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Sara Carnegie describes the twists and turns in her career.  Starting as a criminal barrister, then taking up different roles with the civil service and currently working as the Legal Director at the International Bar Association.  Sara talks about the ups and downs and how things have changed for the better.

Times have changed…

After studying Law with French at University, I knew that I wanted to be a barrister and I knew I wanted to practice crime. I had no interest in corporate law, especially after receiving over 50 rejection letters to my applications for a vacation scheme placement at the larger city firms!

I have been interested in crime from an early age, pouring over books about it – real life and fiction, watching documentaries and securing work experience with the police.  I was fortunate in knowing that was what I wanted to do, so the advice I give to my children and to those I mentor is to pursue your passion. Work takes up a huge proportion of your life, so it needs to be fulfilling and if you love what you do, you are far more likely to excel.

Practicing at the criminal bar in the late 1990s was fascinating, but badly paid and at times deeply misogynistic. I worked with some incredible barristers – male and female - who were kind and inspirational, alongside some who were less so. I will never forget a senior member of chambers who boasted of his significant earnings, while asking me to pay for taxis and to buy him lunch on occasion. This was while I was working as a pupil, earning nothing, with the added bonus of him often telling me that I wasn’t up to scratch.  

Low level harassment and moments of unkindness or bullying were tolerated and normalized. While the environment at the criminal bar today is still very challenging in terms of pay and process (with the system vastly underfunded and beset with delay), gender equality and opportunity have improved exponentially, and bad behaviour is far less common and more firmly handled. After sitting as a judge on the Inns of Court Disciplinary tribunal for 7 years, I have been involved with many cases against barristers accused of and sanctioned for acts which my peers and I had endured in silence. This is positive and gives me optimism for those starting out their careers – whatever their gender, race, sexuality, or faith.

Keep going whatever direction that takes you!

There are too many people clamouring for a very limited number of places at the bar, so to succeed, you must be determined, passionate, humble, yet strong willed. I found myself a tenancy but for financial reasons ultimately chose to join the employed bar, where I secured a place within a prosecution team (then Revenue and Customs) handling drugs, money laundering and customs cases. I missed the theatrics and excitement of going to court and dealing with defendants and witnesses, but this new world provided a different insight, where I had far greater engagement with law enforcement and the management of evidence from a pre-charge stage onwards.

I spent several years working as a prosecutor and was involved in some very serious cases with organized crime groups, undercover operations and highly sensitive issues. I also had 2 of my 3 children during this period and was grateful for the flexibility offered by a civil service role, taking maternity leave and holidays, knowing that I had financial and job security. This was the reason many of my friends and fellow pupils left the bar, several joined me as a prosecutor and others left to work as a lawyer at a company or take a different path altogether. The point to make here is that this does not represent failure. Remaining in a job where you moan and lament your lot every day is a recipe for being unwell. There are incredible options available and if you feel like you are not where you should be, don’t feel stuck; take advice, explore other possibilities and know that there is always an alternative direction where your skills will be valuable and transferable.

Life is fluid and I have seen too many people who feel compelled to stay in something which is making them unhappy. It is easier said than done but finding the strength to try new things has been one of my wisest choices in life, even though I have also been deeply affected by stress and burn out. I am currently involved in a global study on mental wellbeing in the legal profession (which my team at the International Bar Association is leading) and we are doing our best to determine the issues and form recommendations, working with a task force of incredible experts and practitioners. It is astonishing how many are affected by the pressures of a legal career – at all ages and from all jurisdictions. Thankfully, this is now a priority focus for many law firms, bars/law societies and companies, so awareness is higher than it ever has been. We just need to keep going!

Embrace opportunities.

In line with the themes of change and perseverance, I believe variety can make for the most incredible career experience, so I have tried a number of things over my 23 years in the profession. On the downside, it can turn you into a Jack of All Trades, Master of None, but I like to think it makes my life more interesting!

From working on public inquiries, to advising the senior judiciary; from working as the Director of Strategy at the Crown Prosecution Service, to working for a not-for-profit international legal association on issues which I know very little about, I have loved every stage in different ways and tried hard not to turn down challenges and new possibilities. Yes, it is frightening, and I suffer from imposter syndrome on a regular basis, so will never be anything other than a nervous wreck when addressing a huge audience in a conference room. However, it does get easier, and it will widen your horizons. Embrace meeting as many different people as you can and engage with confidence and humility. You are making a valuable contribution at every stage of the way and by being open minded, you can experience some extraordinary things!

Sara Carnegie, Legal Director at the International Bar Association

July 2021