Six under thirty

Six young lawyers, six entirely different career paths. The law doesn’t have to be predictable. Over the next few years The Lawyer will be tracking the progress of six lawyers under 30. By Jon Robins

The newly qualified associate

Oliver Court, Macfarlanes

The Abdulaziz Al Bassam case had all the ingredients of a great tabloid story: a wealthy Arab who claimed he could trace his bloodline back to Mohammed and who, it was alleged, was secretly married to a Jewish air hostess in London. So it was no surprise that the red tops followed the case in which, after the death of Al Bassam, the woman in question, Lesley June Burke, claimed his entire £30m fortune on the grounds that the couple had married in 1986.

“When you first become a lawyer people always say that you should try and distance yourself from cases, but it’s quite difficult when you’re dealing with emotive issues like the possible forgery of a will and the cremation of someone’s brother,” says Oliver Court, a 27-year-old associate at City firm Macfarlanes. He acted for Abdullah Saleh Al Bassam, Abdulaziz’s only surviving sibling, who argued that his half-brother was a devout Muslim who would never have married a Jew and would never have arranged to be cremated.

The three-year battle was the biggest case that Court’s lead partner, Charles Lloyd, head of Macfarlanes’ contentious trusts and probate group, had ever advised on, and it was the only work that the then trainee undertook in his first six months in the litigation department. “It was fascinating that for the first time in my career other people – that is, non-lawyers – were interested in what I was doing,” he says. “Certainly as a trainee it was the most interesting thing I was involved in.” Court has since qualified in the firm’s private client department.

“I was lucky to be treated as a member of the team rather than just a dogsbody,” he says. “We would have conferences with counsel and I’d be expected to contribute.”

So how do trainees avoid being left with the menial work? “Yes, there are times when you are left to do the crappy jobs. But if you’re careful about the firms you apply to, you can limit that.”

The clinical negligence specialist

Nina Leigh, Irwin Mitchell

Last month Nina Leigh, a 29-year-old clinical negligence specialist at Irwin Mitchell, represented the family of a nine-year-old suffering from cerebral palsy in a record £6m claim. “The cerebral palsy was the result of a road traffic accident and not clinical negligence, which was most unusual,” she says. “In the end we settled for 40 per cent of liability because of the difficulty of having to prove the force of the accident on the foetus, so we ended up with £2.4m.”

Clinical negligence, where the disciplines of law and medicine cross over, is an intimidating area for a young lawyer to take up. Leigh acknowledges that lawyers deal with everything from birth injuries to failures to diagnose breast cancer. “But whether you’re one-year qualified or ten-years’ qualified, you’re still going to get that case you haven’t some across before,” she says. “It’s up to you to do the research and make those inquiries.”

Leigh has personal reasons for choosing clinical negligence. A friend of hers, when he was a 19-year-old student, suffered a serious head injury in a car crash. “His life has been devastated – he can’t work at all and lives in a secure unit now,” says Leigh. “He used to be a promising student who could do The Times’ crossword in seconds. Now he can’t walk or live alone.”

Leigh has had an interest in head injuries ever since. “It’s an injury that people can’t see,” she says. “They’re quite often dismissive of people with such injuries, when actually it’s very disabling.” Leigh is chair of the West London branch of head injury charity Headway.

“Because of my personal experience I realise what a difference you can make to people’s lives with compensation,” she says. “It’s a way to get to rehabilitation early on and it makes such a huge difference.”

The human rights champion

Shaheed Fatima, Blackstone Chambers

In the last few months, Shaheed Fatima, a 28-year-old barrister at Blackstone Chambers, has been on the winning side in two of the most politically charged legal actions of the last year. She represented the six Roma gypsies who were trying to escape persecution in their own country but who were blocked by UK immigration officers posted at Prague Airport to ‘pre-clear’ passengers heading for the UK.

Just before Christmas, the Law Lords declared that the system discriminated against Czech Roma gypsies. The human rights group Liberty claimed that the ruling exposed “the racism at the heart of the Government’s asylum policy”. It added: “The message was absolutely clear: ‘Roma not welcome in UK’.”

“The lead judgment on race given by Baroness Hale, who said that the Prague operation was ‘inherently and systematically discriminatory’, was very powerful indeed coming at that sort of level,” explains Fatima.

The barrister was also involved in the controversial legal challenge by the family of an Iraqi civilian, Baha Mousa, who was allegedly beaten to death by UK military guards. He won the right to an “independent and effective” inquiry into his death in the High Court. The families of five other Iraqis allegedly killed by UK troops had their applications for judicial review rejected because the relatives had not died in military custody. However, they were granted permission to appeal.

Fatima was called to the bar only three years ago. She was in the European Court of Human Rights on a crucial test case as to whether a law passed by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus providing for a body to hear the property claims of Greek Cypriots displaced from Northern Cyprus was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. She also appeared before the Privy Council in another case brought by Hindi parents against the Government of Mauritius over their claims that a system for allocating places at Roman Catholic secondary schools was discriminatory.

“Ever since I joined chambers, I’ve been very fortunate in doing work which has been very interesting and I’ve always had a substantial role to play rather than just being stuck doing paginating or photocopying,” says Fatima. “It’s fairly unusual, but a reflection on the sort of work chambers does and the sort of people we have in senior positions.”the hzuman rights

The in-house starThe criminal barrister

James Bennett, Guildhall Chambers

To be 25 years of age and holding your own in the criminal courts is no mean feat. James Bennett, a barrister at Guildhall Chambers in Bristol, recently prosecuted at a Bourne-mouth Crown Court case that smashed a people-smuggling ring which was responsible for 75 ‘bogus’ students arriving in the UK. One of the ringleaders, Guram Mgeladze, landed six years in jail after he and two illegal immigrants were found guilty of charging up to £3,000 to give migrants new identities and bogus places on courses at a Bournemouth language school.

The problem with beginning a career at the criminal bar is developing a caseload. “It’s difficult to start off because you have to build a reputation, and you only build that reputation by getting good results in court,” says Bennett. “One of the reasons I chose to practise in Bristol was because I knew more work would be available for me as a junior barrister.”

“I love coming into work,” Bennett says. “It’s exciting and fun. Talking to juries is a great way to earn a living.”

The in-house star

Jo Bower, IMI

“Eating unfertilised frog spawn in Shanghai was the highlight of my year in so many ways,” says Jo Bower, corporate counsel and deputy company secretary at engineering company IMI. The 29-year-old was in China on one of a number of trips last year to the Far East to help the company set up a series of joint ventures.

“I don’t eat fish because I’m allergic to it, and I’d asked the translator, who’d told me it was egg white,” she recalls. However, her colleague later put her straight as to what the dubious-looking white substance on her plate really was. “It was a revolving restaurant and so I was already starting to feel slightly nauseous, and so to be presented with frog spawn was the last thing I needed,” recalls Bower.

Dodgy meals notwithstanding, Bower closed the deal. Being close to the heart of a business, signing off strategically important deals and making exotic trips to foreign lands were the reasons why she left Pinsents (now Pinsent Masons) to become a corporate counsel a few years ago. She is one of three lawyers in a 17,000-employee global business. She is an enthusiastic advocate for in-house life and one of the youngest lawyers to be a regional chair of the Commerce and Industry (C&I) Group.

“When I moved in-house, there was a perception that I was going for an easy life and a straightforward and mundane nine-to-five existence doing a few contracts,” says Bower, who runs the West Midlands C&I Group. “But it isn’t like that, I am delighted that it isn’t – and frankly, I didn’t think it would be anyway.”

So what does she think the in-house legal community makes of a young whippersnapper such as her? “You definitely bring a different perspective, because most of the chairs are people who are close to or at the top of their career, and therefore they have different ideas as to what’s important. I’m from the different end of the spectrum. I’m somebody who’s still trying to build their career, still trying to make it.”

Young in-house lawyers have, what Bower calls, “a delightful naivety”. She says: “We think we should be celebrating that we’re in-house lawyers and what a great job it is because we’re still fresh and green – and after five years I still think that.”

The new partner

Clare Algar, Collyer-Bristow

So how does a young lawyer manage to avoid ending up being a partner’s dogsbody? “It might be a slightly politically incorrect thing to say, but a lot depends on the quality of the trainee and how prepared they are to take stuff on,” reckons Clare Algar, who at 29 made partner last year at Collyer-Bristow.

“My idea was to go to a smaller firm and jump up and down – try to be as good as possible. And if you do that, you don’t end up doing the paginating,” she says. “Provided the firm is busy and partners are busy, they want to get rid of work and give it to someone who they know can handle it.”

To make it to the heady heights of partner before hitting 30, you have to get cracking early on. When Algar graduated, all her contemporaries went to the bigger City firms. “I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to do that because I thought it would be better fun to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond,” she says. Algar recognised that she had to specialise in something to, as she puts it, “make myself a valuable person”. She decided intellectual property (IP) was interesting, “albeit slightly terrifying”. Her firm sponsored her to do an LLM in IP-related subjects and backed her involvement in the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys, where she now chairs a subcommittee. Last month she was in the Court of Appeal acting for the defendants in a dispute over the copyright in the Doc Marten logo case (Griggs v Evans).

Algar has not noticed any discrimination on account of her relative youth. “As long as you put in the work and make them a lot of money, they’ll be perfectly happy to promote you,” she says.

This article first appeared in Lawyer 2B