Nadine Radford: the barrister they call `sir'

The profession's profile has changed, but old habits die hard, as one m odern lawyer told Paula Nicolson
From the age of seven Nadine Radford has wanted to be a trial attorney, the equivalent of a barrister in her native United States. She has fulfilled her ambition and practises in London as a barrister specialising in criminal law, and is a member of the Bar Council.

Her convent school education provided many opportunities to demonstrate a natural talent as an advocate for friends in trouble with the nuns, and both parents were keen for her to achieve her academic and professional goals.

"My father firmly believed that if you had intelligence and ability it should be used to help someone else," she says - a message that has stayed with her throughout her professional life. Her earliest memories of other people's disadvantage date from family visits to Manhattan, when her father made deliberate detours through Harlem.

She arrived in the UK in 1971 to pursue her ambitions, married an Englishman who was also training to be a barrister, and was called to the Bar in 1974.

At that stage there were few women barristers who were married. "Women were routinely asked about their plans to have children," Ms Radford says. "I remember when it was considered a breakthrough to have one woman in every chambers."

In her own set she is one of nine women out of 38 barristers, although she is clear that she does not want to be seen primarily as a representative of her sex. She recalls with affection a new clerk calling her "sir". To Ms Radford, this was acceptance.

She believes that to succeed at the Bar women must break free from the stereotypical notion that they need concessions, and should expect to be judged according to their ability as barristers. She also believes that women need to be seen to have expertise beyond that involved in family or rape cases, where some are still sidelined.

Her aura of professional confidence combined with femininity contradicts any simplistic stereotyping. Her background helps her to provide expert support for her clients without overpowering them.

"I try to involve my clients," she says. "I always tell them the truth as best I know, and inform them that they have a choice. No client need feel they are stuck with me."

She believes that the majority of people she represents in her legal aid work have never been given the chance to participate in any aspect of their lives. When they have her as their barrister, she attempts to turn the tables and give them both information and choice.

"I always represent people to the limits of my ability. Even if they don't get the result they want, the clients have had a proper stab at justice and will probably have learnt something about themselves along the way."

She takes the need to participate seriously and applies this to herself as well as her clients. "I don't believe people should sit on the sidelines and criticise," she says. "If you think something should be different then it is up to you to get involved."

This view led her to stand for the Bar Council in 1986, and she has been a member ever since. She has been elected to a number of committees, including professional services, and now chairs the Bar services committee. In addition to these commitments shesits as an assistant recorder in the Crown Court.

She is deeply concerned with the image and practice of her profession, and has seen many changes, even in her eight or nine years on the council. She believes it to be more representative now, with increased awareness of the public it ultimately serves. "At the same time the public are more aware of their rights against us, which is very important," she says.

And barristers are now drawn from wider social and educational backgrounds. Ms Radford says that the Bar Council is striving to ensure that this new breed of barrister is empowered to make the system work by encouraging participation by the young Bar.

"You no longer have to be Oxbridge-educated and white, male and middle-class. That is not how society is structured, and the Bar has to reflect society."

Her experience of the Bar has generally been positive, although it has no "cosy, clubby atmosphere". Being a barrister is highly competitive, but Ms Radford maintains that she has never been bereft of advice or someone to turn to. Colleagues provide mutual practical and emotional support in both their professional and private lives.

"The public often don't realise the extent of the back-up they get," she says. "They have hired one barrister, but they get the wisdom of many. I may go to my head of chambers to discuss his approach to a particular case, or ask younger members for help with research." And even outside their own chambers, barristers exchange ideas and experiences.

Her private life has not been as sheltered as may appear from the ease with which she accounts for herself. She is the oldest of four children: one brother died from leukaemia at the age of 11, and the youngest child was born with Down's syndrome.

Despite her long-held legal ambitions, she has always wanted children. When she and her husband were told that they could not have them she rose to the challenge of proving the doctors wrong, and produced four children, now aged between eight and 19.

She says that combining career and motherhood does not provide easy options, and whether to have children is a dilemma that every professional woman has to face. "My mother, who didn't go to university, told me that the best thing I could do for myself and my children was to carry on with my career," she says.

The fact that her parents now live in London and occupy the basement of the Radford family home is a bonus, and has been an invaluable opportunity for Ms Radford to focus on building her career while being reassured about the care of her family. She works a six-day week, often from eight in the morning until past nine at night, but she could not be happier, she says. "I achieve a great deal of intellectual satisfaction, meet people from all sorts of backgrounds, and learn about new things with each case . I can't remember a time when I have not gained value back from my work. You couldn't ask for more, could you?"