A vital part of learning about good advocacy is the observation of others. It is one of the strengths of a good pupillage (and no, I am not getting into a barrister v solicitor debate here, it is just an observation on the benefit of observing). A good training for an advocate allows them to observe a wide range of different advocates with little else for them to think about other than learning from what they experience. It also allows the neophyte the opportunity to discuss the whys and wherefores of what they see with the participants.
It is one of the great shames of current times that the opportunities for the young advocate to observe great advocacy as a participant themselves is greatly reduced by the lack of junior briefs knocking about. Within in a year of being called I had the opportunity to be the junior in a drugs importation. The cast of Silks in the case read like Northern advocacy aristocracy – Birkett, Walsh, Burke, Morris, Nolan and the late and very great Mick Maguire.
It really was my very great privilege to sit down and talk advocacy with Mick Maguire QC, recipient of the Military Cross, Silk for almost thirty years by that stage and supreme advocate. To speak with him was an education in itself. The real lesson that I learned at the time, however, came from Anthony Morris QC (now HHJ Morris QC at the Central Criminal Court) who executed the perfect cross-examination of the officer in the case, limiting the officer to only “yes” or “no” answers and, frankly, winning the case there and then without the need to call his client. It was brilliant. And whilst I have never achieved the same dazzling perfection I learned much about what can be achieved by planning, preparation and being in control of the examination.
Twenty-one years on from that case and I am still learning about advocacy from watching others. Good and bad. I have spent quite a lot of this year hanging around robing rooms where I am a stranger. This means I spend more time observing than I do participating. When I am in the comfort of the robing room at Minshull Street I am too busy reading the newspaper (paid for by the Northern Circuit, other Circuits please take note) or chatting to my mates (and before anyone else says it, yes, they are usually friends of Mrs VFTN who have to tolerate my sullen ways because of her) to really take note of how others conduct themselves in the robing room.
My recent eavesdropping has brought back something that the late Mick Maguire QC said to me all those years ago. We are opponents in the courtroom, that is where you argue your case. Now no one could suggest that Mick was anything other than a fearless advocate. He did not shy away from the fight. Yet he knew when to have the fight and he knew when talk in the robing room was bluster and pointless. Save your advocacy for the courtroom.
There is no point carrying the adversarial nature of what we do into the robing room. Of course, occasionally, you have stand your ground, but I have seen so much talk in robing rooms where the two opponents have been so absorbed in being agin each other that they they seem more concerned about being at loggerheads than being reasonable, sensible or, even, coherent.
If robing room discussion is no more than playing out the arguments in court, what is it going to achieve? If all you are doing is arguing with your opponent then leave it there. Talk about the weather. Talk about Celebrity X-Factor’s Little Voice Bake Off. Talk about anything, but do not become so lost in your case that you cannot see your way ahead.
There are times when you can hope to persuade your opponent of the merit of something to your advantage. Calm reason is more likely to achieve that than anything else. Scorching advocacy, at that stage, is likely to achieve nothing other than the entrenching of positions and talking at cross-purpose.
That is what I have learned recently. I have relearned something I was told a long time ago. And I have done it through watching and learning.