Why I shunned retirement and became a barrister instead

After retirement, playing bad golf and volunteering an evening or two a week wouldn’t be enough. Reinvention as a practising barrister as well as those would be better

Barristers don’t have to wear a wig these days, although it is unwise not to wear one in certain judges’ courts. Some barristers say wigs are useful on bad hair days.    Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

Barristers don’t have to wear a wig these days, although it is unwise not to wear one in certain judges’ courts. Some barristers say wigs are useful on bad hair days. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

 

At an age when most of my peers were thinking about retirement, I trained as a barrister. I had worked successfully as a town planner for years, now I practise as a junior counsel in the Four Courts and on circuit. My move to law sparks people’s curiosity. People ask me to tell them about compulsory “dining” for law students in King’s Inns; I’m asked whether I have to wear a wig in court, and if there is age discrimination against late-in-the-game barristers.

Dining for students in King’s Inns is a great, living tradition which dates from the era when students learned law from discussions with lawyers over evening meals. My experience of dining was positive. One evening, having donned the required black gown, I waited with my colleagues to be admitted to the magnificent James Gandon-designed dining hall. Unexpectedly we were joined briefly by Gabriel Byrne and other actors dressed in 1950s-style clothes.

The actors were taking a break in shooting the TV series Quirke. Films are often shot at King’s Inns, but that was the only evening I conversed with a movie star before dining.

Barristers don’t have to wear a wig these days, although it is unwise not to wear one in certain judges’ courts. Some barristers say wigs are useful on bad hair days.

My interest in the legal profession built up slowly. I have given planning evidence in High Court judicial review cases on occasion during my town planning career. My evidence was tested in subtle cross-examination by senior counsel.

When reading some court judgments as part of my planning work, I saw references to people like Robert Frost and WB Yeats, and to Greek mythology and the meaning of life. I was impressed that many lawyers argue for fairness and fight against discrimination on many grounds, including gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability and age. A friend was a student in King’s Inns and his enthusiasm about studying law was infectious.

After leaving school, I got an honours civil engineering degree from University College Dublin and, a few years later, a post-graduate qualification in town planning, again from UCD. Then I worked as a planning appeals inspector with An Bord Pleanála and later moved to local government.

My work included directing preparation of the environmental impact statement for part of the M50 motorway. I became chief planner and director of services with Fingal County Council and, later, I was an independent town planning consultant.

In my late 50s, I wanted to do something different, worthwhile and outside my comfort zone. Retirement, playing bad golf and volunteering an evening or two a week wouldn’t be enough. Reinvention as a practising barrister as well as golf and volunteering would be much better.

Before my decision to become a law student, some questions remained: would I face discrimination because of my age as a late-entrant barrister, would I be able to hack it as a student, what would my wife say? I suspected strongly that she would not be impressed if “my head was always stuck in the books”. Would I have time to put out the bins? Having negotiated my way through such matters, I began my law studies in King’s Inns in 2010.

Three years later I was awarded the degree of barrister-at-law and was called to the Bar by the Chief Justice in the Supreme Court. Then I became “devil” or pupil under the guidance of an experienced practising barrister called my master. Devilling was a great experience. Devils learn fast by necessity. I regularly addressed the court in place of my master in the Master’s Court, the Circuit Court and the High Court.

I drafted court documents and legal opinions, undertook legal research for my master and attended consultations with clients. Employment law, judicial review, land law, personal injuries, negligence and pre-litigation settlement negotiations issues all came on my radar.

One morning in Naas courthouse, a young barrister introduced herself to me: “I’m Beth, your devil sister.” I quickly figured out this meant Beth had devilled in a previous year with my master.

My years as a professional town planner are useful to me now as a junior counsel dealing with planning, environmental and local government law. For instance, my former work helps me to find my way efficiently around what Prof Yvonne Scannell refers to as “our excessively opaque planning legislation”.

My legal work is not confined to planning; I was very happy when my first bail application for a client in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court was successful.

What next? In the short term, I hope to build my practice as a barrister and to continue to enjoy it. In the medium term, who knows? There is neither age discrimination against late entrants nor a compulsory retirement age for barristers. Work, life and learning go on. Douglas Hyde is a barrister

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