In the first of a series of interviews with Paul McBride QC, Paul discusses joining the bar aged 22, becoming a QC aged 35 and what not to do if instructed to appear.
Paul McBride QC called at the Scottish Bar in 1998 and has since established himself as one of the most highly regarded and
highest profile criminal lawyers in Scotland. At the age of 35 Paul was appointed a Queen's Counsel, the youngest ever QC appointed in the UK. He is well known for his frequent involvement in the highest profile criminal cases reported in Scotland.SM: When did you make the decision to become an advocate?
Paul McBride QC: Extremely early in my career. I left school at 16 to study law and graduated at 19. I knew that I wanted to work as a court lawyer, or advocate and my decision was made when I realised that I wanted to practice in the highest courts in the land, rather than the sheriff courts. I arrived at the bar aged 22 and everybody told me that I had made the wrong decision - they told me I was too young, too inexperienced and had no contacts.
SM: How did you overcome these obstacles?
Paul McBride QC: Luck and ability, I think.
What I quickly realised was that although everyone at the bar is effectively in competition there is a real collegiate atmosphere in which advocates rally around one another in both personal and professional ways. So assistance from other advocates helped greatly. I also had two excellent devil masters, Graham Bell QC and Lady Smith and they encouraged me to spend as much time as I possibly could watching other advocates with a view to picking up the techniques which worked and avoiding those that didn't.
SM: These obstacles must still exist for people arriving at the bar - what advice would you offer them?
Paul McBride QC: I have had 13 devils and I encourage them to watch what I do and what other people do with a view to them developing their own styles. Their own styles will inevitable include bits borrowed from the people they have enjoyed watching, but that is the same for everyone.
I also try to get them my devils not to rule out particular types of work. There is such a breadth of work available that you may not be sure about what you are actually good at until you try it. When I set out I had no idea that I was going to end up doing high profile criminal cases, media work or more recently inquiries.
Recently I did the first ever case for a Church of Scotland minister who had been defrocked. It was a full judicial hearing in front of a jury of Church Of Scotland Elders who, for the first time, were able to directly question Counsel. Some of the Elders were Sheriffs, Judges, Advocates and Lawyers and so it was daunting and difficult, but ultimately a great experience. If you shut the door on particular types of work you are only narrowing your future experiences.
One of the most important things to remember is that people work with people and you are far more likely to keep getting instructions if you do the job well and are easy to be with. If you are appear diffident, aloof or arrogant you are unlikely to get a lot of repeat instructions.
Finally, and most importantly, your integrity is absolutely critical. If you lose the trust of your colleagues or mislead the court you are finished.SM: In your early days who did you watch to learn what to correcly when appearing?
Paul McBride QC: I watched Graham Bell in the appeal court and he really had the ear of the court, which could be gleaned even from the way the judges looked at him. I watched Donald Findlay's cross-examination style which was tremendous and I also borrowed elements of Lord MacAuley's style. In the end you develop your own style but everybody borrows something from somebody else.
SM: And what did you learn not to do?
Paul McBride QC: Counsel who are badly prepared can be humiliated. Occassionally you see Counsel who have not read the papers being humiliated by the witness they are meant to cross-examining. This can be excruciatingly embarrassing. So, Rule Number 1; Read the Papers.SM: Going into the Appeal court, aged 22 and with relatively little experience, must have been pretty daunting?
Paul McBride QC: It was extremely daunting. I was very young, looked even younger and was very inexperienced. I remember my first appearance was a poor one. I was obviously affected by it but wiser counsel told me that the only way to overcome my reservations or fears was by getting back into court the next day and I did exactly that. For nine years thereafter I spent every day appearing in the appeal court and the experience which I gained from that was invaluable.
More recently I have appeared in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and I am due to be the first Scottish Counsel to attend the new Supreme Court for the Crown. These environments are daunting but experience has taught me that there is a lot more to be gained by appearing than what can be lost in a poor performance.
You have to have faith in your own ability to up your game and when you fall off the only thing to do is get back on again.