Half an hour with Adam Wagner: barrister and legal blogger extraordinaire (and City alumni of course)
‘I know it’s a stupid Disney thing to say, but it’s true – just be a nice person, be yourself.’
Lessons in humility – Leading junior barrister and editor of the UK Human Rights blog, Adam Wagner, talks Twitter, Terry Jones and what it takes to make it as a barrister…
Relaxed, affable and even self-deprecating, Adam Wagner is a lawyer who is striving to make the justice system more transparent and more user-friendly for non-lawyers.After reading PPE at Oxford, Adam completed the CPE Diploma in Law at City University in 2006. Despite recalling that he found it a very steep-learning curve and claiming that he doesn’t remember doing well in any aspects of the course, Adam is now a barrister at One Crown Office Row, a chambers that specialises in public law, healthcare law, clinical negligence and personal injury, He is ranked as a ‘leading junior’ for clinical negligence and healthcare law in the 2010 edition of The Legal 500 and is a founding editor of the UK Human Rights Blog.
It is clear that Adam’s views have been formulated by the time he spent in the States doing an MA in political science at Columbia University. Before that, he had been interested in doing charity work or something academic, and was not particularly motivated to be a lawyer. This is possibly explained by the fact that his father did not always enjoy his job as a solicitor and advised him not to be one. He talks about the idea of constitutional law, (similar to what we could call public and human rights law in this country) being far stronger in America,with more openness and more idealism amongst students. ‘Whereas here’,he says, ‘there’s this attitude; “we’re all going to go make loads of money, people don’t like us but so what’.
Adam’s attitude is anything but this; his approach is far more humble. It took him two years and two rounds of applications for him to get pupillage, a feature of Adam’s career that he admits he was ‘gutted’ about, having built himself up to believe that he would be successful straight away. This worked out for the best though as it forced him to take a year off after the BPTC, in which he worked as a paralegal at the solicitor’s firm Leigh Day & Co. This practical experience in public law and medical law, which is what he does now, made the pupillage process far less intimidating, and gave him connections with solicitors, something which is crucial for a barrister.
A day in the life of Adam Wagner is difficult to pin down – there is simply no such thing as a typical day, something that he clearly relishes. A typical day, including all the things he does usually, involves checking the blog, writing an article, or editing what someone else has written. In addition, during the day, Adam is usually writing advices or a defence, or he is at court. He is usually in court twice a week, but it does vary; sometimes it can be five times, and sometimes not at all. It is clear that it is not only the amount of time spent in court which varies, but also the types of thing he is doing whilst at court. Whilst this week, he was at apre-inquest review in Birmingham and in Reading for a small claim for a traffic accident case, Adam has also spent time working on two Iraq war inquiries, the Baha Mousa public inquiry and the Al-Sweady inquiry, which is yet to begin hearings. These differed in the sense that Adam was a small part of a big team, working for the government. The hearings lasted a year; reports could be thousands of pages long, with something like 400 witnesses, so the scale was totally different. But then, Adam says, the other work that he does, whilst it might not seem as interesting from a wider perspective, involves taking control of a case which is interesting in its own right.
Yet there is a down-side too. ‘The worst thing is the money. It’s so difficult to know when you’re going to be paid for things. It just makes it impossible to plan and that’s ok if you come in at 22 which is probably the earliest way you can push yourself into the bar, but I’ve got a mortgage, and a three-month old baby and it’s a bit of a nightmare not knowing when you’re going to be paid for things. But there’s not a lot you can do about it’.
The UK Human Rights Blog, Adam’s ‘pet project’, as he calls it, attracts around 40,000 page views per month and is approaching 2,500 subscribers via email, Facebook and Twitter, set up due to Adam’s interest in graphic design and his belief that there was a gap for a blog which focused on human rights issues. At this point it seemed necessary to ask Adam what he thought the most significant human rights cases had been over the last year; ‘Probably Smith, (R (Smith) v Secretary of State for Defence & Anor ) because it extended the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Act and I think that was really important because it basically said that there aren’t human rights on the battlefield, but there are human rights at the bases. And it makes sense because it follows on from the idea that places where the state has enough control, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t uphold human rights protection’.
Also Manchester City Council v Pinnock , another Supreme Court case, which has diminished local authority powers in relation to evicting people from their homes, and has highlighted the need to take into account extenuating circumstances, such as whether the tenants are vulnerable adults or immigrants, important issues. ‘Now if the person being evicted raises proportionality in the sense of Article 8 of the European Convention then the court has to consider it. So the court will have to consider whether it is proportionate and reasonable to kick that person out, and I think that’s going to make a huge difference to a lot of people’.
Adam’s passion for the blog is indicative of a wider passion; using social media in general to make the legal system more open and accessible. He bemoans the set-up of the legal system today, lamenting that it is ‘fiendishly complicated’, and difficult for ordinary people to understand it or get involved in it, despite its relevance to their lives. ‘Leading up to now, you only got lawyers who you had to pay to explain what was going on, and who don’t always do it very well or understand it themselves, and you’ve got legal journalists who write quite specialist and often quite difficult to understand, high-level articles. Whereas now, with social media you have a small army of bloggers and tweeters, all sorts of law geeks who are busying themselves, tapping away, explaining cases, and competing with each other to explain things in the most simple, justifiable way…’ It’s these ‘law geeks’ that according to Adam are making sure that checks and balances are being put in place, making sure that everything is linked to primary sources and case law, and that nothing is overlooked. ‘For example’, he says with characteristic honesty, ‘I wrote an article on the Congresswoman Gifford’s shooting last week, and someone in America commented that I had expressed the way constitutional law works in the wrong way, and they were right’.
But what about the downside of social media, I ask Adam. The recent case of Paul Chambers, the man who made a remark on popular social media website Twitter about threatening to blow up an airport. Whilst Chambers wrote it as an ill-advised attempt at humour, he was convicted of menace last November, something that has worried some civil liberties lawyers because of its implications for cyber-space’s casual, expressive style. Adam is unconcerned.
‘It’s the other side of the coin of everything that’s good about something like Twitter, which is that it allows people to broadcast whatever they want to other people, which is sometimes quite facile and non-interesting and sometimes it’s really interesting and useful. One of the biggest problems with law reports is that a lot of the newspapers have got rid of their law reporters, pretty much no newspapers have legal correspondents anymore, so a lot of what they write is just nonsense and based on press releases from solicitors’.
But how accessible really is something like Twitter? Is there not a concern that it leaves out sections of society who aren’t so technologically savvy, the poor and elderly in particular? Adam dismisses this idea fairly decisively. ‘No I think it’s the opposite. I think old people use things like Skype an enormous amount already. Obviously there’s a barrier to setting it up because they’re not going to know very much about computers. But once someone does it for them, it opens a world for them, it doesn’t close it. It won’t be very long before even the oldest people in society were middle aged when the internet started so will have someone around who knows what they’re doing’. Perhaps, I probe Adam, social media is not as necessary or vital as he would make out. If it is so important, why was there such a fuss over whether Theresa May should allow the controversial pastor Terry Jones into this country; surely the forces that are YouTube, Twitter and Facebook will make sure that controversial figures such as Jones will always be accessible figures? Yet Adam maintains that human interaction is still vital, and being able to hear someone speak in person is a totally different experience to listening to them on Youtube.
Having justice televised is something else that Adam is a proponent of. Despite fears that televised justice could lead to sensationalism, with juries becoming star-struck and lawyers becoming too big for their boots, Adam believes that since the UK Supreme Court is televised, there is no reason why this shouldn’t be the case for any court. Nor does he see there being a problem in terms of greater sensationalism; ‘if you want to not sensationalise things, you don’t have to broadcast the most sensational trials. But I think the justice system, like government, should be one of the most open and viewable parts of our society, because there’s so much capacity for abuse, not just in criminal law, but civil law, human rights, employment law, law which affects pretty much everybody. All of these things should be as open as they can be’.
Finally,it seemed necessary to glean from Adam any advice he may have for aspiring lawyers. ‘I failed so many of my interviews that it’s probably not very fair for me to give advice,’ he comments cheerfully. ‘I probably did twenty or more interviews and obviously wasn’t very good at them. I think my advice is just don’t try and be a barrister, just be a nice person, be yourself, I know it’s a stupid Disney thing to say, but it’s true – every chambers just wants someone who’s confident and friendly’. He comments that whilst it is probably not the case with every set of chambers, with One Crown Office Row it is certainly the case that being laid back and easy to get on with is vital, and ensuring that you are not a liability to the firm or chambers.
‘I suppose my other piece of advice is find out who your panel is before you get in the room and research them and know what their recent cases are because they will probably ask you about them, because they’ll just talk to you about what’s on their mind at the time…
…Don’t pretend you know about things that you don’t know about- that’s an automatic fail in any interview because it makes you look stupid. It’s really easy to fall into that trap because you want to impress them and you want to pretend you’re a fully fledged lawyer, but you’re not, and it’s totally legitimate to say I don’t know, I’m sorry I’ve never studied that, but I’d like to’.
In terms of deciding what area of law to practise in, Adam’s advice is to be as flexible as possible and to remember that what you’re interested in right now might change. Getting as much work experience is vital, and barristers doing work experience in solicitors’ firms and vice versa is important. ‘There always seemed to be a theme at City that wannabe barristers could be rather snooty, but it’s important to be as humble as possible’.
Many thanks to both Adam, and current GDL student (and Future Lawyer reporter) Felicity Capon, who interviewed and wrote up this excellent piece.
Great interview, fabulous insight into all areas of his career, blog and thoughts on the legal profession.
Was this the same Adam Wagner who ruthlessly opposed a self-representing prisoner against one of the previous Justice Secretary’s policies that has since been struck down as unlawful?