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How to make it in law and politics

The two professions demand similar skills, but what does it really take to succeed in these high-powered worlds? Until World War II, the political and legal professions were strongly linked. The job of Lord Chief Justice was usually given to the Attorney General of the day; backbench barrister MPs were often rewarded with county court judgeships.

By Editorial Team. Published 27 July 2018. Last updated 25 November 2021.

These days, with long hours demanded on the benches and at the bar, today’s lawyer-politicians are fewer, but they’re truly committed to politics. Sir Keir Starmer is a favourite to become the next Labour leader; his stablemates include barrister Emily Thornberry and solicitor Rebecca Long-Bailey. Their Tory counterparts have similarly impressive legal backgrounds: there’s Dominic Raab, a Linklaters alum, and his colleagues Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and Nicky Morgan.

Some of the transferable skills behind their success are obvious: advocacy, familiarity with the law-making process and problem-solving skills. Just as important, but less visible, are the legal skills that help with an MP’s daily grind. James Berry, a barrister at Serjeants’ Inn, achieved a surprise Conservative victory in the "unwinnable" Kingston and Surbiton in 2015, before losing to the Liberal Democrats in the snap election. He says that MPs have to "try to solve often highly complex issues constituents bring to their advice surgeries". Lawyers who enjoy representing clients, Berry thinks, will be drawn to this aspect of politics.

Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk and an employment law solicitor, concurs. Constituents "often come to you in advice surgeries with complex problems, with overflowing files piled high, and you’ve got to try and distil what they’re often very anxious and stressed about into the core facts very quickly".

People skills are a must too: "Not every lawyer is empathetic — and if you’re not empathetic, I don’t think you’re well-suited to this kind of job."

Bob Neill, a Conservative MP describing himself as "a lawyer first and a politician second", also highlights the "people-facing" nature of his work as a criminal barrister as good preparation for politics. What’s more, legal training "gives you quite an analytical frame of mind," which helps when your job involves "absorbing large chunks of material and processing it into an intelligible form for yourself and parliament".

Just under half of voters want fewer lawyers elected, according to a 2014 YouGov poll, so the transition from courtroom to parliament may not be easy. Couple that with a pay cut – especially for City lawyers such as Raab – and it’s clear that you really have to want to be a politician to make the switch.

Berry "had to scale my practice down considerably to fit in the massive amount of canvassing I needed to do". Lamb worked "in the office until after midnight" during the 11 years he spent building his profile in North Norfolk. "It was a real juggling act," he says. "It involves an immense commitment of time and sacrifice, not just by you but by your family as well."

However, they all say that the effort is worthwhile. Lamb, known for his campaigning on mental health, describes it as a "noble calling". Neill, who chairs the influential Justice Committee, says: "If you think that sometimes the way the law is made and the way the law turns out is frustrating, if that’s your experience as a lawyer, you can do something about it."

Berry, now back in chambers, proudly remembers being able to "hold social media companies to account for failing to do enough to tackle hate crime and terrorist content" and to "call for new regulations to curb the rise in acid attacks". His parting thoughts: "To succeed, you have to be willing to make it your whole life. But if public service, and politics specifically, are in the blood, then go for it."

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