Professor Felicity Gerry QC shares her thoughts on progressing your career

Career Progression
May 2022

I didn’t plan to be a barrister but, once I was one, I did plan to go from local to national to global. At school I thought I was going to be a journalist and law would a solid foundation. However, once at university in the UK I discovered I loved legal research, particularly conflict of laws, and giving my opinion. Dressing up in black and going to court for an argument every day seemed right up my street. I started my career in a small set of chambers in Leicester, a town which no one had heard of when I went overseas until Leicester City famously won THAT soccer cup!

Two New Street Chambers had a great reputation and gave me a wonderful start in all areas of law – civil, commercial, crime and family. At one point I had quite a good mortgage practice and my introduction to property law has been invaluable in my current work on global financial crime and perhaps underpins my recent work on business and human rights. I always wanted more. The excellent Helen Johnson from Johnson Astills in Leicester once said to me “You’re always looking for what’s next”’ and she was right: As my practice progressed, I focussed on criminal law and aimed to work nationally and then internationally.

It has not been easy, but I am now listed as a Global Law Expert in International Criminal Law. I am Queen’s Counsel at Libertas Chambers, London and Crockett Chambers, Melbourne, and I am on the list of counsel at the International Criminal Court and the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague. I have also spent 3 years appointed to a legal professional disciplinary tribunal. I could say I manifested my future and maybe to some extent I did, but my current role as an international QC and Professor of Legal Practice has also been a combination of hard work and strategic planning.

What follows is the advice I give my students based on my experience:

·     Ask yourself what is your dream job? It may depend on the stage of your career, but you may have more than one. I always thought I wanted to lead in a murder trial for the defence in the Old Bailey but now I have done it, I love it, but I also know there is a world elsewhere. I went to the House of Lords on the first day of my first mini pupillage, but it was gone by the time I got to the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, I was there for a moment of genuine legal history.

·     Look up your dream job(s) online today. Believe me it is already out there. The diversity of opportunities in legal practice are phenomenal. It may be that you must work up to it and often it is harder for women:  I have knocked about on the fringes of international criminal law since about 2012 and watched mediocre men progress more quickly and women work as a service industry for senior men. There are still only 17% women on the ICC list. You need to be resilient and realistic to kick some doors open and I had to wait until my children were older to put my international boots on.

·     Write your CV now, as if you are applying for that dream job immediately. This gives you an insight into two things: Firstly, you will discover your existing skills and secondly you will see the gaps. I learned to speak to vulnerable people teaching children to ride horses. No one taught meat Bar School, but there are now courses available largely based on the work I joined at The Advocates Gateway. Believe me, everyone is vulnerable in the legal system, which is why I now write about ‘trauma informed’ courts as an issue for court integrity.

·     Fill those gaps: I have now worked for the UN. There was a ‘tickbox’ application which required a masters, so I studied for an LLM in Global Governance, for which I received the Deans medal, and, catching the research and publication bug, I now have a PhD. It is quite a thrill being a Dr. in court when everyone still wants to call you ‘Miss’.

·     Plan every 5 years: If you aspire to do more than your current role, plan, discuss with your current employer or power holder in chambers. If they support you, take it and if they don’t move on – sideways or upwards, whichever maintains your trajectory. Ultimately you are working to fill that CV.

·     Ask for help: I chose to work nationally after New Street Chambers and was disappointed at the opportunities in my first London set, but my solicitors were supportive, and I took silk in 2014. Along the way I organised CPD events which included international law, setting out my stall for the future. I also had love and help at home, which is vital.

·     Look after yourself. It is stressful enough being a lawyer without having to reinvent yourself along the way. It is even more stressful being a lawyer in a field that you do not enjoy. For many barristers there is a new career away from the toxic workplace that is the courtroom. A step outside can open your eyes to what can be achieved. I can remember a few sneering remarks back in England when I first took a role at an Australian university 10 years ago. I don’t look for those people in my rear-view mirror.

·     Work in an environment that makes you happy: 21 years ago, when my son was small, we knocked through our laundry into a brick shed and created my home office (back then with a fax machine). I haven’t been into chambers since. ‘WFH’ has been my mantra long before lockdown.

·     Challenge yourself: In the 20 years I was a junior barrister I worked about 50/50 prosecution and defence. I felt needed in cases involving women victims and co-wrote the book on sexual offending law. Once I took silk I have focussed on defending homicide, terrorism, and war crimes, where there are very few women silks, so I hope to inspire others to achieve what I have, in their own way.

·     Be proud of yourself. You deserve the reward of knowing you are an expert in your field and that others know it too. It is better than cake. If you have children, they will stop you being too self-important and if not, the dog will probably eat your slippers, or the cat will give you a knowing look as it pees in your handbag.

For those of you who should be thinking about taking silk:

Be confident in your ability and proud of your achievements. Be prepared to learn from your experiences and don’t assume we have the best justice system in the world – although it is probably better with you in it. I think there is still a culture of being ‘invited’ to apply which can mean you have to be strategic about which cases you take, what ‘extra curricular’ activities you choose and who might be your referees.

I was unsuccessful first time round but asked for feedback and followed the suggestions. I also spent 4 years only doing cases that made me look like a silk already. If you plan to sit, treat every closing address as a summing up and consider delivering CPD’s to demonstrate your expertise. These are merely suggestions that have worked for me and it will very much depend on your practice and goals.

Your career is yours and ultimately you can achieve what you can cope with. The most useful person is a mentor and I now spend as much time as I can mentoring young women who want a legal career as well as, I hope, inspiring others. These are just a few hints for those of you thinking about recruitment.I wish you good luck and I hope to see some of you in court.

Professor Felicity Gerry QC
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