WHY DO CRIMINAL LAWYERS HAVE ALL THE BEST STORIES? A REVIEW OF “UNDER THE WIG”

The bookshops appear to be awash with books by lawyers, fiction and non-fiction. Virtually all of these are by criminal lawyers.  We civil lawyers clearly have far less interesting stories to tell. When I was sent “Under the Wig” by William Clegg QC I knew it was going to be about criminal law, and thus interesting to the general reader. However is it worth reading from the point of view of the civil lawyer?

THE JOURNEY

The book should put an end to the view that every member of the Bar comes from an elite. William Clegg is the product of a secondary-modern school, his parents were florists. He went from Bristol University to the Bar.  Having obtained pupillage by paying his pupil master 100 guineas,  he wasn’t kept on afterwards, after a bumpy ride he obtained a tenancy and went on to become head of chambers.  It was Perry Mason that made him want to become a barrister.

LESSONS ON ADVOCACY AND PREPARING A CASE

Given the nature of this blog I am foregoing all the interesting criminal cases and looking at stories and guidance that apply across the board.  There is plenty to find in this book.

  • When starting to prepare a case for the defence, look at the prosecution case in detail before you look at the defence. What does the prosecution have to prove,? What will they be doing to establish what they are alleging?
  • William nearly always visits the scene of a murder to understand the evidence and speak more authoritatively in court (Similarly, in civil cases, site visits are often a good idea).
  • Details can be important in a case, so always prepare properly.

WITNESSES CAN LET YOU DOWN – PARTICULARLY THE CONFIDENT ONES

Another lesson for all lawyers is that witnesses will, almost invariably, let you down, particularly those who are confident and keen to give evidence.  In the case of defending a war criminal, Sawoniuk, William advised him not to give evidence, the defendant was adamant that he would. The witness had been advised to “listen to what he was asked”, “answer succinctly” and not to wander off topic.

“Sawonuik ignored all of this. The court room saw a clash of styles. Sir John [Nutting] was very courteous to Sawoniuk. In return Sawoniuk was argumentative and aggressive. He came across as cantankerous, ignorant and stubborn.  Over two days, Sir John reeled him in, slowly, surely, devastatingly”.  This led to a conviction.  (This is also interesting lesson in the devastating power of courtesy).

EXPERTS ARE ON FIRE

Criminal lawyers have to use experts too.  In one case, involving an alleged fraud relating to mines, the elderly mining expert attended a conference in chambers.  There was no central heating and the witness kept his coat on throughout the morning. After lunch, and the expert appeared to have had a “good lunch” he commandeered the warmest spot next to the only gas fire in the room, the “sadly didn’t assist him in his efforts to stay awake, but he certainly woke up when his coat caught fire”. 

THE DECLINE OF LEGAL AID

One chapter everyone should read is “Trying Times for Legal Aid” which follows the remarkable and catastrophic decline of public funding of the criminal justice system. Swingeing cuts have been made; the budget for maintaining the courts has withered;  the court buildings have declined “and there is a general felling of squalor that you might expect in a developing country”.

The profession is in crisis “We are rapidly approaching the position where only those with private incomes can afford to practice as a Legal Aid barrister, with the inevitable loss to diversity. It is no surprise that applications for pupillage in my chambers have fallen by two thirds in the past eight years.”

SHOULD WE READ IT?

Well, I am glad I did.  The book spans fifty years of law.  In addition to the criminal cases, murder, war crimes, phone-tapping, there are interesting insights into a changing profession. There is the story of the internal “chamber’s revolt” which led to chambers splitting up (strangely those who staged the coup stayed where they were – the “old guard” left the building). It is a story of someone who enjoys their job”: “what I like doing more than anything else is reading a new case, because even after all these years I still feel that excitement”…  That moment shen I am about to turn the first page is the most thrilling”.

Turning the first page in this book is well worthwhile, fifty years is distilled into 275 pages.

The only thing the worries me a little is whether there will ever be a civil lawyer who is able to right a readable autobiography.  Criminal lawyers seem to have all the best tunes.