by Arna Delle-Vergini
Once upon a time, when you were called to the Bar, you answered the call only if you were prepared to live the life of an impoverished student … if not for the long-term, at least for the foreseeable future.
The Bar Readers course is three months duration full-time. Matters don’t improve a great deal once you sign the Roll of Counsel either. Even if you are one of the lucky ones to attract briefs straight away, it takes a good three months for the money to start appearing in your bank account – less clerk’s fees, disbursements, chambers fees and you must –absolutely must – put money aside for tax. Put another way: there is no money for six months and scant money for the following six months. That’s not a lot of money to live on.
Now, having gone from being an impoverished student, to a lowly paid articled clerk in a large law firm, to an even lower paid junior solicitor in small criminal law firms before coming to the Bar at aged 28, I actually felt somewhat unusually prepared to live a life of relative poverty. I reasoned that there was no great difference between being an impoverished junior barrister and being a student or an employee solicitor.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! Why didn’t somebody warn me?
Not about the obvious differences: yes, you have ‘outgoings’ as a barrister that you simply don’t have as a student or an employee junior solicitor including bar subscription fees, insurance, chambers, association fees. But why didn’t someone warn me about the less obvious costs – to your dignity for instance?
Like how every person you know suddenly thinks you are a millionaire because you go by the title: ‘Barrister-at-law’.
If I had a dollar for everyone who ever said ‘Your shout Arna? You’d be making a mint now wouldn’t you?’ I’d be able to retire. Perhaps not somewhere terribly glamorous – Bonnie Doon maybe – but I would still be able to retire!
Or the withering looks you get when you turn up to a dinner party with a bottle of wine so cheap it could double for fuel. Or how you start visiting friends and family a lot around dinner time and insisting that you’re just passing through, but not actually leaving until you’ve eaten enough to make everyone around the table stiff with embarrassment. Or the countless clients who accuse you of representing them ‘just for the money’ even when, let’s be frank, the money is rarely coming out of their own pockets and it’s a pittance anyway!
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! I could have made more money shovelling snow in the Outback!
Of course, sometimes there were just no words capable of capturing the sheer irony of the position I was in: that of a qualified professional taking home less than a junior factory worker. That’s why, at times I just like to refer to my first car – a dark green LC Torana coupe – a hand-me down from my car-enthusiast step-father because, it goes without saying, I couldn’t actually afford my own car.
‘It’s not what I had in mind’, I complained. ‘What?’, he said in obvious shock. ‘It has a 202 cubic inch 6 cylinder high compression engine with triple carbs and extractors … Brock drove one to victory. What more could you want?’. ‘But the driver’s door doesn’t even open’. ‘That’s the beautiful thing about it,’ he said, ‘you can get in and out – Dukes of Hazzard style’.
I was open to a lot of things in those days, but hoisting myself through an open driver’s window into the front seat of my car was not one of them. I had my standards.
I took the car anyway.
My fondest memories of life as a new lawyer now revolve around that car: entering it from the passenger side door, sitting for a while in the passenger seat casually reading the newspaper, making a phone-call or eating a sandwich, until I felt that sufficient time had passed for me to be able to surreptitiously slide across from the passenger to the driver’s seat without anybody noticing. It was a very delicate process, requiring terrific grace and dignity. One had to be careful, for instance, not to impale oneself on the hand-brake or tear one’s stockings on the flaking leather steering wheel cover. I like to think I pulled it off. Certainly, no one ever laughed openly and out loud at me for being probably (what I thought at the time) the only lawyer in history who couldn’t afford a car with all four doors that actually opened and shut!
When you have a passion for law – just as when you have a passion for art – you will pursue it whatever the cost. If you are young and starting out you are actually lucky because the odds are you don’t have a family to support yet, let alone a mortgage. Oddly enough, it is at this time that you can actually afford to earn a meagre wage. The only real cost is to your dignity, but I hope this blog entry demonstrates that what feels like mortification one day, will gradually turn to pride in years to come. You too will wear your stories of impoverishment and other war stories like a badge of honour – because that is exactly what they are: the glorious hard-won battle-scars of the more experienced lawyer.