My Interesting Job: Criminal Defence Lawyer

My Interesting Job: Criminal Defence Lawyer

Lucy Winter was clear she wanted to be a lawyer from the age of 11. Now thirty-years-old, she’s carving out a career as a criminal defence lawyer with Vardags, helping those who most need legal support. From her 2am call outs and visits to high security prisons, to the cases that keep her awake at night, read on to track her career path and hear the highs and lows of a life in law.

So you always wanted to be a lawyer? 
I was quite a dramatic child and always wanted to be an actress or a TV presenter. But when I won a competition and met Cherrie Booth (Tony Blair’s wife), who is a QC, and after talking to her about what she did, I knew it was for me. I was 11, so yes, from quite early on I knew what I wanted.

Are you a solicitor or a barrister?
I’m a solicitor. I initially trained as a barrister and then I chose to qualify as a solicitor. I had undertaken the Bar Professional Training Court (BPTC) and then started working in a law firm as a paralegal whilst applying for Pupillage, which is the Barrister equivalent of a training contract. Once I had been in the job for about a year, I decided that I would rather be a solicitor.

Was it hard to get a training contract? 
It is often very difficult to get a training contract. There is so much competition for each place. So, I started working in a firm as a paralegal. I applied for my training contract with them and was lucky enough to get my training contract there. I found it hugely beneficial that I had already been working in a firm when it came to parts of the interview where I was tested on my legal knowledge and practical skills. 
How long is the training process?
I did it the long way, because I qualified to be a barrister and then did another qualification to be a solicitor. Usually, you do a three-year law degree – or a different three-year degree followed by a conversion course for a year and then you do your BTPC to be a barrister, or the Legal Practice Course (LPC), if you want to be a solicitor. A training contract is typically two years long and pupillage a year. After all that you’re finally a qualified lawyer.
At what point in your training did you decide to go into criminal law?
I’ve always known I wanted to practice criminal law. I have never really considered anything else. I really believe it’s the most interesting area of law.  

How do you view your role in the criminal justice system?
To protect those who are innocent and to make sure those who are guilty have a fair result. There’s a lot of people who plead guilty because they don’t have someone to help them understand the law. I’ve also experienced defendants who’ve received sentences that are excessive or inappropriate because they haven’t thought to mention they suffer from a mental health illness or perhaps a serious drug problem which if addressed would make them less likely to re-offend. There’s always something I can put forward to help that person.

A lot of people don’t understand until they’re charged themselves how often mistakes are made... somebody needs to be on the other side, making sure their defence is put forward properly.

What made you want to go into defence rather than prosecution?
Initially because I wanted to protect those who are wrongly accused. A lot of people don’t understand until they’re charged themselves how often mistakes are made. But equally even the ones that have committed crimes still deserve representation. It has always concerned me just how disproportionate it can be when an individual faces the powers of the state. For any person who is accused of a crime, they will face the police and the CPS, who work to prepare the case against them – somebody needs to be on the other side making sure that not only is the defence to the allegations put forward properly, but also that those who work for the Crown are doing their job fairly. We work to protect people, but also to make sure that the Crown is not abusing their position.
Any advice for would-be lawyers?
Yes, I wouldn’t do a straightforward law degree – it’s quite boring. If you want to be a lawyer, I recommend doing another degree and then a conversion course. I wish I had done a history or psychology degree and then converted, because I hate theory – I’m much better at practical work. I’m not very interested in why the law is there, I just want to put it into action.

Does your job take you out of the office?
Yes, all the time. I go to the police station and the magistrates’ court a lot. I travel all over the country. In the past two months, I’ve been to Devon, Liverpool, Yorkshire, as well as many courts in London. I don’t go to many prisons anymore because I now work for a private firm, but when I was representing clients under legal aid in my last firm, I’d be visiting clients in prison about once a week too.
Are you on-call 24 hours?
Yes – if anyone gets arrested and they want us to represent them we will go, and often that can mean answering calls at two in the morning. We’ll have family members saying, “My brother’s just been arrested, can you come down to Charing Cross?” We don’t always have to go straight down there – sometimes they need time to rest or the police haven’t finished making enquires, but we’re usually up making calls and making sure they’re being looked after properly. And then we’ll be in the police station as soon as they’re ready.

What hours do you work?
They vary a lot. I am not someone who gets up at the crack of dawn and is at their desk by 7am but I’ll always stay late and you might still find me there at 10pm. It really depends on what I’ve got on – yesterday I was here until late because a client couldn’t speak to me until they’d finished work. I am happy to work around my clients. Of course, sometimes I’ll be up even later if I’m in the police station with a client. I was once in Brixton Police station on a Saturday from 4pm to 5am the next morning – I loved it though. 

Do you appear in court?  
I’ll appear in the magistrates’ court, because all solicitors have what’s known as Rights of Audience in those Courts, but for my Crown Court cases I’ll brief a barrister. Solicitors only have Rights of Audience in magistrates’ courts, so we can only appear and do the advocacy there, unless we get another qualification called your ‘Higher Rights’. Barristers, however, can appear in all courts, so we prepare the case and they do the advocacy. 
What types of cases do you work on? 
I predominantly represent people charged with sex offences or fraud. 

How do you switch off from your work cases?
Criminal lawyers are very sociable. One of the best things is sitting with your peers and just talking about cases. I love talking to more senior lawyers about their cases too, especially the really serious or difficult ones. I think it’s so nice to go for a glass of wine and debrief especially when you’re dealing with a particularly harrowing case – so many other people don’t understand the kind of things you have to read or watch on a day to day basis.

Criminal lawyers are very sociable. It’s so nice to go for a glass of wine and debrief especially when you’re dealing with a particularly harrowing case.

Any cases ever keep you awake at night?
I can sleep at night because I know so many mistakes are made, and I’ve represented plenty of clients who are innocent of the crimes they’ve been charged with. And actually, those are the cases where I don’t sleep at night – not only is my client telling me they’re not guilty, but I can see from the evidence that they’re not. I’m trying to make sure they’re acquitted and I’m so worried about the outcome because ultimately you have to leave that decision in the hands of others. Those are the most stressful cases. The consequence of someone being imprisoned if you don’t do your job properly can be extremely stressful.
What do people always ask about your job?
The question I get asked all the time is, “How can you defend someone who you know is guilty?” Obviously, there are going to be people who tell me they’re guilty. If someone tells you they’re guilty but still want to fight the charge, I can’t then represent them at trial. We would be professionally embarrassed if we went to court, because obviously, you know that they’re lying. However, when a client tells me they are not guilty of an offence, it’s not for me to judge whether they are telling the truth or not. I am there to represent them and I would never let my personal opinion of what they tell me get in the way of that. 
What’s the biggest misconception about being in criminal defence?
That you will lie for your clients to get them off. It’s absolutely ridiculous to think that.
What’s been the biggest obstacle in your career?
It wasn’t a big obstacle but when I was first applying for jobs 10 years ago, it was made a bit more difficult because I didn’t have an Oxbridge degree. I went to Cardiff University which is a brilliant university, and I hope that it’s becoming less important, but I certainly think a degree from Oxford or Cambridge opened more doors in the legal industry. 
When was the first time you’d felt you’d made a difference?
When I first started I represented a child, about 13, who had been through every children’s home in London and he had clearly come from a very difficult background. I was dealing with a bail application for him. Even though the alleged crime was very low level – he had allegedly stolen a Blackberry – they were going to remand him in custody at, what in my opinion is the worst young offenders’ prison in the country, unless we could find him a bail address. His mother said she wouldn’t take him back because her boyfriend didn’t like him, so I started ringing children’s homes outside of London. Eventually one agreed to take him – as soon as he moved there, he just started to get his life together. He was so unbelievably grateful that someone was finally believing in him and really trying to help him.
Have you ever faced prejudice being a successful woman?
No, never.
Is it still a very male-dominated industry?
At a very senior level it is, especially with barristers. When I was starting out, I was in a department which was all-female – that was a good place to begin my career. It never felt like I was competing with a man and I wouldn’t get ahead because I was a woman. It’s nowhere near as male-dominated in criminal law anymore – but I can’t speak for other areas of law.
Who inspires you and why?
The strong female partners and QC’s who have had to fight to get to the top of this profession and show that regardless of not only the prejudice, but also the cuts to funding for your representation, if you work extremely hard for your clients and are a brilliant lawyer, there are no barriers to a woman being extremely successful.
What do you like best about your job?
That I’m always dealing with people – I’m always listening to people’s stories and working out how to make sure the police or the jury or the judge understands that story.
What’s the most stressful part of your job?
That I’m always dealing with people! I’m working with them at the most stressful time in their lives – there is nothing more stressful than the idea that you might lose your liberty, your job, your family, your reputation. I believe that I’m not just there to represent them but also to support them through the process. I often find I’m being partly a therapist as well. They want to tell me everything and I’m there to listen. 
Have you ever been in a situation where you've felt scared?
No. That might sound odd considering the types of clients I have represented but I’m usually the only person that’s there to protect them. I’ve been to high-security prisons where I’m locked in a room with very violent men, but I’ve never felt scared because they’re grateful I’m there to help them.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Firstly, don’t be put off by people saying it’s gory and scary. I remember being asked a lot when I first started why a woman would want to deal with criminals. Secondly, get some experience in the job when your studying. I would recommend getting as much work experience as you possibly can. I did eight mini-pupillages and three work experience placements before I’d even finished in education. Finally, and most importantly, work hard. Treat every work experience placement and your training contract as one long interview. Once you are qualified don’t rest on your laurels. The best lawyers don’t stop trying to impress.

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