything is fine and I read them over and over trying to work out how they did not realise that justice costs something. That this is all worth something. That some of us gave everything to be here.
And so, it was this week I was reminded of Bessie and the song and those words.
“Live in New York City once, but leave, before it makes you hard”.
Perhaps being a criminal barrister is like living in New York City. Do it once, sure. But maybe I should choose a time to leave. Before it makes me hard.
I find it too heart-breaking to look that decision squarely in the eye. But many have managed it. Perhaps they had no choice. Criminal Bar Association figures show an average decrease in real earnings of 28% since 2006. Our most junior barristers work for less than the minimum
wage. We have lost a quarter of specialist barristers in 5 years. 300 walked away last year alone. We miss them. Their talent and company and humour. Their help in shouldering a backlog that now stretches to the horizon.
Though sometimes I feel it, I am not alone. This summer, my (learned) friends took brave and bold action. To make this profession a better, fairer place than when we arrived. For those who choose to remain. For those brave enough to leave. And for those of us, hopelessly in love with this job, who are yet to decide.
But, most importantly, we must make this vital, important job viable for anyone who is about to begin. Regardless of their starting line.
Joanna Hardy-Susskind is a criminal defence barrister.