Alumnus John-Paul Fitzgibbon studied the GDL (now PGDL) with us in 2016 and has since gone on to become Lieutenant Commander, Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff Overseas Patrol Squadron in the Royal Navy. We caught up with John-Paul to discuss how his legal training has supported his inspiring career journey.
The law has always interested me; my mother worked as a practice manager for a chambers in the North East and I was lucky enough to gain an insight into the work of lawyers and the courts. After twelve years as a warfare officer in the Royal Navy, I was offered the opportunity to undertake legal selection and started on the path to becoming a barrister. I researched the various providers of GDL (now PGDL) and legal training courses and settled on ULaw for its practice focussed courses and flexibility of the course delivery options.
ULaw has a focus on practice with problem-based learning forming the key teaching and assessment style. Rather than placing the core legal subjects in an ‘academic vacuum’ the lecturers illustrate legal principles through real life problems. I found this provided me with a huge advantage over students who studied at other establishments and feel that it assisted me in the vocational stages of BPTC and practice during pupillage. I also think that students benefit from the experience of staff, many of whom still practice in between teaching.
As a naval officer, I wanted to fuse my knowledge of warfare and difficult environments with a solid basing in law so that I could advise senior leaders on aspects of the laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law. Although I have managed to advise on such matters, I found, during pupillage, that I had a real love for criminal law. My early years of practice have led me to undertake a large volume of criminal defence work within the Service Justice System, representing clients facing court martial.
As a naval barrister, we regularly move between roles, some legal and others in our core specialisation. Having recently finished a legal job, I am now the deputy commander and chief of staff of the Overseas Patrol Squadron, comprising of eight warships spread across all corners of the globe. I use some of my legal skills and knowledge in the role, but predominantly I work to ensure all eight ships, and their 500+ personnel are ready for operations whenever the country requires them. It is a hugely rewarding job. In essence, though, I would say that being a naval officer makes me a better lawyer, and being a lawyer makes me a better officer, it is a symbiotic relationship.
All three services have lawyers, however, unlike the Army and Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy selects its personnel from serving officers, and concentrates purely on the bar. The selection process is stiff and involves numerous rounds, from an initial paper sift of recommended people to a three-day selection process at the Service Prosecuting Authority, a further paper sift and a final selection board interview in front of the head of Navy Legal Services and three other senior officers. In the end, two to three people, on average, are selected each year. I’d served in the Royal Navy for 12 years prior to selection and have just passed my 17 year of service.
I don’t think I could single out a staff member who inspired me during my studies as everyone really was brilliant, from my course tutor, each individual lecturer and the head of GDL – their commitment to us was second to none. In my career, I am inspired all the time, often it is by the most junior members of our team, the young sailors who work so hard for their ship and their shipmates. The sacrifices these sailors and marines show each day drives me forward in my work.
Being selected for my command assignment, as the Executive Officer of an Offshore Patrol Vessel and taking command of that ship and her company was the greatest privilege I’ve had in my career. There is no greater responsibility than being a leader of a group of people who are committed to doing good for others. From a legal point of view, my proudest moment was defending a client accused of a very serious offence. We had the first successful dismissal application before a court martial in Service history and the difference it made to this young man’s life was phenomenal.
The Royal Navy strives hard to provide opportunities for people to work flexibly. We understand that in certain roles and on certain missions it is not always practical, but, when alongside or in a shore posting, we allow flexible working where possible. For me, as with many lawyers, I am a workaholic and I perhaps put in more hours than I should. My key aim when doing so is to make sure that my subordinates do not feel that they have to work the same hours as I am. It is another important part of being a leader, ensuring your team are looked after above all else.
A common quality in my peers is to be people focussed; I feel that looking after people as a leader relates very well to client relationships as a lawyer. Allied to this would be attention to detail, stamina to work hard when required and the ability to put others above yourself.
To join the Royal Navy as an officer there is a minimum education requirement of A-Levels. The requirements are updated and can be found on the Royal Navy website. If educationally qualified and providing one meets the minimum medical and fitness requirements, the candidate would undertake an assessment at the Admiralty Interview Board, a residential selection panel that assesses academic aptitude, problem-solving, teamwork and leadership. The successful candidate may then be offered a place at the Royal Naval College, in Dartmouth, to undergo initial officer training before taking up a compliment job in a ship or naval establishment.
The Royal Navy is different to the legal services of the other two services. If a student wishes to practice as a lawyer in the armed forces, then the Army Legal Service and the Royal Air Force Legal service have opportunities to employ qualified solicitors and barristers (from any area of law). If a student is intent on becoming a lawyer in the Royal Navy, they should know that regardless of qualification one must be an officer first, which means spending at least three to five years in a core naval role before going through legal selection. To that end, students would be better joining the Royal Navy from LLB or PGDL, understanding there will be a delay prior to any legal training and job.
If I could give my 18-year-old self any advice, it would be to be myself. Find inspiring people and learn from them, but don’t try to be anybody but yourself.
Follow in John-Paul’s footsteps and join us to study the PGDL.