Law: You call it trouble, I call it success

Heather Hallett's tenure as chairman of the Bar Council was dominated by rows over `fat cat' lawyer stories. But as she prepares to leave office, her legacy is viewed as a successful healing period for the profession.
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First impressions can be deceptive. The current chairman of the Bar Council, on being told that a photographer is on the way, has reached immediately for the lipstick to repair any damage, and asks anxiously: "Is this a bad hair day?"

It would seem that the fact that the Bar Council - effectively the managing board of more than 8,000 barristers in England & Wales - had its first woman chairman in 1998 is not enough for the title to be adapted to the gender of the holder.

But in a year in which headlines have dubbed all barristers, and especially QCs, "fat cats", the Bar could not have picked a better advocate for its cause than Heather Hallett QC, a 48-year-old criminal barrister. She has been described as a "grammar-school girl made good and working mother of two". "Would they have done the same to a man, and said that he was a working father of two?" she asks.

In image terms, Hallett is the opposite of what most people's perception of a barrister is, and that has worked to her - and the Bar's - advantage.

Her father was a policeman who worked his way up from the beat to become an assistant chief constable, and was awarded the Queen's Police Medal. Her interest in law was first sparked when reading his fictional and biographical law books, and later she went on to read law at St Hugh's College, Oxford. Her contemporaries at the university included Jack Straw, David Mellor, and Nigel Wilkinson QC, now her husband, also a barrister, with whom she has two sons.

She chose to be a barrister because of "an unfortunate work experience in a law firm, where all I did was stuff envelopes in the probate department. By comparison, the Bar seemed much more glamorous to a 19-year-old".

She did her training at 6 Pump Court, and went into crime because "although the view is that it's all right for the girlies to do that sort of thing, it is also the subject I love the most". Her work includes defending and prosecuting people accused of such crimes as armed robbery, serial killings and rape, and she was made a QC in 1989.

Although she is feminist, she says "there should be equality for everyone, not just women, but also for those from all backgrounds, such as mine". This "inclusive" attitude has stood her in good stead for this year's brief of defending the Bar from media attacks and on proposals from a fellow barrister, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, to end the near monopoly that barristers have in the courts and to cut legal aid. The consensus seems to be that she has been worth her brief fee. Having been on both sides, her adversarial skills have been used to win the arguments instead of just giving a soundbite.

And one of the results of the high profile she has attained is being able to do something she originally set out to do - to change the image of the Bar. In particular, to give it a more human face by emphasising the fact - not for reasons of political correctness, but because it is a fact of life - that she has a family. "I may come back from a trip to Shanghai or Paris, where I have been networking with judges and lawyers from all over the world, but I still have to empty the washing machine. What I really need is a wife."

That human aspect also includes asking what happens to e-mails that have not appeared on her PA's computer screen 10 feet away, taking her 78- year-old mother along to the Bar Council garden party, and taking part in the City of London run for charity for the first time this year.

Such anecdotes do not detract from her being totally professional in her brief this year, which has been both to defend and promote the Bar. Tomorrow, at the Bar Council Conference which will be attended by more than 500 lawyers, Hallett will effectively be giving her "last blast as chairman" - the next meeting in November will be chaired by her successor, Dan Brennan QC, who takes over officially on 1 January.

For her end-of-term report, Hallett can say that she has done much to heal rifts within the Bar, as well as with the solicitors' side of the profession.

And, from the public's point of view, she has been extending the dialogue with the Government on its proposals for legal aid and other changes. The Bar Council hasproposed new measures for a more transparent and accountable fee system, but this could be seen as overdue in response to the "show trial" of the four QCs in the House of Lords last June, and the relentless media attacks on lawyers.

As for her parting shot tomorrow, she is on record as saying that, with 8,000 barristers, there may be an oversupply, and she does not want it to increase: "What really concerns me is the question of standards. It can't be in the public interest to flood the market with cheap and cheerful nearly-lawyers.

"If I had limitless funds, I would extend the training period - but this could make it inaccessible to those from modest backgrounds - because the Bar needs to prove that we are true specialists with in-depth knowledge and experience to survive. But the Bar is incredibly adaptable. During most of my 25 years of practice, I have been told that the Bar is going to die, but it is still here."

The stint as chairman has held a number of personal challenges. Hallett admits that, compared with legal practice, being chairman has meant having everything organised for her, and she is acutely aware that that will all change soon.

From 1 January 1999, she will be back in chambers at 23 Essex Street, in whose gym she will be able to work off all the previous year's lunches and dinners. She predicts: "I will become a fit thin cat, queueing up in the rain along with all the other lawyers to get into Wormwood Scrubs to see clients, from alleged paedophiles to murderers."