Sarah Langford has been a practising barrister in criminal and family law since 2006. She studied the GDL at The University of Law Guildford campus and was awarded a scholarship from Gray's Inn of Court.
By Cara Fielder. Published 21 September 2018. Last updated 13 June 2022.
After practising law for nearly a decade Sarah took parental leave to start a family and also used her time-off to write about her experiences as a barrister. In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law has been published to rave reviews from the likes of Helena Kennedy QC and the Secret Barrister, it has also been optioned for TV by the British production company Working Title. We caught up with Sarah to talk about her time at ULaw and the inspiration behind her new book.
Why did you decide to study law after gaining your BA in English Literature? I wanted a career where I was able to use my one true love: words. I also fell under the spell of the criminal Bar – the wigs, the gowns, the idea of standing up for the small man against the state. It is – from afar at least – still terribly romantic.
Why did you choose The University of Law to study the GDL? I was living at home with my parents in Winchester at the time and Guildford was my nearest law school, being a mere two-hour daily commute. I also chose it because it was a self-contained institution dedicated only to law (and because you could sometimes see deer in the grounds outside the classroom windows).
What was your highlight of your time with us? Winning the ‘friendly’ competition I had with the guy I ran the debating society with. It was held in the evening and wasn’t very popular, so we thought we should compete to see who could get the most people to come. He bagged the beginning half of the year, figuring – rightly – that any enthusiasm would have worn off by the end of the year when everyone was cramming for exams. So when it was my turn I knew I needed to do something different. I went through dozens of old exam papers, picked out a topic from each subject which always seemed to come up, and based the debating question around the topic. I printed out posters which made this clear and promised a hand-out of notes about the topic for those who came to the debate. There was barely a spare seat left. I didn’t get a prize for beating him sadly, other than the look on his face at the size of the audience.
Your career journey has taken some fascinating turns. How much of your career was mapped out in advance? Almost none of it. It was only when I got towards the end of university that I decided I would try to become a barrister after a friend encouraged me to do so. However the jobs I took afterwards – from working as a legal secretary to pulling pints in a pub where lots of barristers stayed when appearing in the nearby court – were all with this in mind.
Maternity leave gave me an enforced break from the Bar, and I started writing small blog pieces to get my hand in. It was a friend who read one of my blogs who then sent me to her literary agent.
It’s right to say that I’ve never had a long term plan, but when I have wanted to achieve something I do think about different ways of getting there and stay focused until I do.
Who or what were your university and career inspirations and role models? Almost all barristers I had heard or read about before law school were white, middle aged and male. However I then discovered Brenda Hale and Helena Kennedy QC and they quickly became pin ups for me, not just because they were women but because of the things they said and the way they said them. It still seems genuinely extraordinary that one of them has now given me the cover quote for my book.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far? I will always remember the first time I appeared alone in the Court of Appeal. My leader had left the case shortly after our trial and so I had to advise the client, draft the grounds of appeal by myself and appear in court alongside much more experienced counsel. It was terrifying. Thankfully the court allowed my application and significantly reduced his sentence. Although I have been in the Court of Appeal since, none of the other occasions have quite beaten that first time.
What inspired you to write your new book, In Your Defence? It was partly inspired by the swathe of medical narrative non-fiction – Henry Marsh’s ‘Do No Harm’, Adam Kay’s ‘This is Going to Hurt’, Stephen Grosz’s ‘The Examined Life’ – and partly by the desire to show the human side of the law. I wanted to shine a light not towards the front of the courtroom – on the lawyers and the judge – but towards the back, and on the people who found themselves caught up in the legal system. I wanted to explain the day-to-day reality of life as a barrister through the stories of the people I saw time and again, who were always so much more complex than the newspaper headlines suggested. I also couldn’t find a legal memoir written by a woman which was, I thought, a bit of a shame.
In Your Defence has gained glowing reviews in the press, what piece of feedback about the book has meant the most to you? I had many sleepless nights worrying about what other barristers would say about it, so whenever I get an email (or newspaper review) from a barrister – let alone a judge – that feels hugely reassuring. However the feedback which has meant the most came after an edited version of the first chapter (about a serial offender I represented for many years) was published in the Guardian newspaper. I got messages (and letters) from people who identified with my old client – either as someone they knew, or because they had once been like him. When they told me how much it struck a chord with them and thanked me for writing it -that pretty much blew me away. (I also *may* have welled up a little when Helena Kennedy QC’s quote came in.)
The book contains some incredibly moving family law cases, how do you manage to balance professionalism and the emotions of working on cases like these? In truth, it’s incredibly hard. I think all barristers in publicly funded law have to tread a fine line between being humane and empathetic on the one hand, and objective and professional on the other. My book, in part, is about me trying to figure this balance out. I’m not sure it’s ever easy to get it right, particularly when children are involved in a case, but you have to remember your role and find a way to let the case go. As someone once put it: you save your tears for the journey home.
In Your Defence has been picked up for TV adaptation, if you could choose any actress in the world to play you, who would it be and why? That is a wonderfully self-indulgent question and I couldn’t possibly answer (Emily Blunt, obviously).
What’s your number one piece of advice to anyone thinking of studying law? Do it. Also, stick with the kind of law you like the most: it’ll make the difficult days much easier.
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