From Paralegal to Barrister by Gail Farrington…

Gail Farrington

August 2011 was one of the proudest moments of my legal career, it was the day I was called to the Bar. But a career at the bar was not something that I had ever considered.

I left school at 16 with an armload of GCSE’s and no real idea what to do with myself – I initially had lofty ideas of being a graphic designer, but a brief stint on a Youth Training Scheme (the eighties equivalent of an apprenticeship of sorts) and then a sudden realisation that a lack of artistic talent was a bit of a stumbling block, I applied for a job as a legal cashier for a firm in Hull.

It wasn’t long before I realised I wanted more than a 9 to 5 office job and I was lucky enough to be offered a trainee legal executive position within my firm and so my legal career began.

I have been incredibly lucky over the years and have had the support of family, friends and employers who have all helped me not only train and study to qualify as a Legal Executive, but subsequently qualify as a solicitor and then ultimately transfer to the bar.

But when I look back over my 21 year career, I realise that the hardest part of any of it was actually qualifying as a Legal Executive. My studies were all undertaken by correspondence and the last thing I often wanted was to get home after a hard day at work to start on the books and study into the evening.

Many a summer was missed preparing for exams and there were disappointments along the way – failing one of my exams was a huge blow – but in some respects it was what I needed – I couldn’t take anything for granted and if I wanted to achieve anything I had to work hard.

Finally, 5 years later I became a Member of the Institute of Legal Executives and subsequently I became a Fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives.

I could have left matters there and to be honest would have gone on to enjoy a successful career practising in Family Law. I decided, however, that I wanted to spend more time as an advocate. Times have changed and of course nowadays, Legal Executives can enjoy extended rights of audience by qualifying as Chartered Legal Executive Advocates. Not so in my day which ultimately prompted me to extend my studies and qualify as a solicitor.

My decision to transfer to the bar was actually not something I had really considered – but sometimes opportunities come our way and I decided to take it. I haven’t regretted that decision for a moment.

You may wonder why I have given you this potted history of my legal career. Certainly it is not to pat myself on the back and congratulate myself. I am often accompanied at court by a Legal Executive, or Paralegal and I am always interested to learn from them about their plans for the future career. However, I am frequently saddened when they introduce themselves by saying “I am just a Legal Executive” or “I am only a Paralegal” as if they feel that they have to apologise for the title.

As I say, the hardest part of the journey for me was qualifying as a Legal Executive and for me it was a massive achievement – I certainly did not feel the need to apologise for giving up every moment of spare time to study or for giving up weekends to sit exams – all in addition to working full time.

With regards to the practice of law, there are many people who make it all come together. Legal Executives are an important aspect of that process and have been since the early days of the managing clerk back in the 19th century.

At the outset of your training you may find yourself doing all kinds of tasks including accompanying counsel to court. For me that was one of my favourite parts of the job – I saw it as an opportunity to learn from people and would enjoy nothing better than watching what was going on in court around me. In other words don’t simply see it as being the job of the dogsbody – take the opportunity to learn from others. Ask questions of counsel if you are not sure what’s going on or why matters are going in a particular direction. I for one am always happy to pass on my pearls of wisdom to those who are keen to learn.

Having achieved your Legal Executive qualification, be proud of it. Thanks to a change in the rules, Legal Executives can and do become partners in solicitors’ firms and if you choose to advance your studies then of course it is possible to go on to qualify as a solicitor or a barrister. Beyond that, I know of several members of the judiciary who started their careers as Legal Executives and hopefully the numbers will continue to rise.

Of course the purpose of this article is not to tell all Legal Executives that they must go on to “bigger and better things” – the purpose is to make you realise that you hold a valuable qualification in its own right and that is a huge achievement.

I’m sure many of you do feel that way – and I for one hope that is the case. But for those who have in the past introduced themselves as “just a Legal Executive”, I really hope I have gone some way to making you feel a sense of pride and achievement. After all, if you don’t, recognise your achievements, how can anyone else.

Gail Farrington
St Mary’s Chambers, Nottingham