King’s Inns Alumni on the Hustings: Jim O’Callaghan SC
I arrived in the King’s Inns in October 1991. I had never been in the building before and was directed downstairs to a room for my first lecture on practice and procedure. I was early and took the nearest available seat beside a woman I did not know.
Prior to starting in the King’s Inns I had spent two years in Cambridge University studying for a Masters in Law and an M.Phil in Criminology. I had previously completed an undergraduate law degree in UCD. I assumed the King’s Inns would be the least exciting and eventful of my third level institutions. There was no bar; no sports facilities and I was only required to attend on a part time basis between 4.30 and 6.30 p.m. each evening. Surprisingly, it was a much more exciting and interesting place than I had assumed. The eponymous hostelry at the bottom of Henrietta Street provided a convivial location for discussing challenging aspects of the course.
The course at that stage did not provide the depth of practical experience offered at present but it did try to prepare students to stand up in a courtroom in front of a questioning Judge and be capable of presenting a legal argument and fielding difficult questions of law. In many respects, the BL law degree was similar to a Masters in the reported decisions of the Irish Superior Courts, and the practice and procedure of those Courts.
There have been many examples of barristers who have gone on to become both successful and unsuccessful politicians. Some of the skills and characteristics of a barrister are suited to those who want to enter politics. It is an advantage in politics to be able to stand up and speak in front of a crowd of people. Barristers have that ability.
Barristers, however, also have other characteristics and training that do not translate into effective political traits. For instance, barristers are not required to get to the point quickly. Politicians are, whether in a legislative assembly or in the media. Barristers are frequently unnecessarily verbose. Politicians lose their audience through verbosity. Barristers must convince just one person, a Judge, or, at most, a Jury of 12. Politicians must convince thousands.
Qualifying as a Barrister provides very few of the attributes required to get elected but it is very useful once a politician is elected. Understanding the law, how it operates and the supervisory role of the courts must facilitate a legislator in appraising draft legislation. Barristers are also required, on their own, to make significant instantaneous decisions during the running of a court case. A lot of jobs do not call for such important decision making. Being able to make important decisions is a significant benefit in politics.
Even though work as a barrister enables a person to interact with people from all walks of life during crisis moments in their lives, working as a barrister does not provide a person with good political judgment. That is more instinctive than taught. Interestingly, this does not diminish many barristers’ political self–belief or capacity to impart unsolicited political advice. As a result many politicians from a non–legal background are sometimes wary of learned friends arriving into what were previously smoke filled rooms to dispense political advice.
I married the woman I sat beside.
Jim O’Callaghan is a senior counsel and graduated as a barrister from the King’s Inns in 1993.
Note: King’s Inns invited all our alumni we knew to be standing in #GE16 to contribute and confirmed that we will put up articles from all those who respond.