Case study

Criminal barrister — Chloe Ashley

Chloe initially took a degree in philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Following some work with women's charities, she's now re-trained as a lawyer

What steps did you take to get to where you are today?

After graduating in 2011, I joined a management program with the John Lewis Partnership and volunteered for women's charities on a part-time basis, offering intensive support to women involved in street prostitution, those who had been victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) and women subjected to 'honour'-based violence. I became a Rape Crisis Trustee and was responsible for partly managing the South Yorkshire centre. At this point I realised that I wanted to do something advocacy based, so reached out to several lawyers to find some work experience.

I also did a few mini-pupillages, after which I decided to cut my losses and re-train as a lawyer. I had specific aspirations to qualify as a criminal barrister. When I started my law conversion (the GDL), I successfully applied for a scholarship to undertake the Bar course. Before I started, I spent some time working in the non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector with organisations including Reprieve, and later the Department for International Development.

At Reprieve I provided legal and investigative support to those facing execution. Part of my work also involved the representation of those victimized by states' abusive counter-terror policies, including rendition, torture, extrajudicial imprisonment and killing.

I completed the Bar course in 2014, followed by an internship in Houston with Texas Defender Service. Since then I've obtained pupillage and qualified. I'm now a tenant at a No5 Chambers in Birmingham where my practice has developed a particular emphasis on serious crime. My cases range from conspiracies to supply drugs and firearms, gang-related crime, serious assaults and money laundering to representing victims of modern day slavery.

How relevant is your philosophy degree?

In the legal world a philosophy degree is valued highly as it evidences an ability to think clearly and critically. My degree allowed me to hone my writing and deductive skills, which are still relevant now as I often submit arguments in writing, such as advice to clients.

In court I routinely have to construct new arguments - often on the spot - so the disciplines that I developed while undertaking my studies, including thinking on my feet, when in Sheffield have been instrumental furthering my career.

What's a typical working day like?

I usually travel to court for a 9.30am start, so leave the house before 7am. Sometimes I arrive at court early to read through papers and refresh my memory, or to meet with the solicitor instructing me. On any given day, I'll work 10 to 12 hours - I spend a lot of time stood on my feet in court advocating, or in front of a computer screen.

In terms of the work itself, in court I can be doing anything from cross-examining a police officer or making a speech to a jury, to mitigating for a client before they're sentenced. I also spend a great deal of time with my clients and their families advising on the issues in their respective cases.

Great attention to detail and a sympathetic ear are a must in my job. At the end of the day I sometimes call into Chambers and catch up with my clerks to discuss upcoming cases.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The people and the quality of work. From the day you start pupillage you become involved in real, valuable work and see first-class advocates in court. Your supervisor will rely heavily on you to assist in preparing their cases, whether they need help drafting documents, preparing cross-examination or assistance with speech writing, to name some tasks.

Each case, even if the charges are the same as others, brings new challenges. You're constantly learning more about the people you represent and the law, as well as the tactical decisions taken by barristers, all of which allows you to continually grow as an advocate.

What are the challenges?

Earnings for barristers in the early stages of their career at the publicly funded Bar (i.e. legal aid) are extremely low, and there is considerable delay between doing the work and receiving payment. Deductions for costs such as rent for chambers, clerks' fees, tax, insurance and travel must also be taken into account when you're self-employed.

The second biggest challenge personally is the impact on your social life. While courts sit at regular hours during the day, barristers frequently have to work long, unsocial hours involving evenings and weekends, particularly at the beginning of their career. It's very important to have the support of your friends and family around you.

What advice can you give others?

Plan ahead and make the most of your degree - use your time while you're still at university and just afterwards wisely. Think about the things you can be doing to gain experience, build networks and learn new skills. It doesn't matter if you don't know what you want to do when you graduate - think more about the person you want to be, the lifestyle you’d like to have and work inwards from there.

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