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Rising through the ranks and teaching the next generation: An interview with Amy Murphy

Alumni, ULaw Tutor and BPTC Crime Co-ordinator Amy Murphy studied the Bar Vocational Course at our Bloomsbury campus in 2004. Since then she has risen from pupillage to tenancy and has recently been appointed as a Recorder to sit in the Family Court. We caught up with Amy to discuss what her new position will entail and how it compliments her teaching skills.

I applied very late for the law conversion course at my local university as I had lined up a place at a drama school in London at the end of my degree, but I decided that I wanted more stability in my career than acting was likely to give me. I was only able to do the BVC because of a major scholarship from Middle Temple. However, I had explored a career in law when I was at school and I think it was always in the back of my mind. I have always loved language so it was the art of advocacy that drew me to the Bar in particular.

In pupillage I started with a very mixed, common-law practice. I then narrowed it down to family law and crime for the first four or five years, before specialising in crime. There are several reasons why I loved the criminal bar, I loved the advocacy and being in court every day. It’s fun and challenging, no two days are the same. I also wanted to practise in an area of law with a human element, and criminal law is one such. I felt that I was doing something worthwhile as well as something I found intellectually challenging and interesting. Having tried various areas of practice, crime was where I felt that I fitted best.

I was lucky in obtaining pupillage in my first year of applying and I went straight to St Ives Chambers in Birmingham in autumn 2005. After pupillage I was taken on as a tenant and I remain a door tenant to this day. However, for personal reasons I decided to take a step back from practice and so I joined ULaw in summer 2017. I should also add that since 2014 I have spent several days a year sitting as a Tribunal Member of the Medical Practitioners’ Tribunal Service (the regulatory body for doctors) where I hear cases relating to doctors’ fitness to practise. When I joined ULaw the Birmingham Dean, Sarah Ramsey, agreed that I could continue with this role.

I’ve recently been appointed a recorder, which is a part-time Circuit Judge. A recorder sits in either the Crown, County or Family Courts, depending on jurisdiction, for several weeks each year. Most tend to be in practice for the remainder of the year, although there are some District Judges and other people like me who are employed elsewhere. A recorder must be a qualified solicitor or barrister with at least 7 years’ experience. 

I have been appointed to sit in the Family Court. I will largely hear cases brought under the Children Act 1989, either in private law (disputes between parents over the care of their children) or in public law (where the Local Authority seeks an order in relation to children that they say are at risk of harm). Given the level of judiciary I’ve been appointed to, they are likely to be the more complex cases or where there are serious allegations of harm to the child(ren). Day to day I may have case management and other interim hearings where I need to give directions about the future running of the case, or I may hear longer fact-finding or final hearings in which I need to make findings or decide what orders, if any, are appropriate. I imagine that each week will be different, and there will be some effort to ensure judicial continuity (the same judge conducting all hearings in the same case) so that will affect my diary.

I decided to apply as it has been a long-held ambition for me to sit on the bench. It will be enormously challenging, emotionally as well as intellectually, but you don’t begin a career at the Bar unless you like a challenge. I hope that it will bring a new perspective to my experience as an advocate, hearing both sides rather than presenting one case to the best of my ability, which I can then pass down to my students. I also thought that it would be a more predictable way of maintaining a link to active practice than returning to the Bar and so would sit more easily alongside my teaching timetable.

My main job is as a tutor on the BPTC at ULaw, and my appointment as a reporter does not change this. As it is only a part-time role, happily I am able to continue to teach for the rest of the year.

The students are the best thing about teaching the BPTC. They keep me on my toes as much as any judge used to do. It is easy to become a bit cynical practising at the Bar day in, day out, and so I find it refreshing to look at everything again through the prism of enthusiasm that BPTC students bring, and to remind myself of why we do certain things or do them in a certain way. It’s really satisfying helping them to understand or to improve in their advocacy. I am also genuinely delighted when my students do well – some of my first cohort are now tenants at chambers in Birmingham and I couldn’t be prouder of them.

It can be hard to maintain a healthy work/life balance. I do try to make sure that weekends, or at least the majority of the weekend, is dedicated family time. I have two young children and I’m very conscious that they will be small for such a short period that I want to spend as much time with them as possible now. For me, booking things in the diary (and paying for them), such as exercise classes or fun activities, also makes me prioritise them in a way that I probably would not if they were just desirables.

Some people study law for the academic rigour of it with no intention of pursuing a legal career, and to them I would say that law is an interesting subject and a degree that I believe is well-regarded whatever sphere you wish to enter. However here are my top tips for students who are considering a career in law and do not know whether to study it at degree level:

  • Get some experience. Law in practice can be very different to studying it academically. You will not know whether it is something you will enjoy unless you spend some time in a solicitor’s office or in chambers. I would also recommend trying different areas of law or types of practice/chambers as being able to rule things out can be just as useful as finding something you like. Knowing whether you actually want a legal career will assist in degree choice.
  • Do something you think you will be good at. For a lot of pupillages and training contracts, academic success is a requirement, so do an undergraduate degree you will enjoy, engage with and therefore do well at, even if that is not law – and then come to ULaw for the Graduate Diploma in Law or the MA.

Being appointed as a judge has been one of the highlights of my career. My first, and only, appearance in the Court of Appeal was certainly another one; even though I lost the appeal against conviction, being complimented on my written and oral submissions by three of the best legal minds in the country was amazing. On the other hand, the small victories matter just as much. In one of my last cases, my drug-supplying client was delighted when, having advised him he was looking at 16 years’ imprisonment, I managed to persuade the judge down to 10 years. In the cells afterwards he wanted to give me a hug and offered to “do me a favour” if I ever needed one. I politely declined both offers but it still makes me smile.

 

You can find more information on studying with tutors like Amy Murphy on the BPTC now.