Alumni Stories – Diane Sutton speaks to alumnus Joe Holt BL
Welcome to the sixth edition in the series of Alumni Stories with Diane Sutton, our Member Relations Officer.
The last conversation of the Series was with Dr Sarah Fennell BL. Read her interview HERE.
In this Series, Diane is chatting to our alumni community focusing on the degree of Barrister–at–Law first before we delve into other course graduates. This initiative will hopefully embrace the diversity of our alumni who are practising in the Courts in Ireland and internationally but also working in many other professions like communications, politics, the public sector, education, and policy. View the Series so far here.
If you are interested in being part of our Alumni Stories series, drop Diane an email at MEMBERS@KINGSINNS.IE.
Diane Sutton in conversation with Joe Holt BL
I recently spoke to barrister and King’s Inns tutor Joe Holt to find out more about his journey before and after King’s Inns, and his experience as a barrister in the first few years of practise, based at the Law Library (The Bar of Ireland) in Dublin.
The path to Law
Joe confirms it was more his love of English and History in school rather than a family background in law, or long–held ambition to be a lawyer, that steered him towards the Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) degree in UCD. Law seemed to be something interesting that perhaps played to his strengths but he admits “I didn’t know anything about the law or what it would entail.” He enjoyed his time at UCD, and post–graduation took an internship in LA, the first of four he completed. He worked in State and Federal Court, working in judges’ chambers, which he describes as “a fantastic experience, being in L.A., seeing the kinds of criminal trials they have there that you just don’t see very often in Ireland.”
Leiden – Masters, Public International Law (LL.M.)
A Masters in the Netherlands followed; half an hour’s drive from the Hague, Joe explained he chose Leiden University as “I wanted to study something quite specific, Public International Law, and there aren’t that many universities that specialise in that particular type of law. One of the ones with the best reputation is Leiden University – because of its proximity to the Hague it’s got great expertise.”
Just some of the international institutions located in The Hague include the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The value of Internships
After Leiden, Joe completed three further internships directly related to his interest in international criminal law. The first was as Legal Section Intern with an NGO in the Hague, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court. He got to sit in and report on cases in the ICC, and confirms that “it was interesting for me to see things from the NGO side, the civil society side, which is an important facet of law.”
The second was in the Office of the Co–Prosecutors at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Working as an intern with the prosecution at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Joe spent “an incredible 6 months” there, describing it as his standout experience – not only from the perspective of being most akin to what he does now as a barrister, involved in litigation, but also as a great life experience, immersed in a different culture and climate.
Joe (front row, 2nd from left) with fellow interns at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, 2014
Department of Foreign Affairs – Legal Division
Lastly, Joe looked at international law issues from the State’s perspective, with the Department of Foreign Affairs – one of two paid legal internships they offer each year. He explained just some of the items covered by lawyers there would be advising Government ahead of ratifying a treaty or giving members of Government briefings on international law matters before they travel abroad.
Of his intern experience overall, Joe says,
“I took so much from each of them – being exposed to all these different ways of working, different approaches to the law, different methods – the balance of all four was extremely beneficial.”
Qualifying as a Lawyer – New York and the King’s Inns
With a dream at this stage of working in international law, in order to progress quickly from intern to lawyer Joe decided to study for the NY Bar exam, an internationally recognised qualification that he felt would stand him in good stead with any job application.
Joe at his call to the New York Bar in 2015
With the NY Bar membership under his belt, a change of circumstance brought Joe back to Ireland. He wasn’t sure at this point if he saw himself as a practising barrister in the Law Library; perhaps more so working in the Department of Foreign Affairs or Department of Justice. Either way, it was recommended to him to qualify as an Irish lawyer and that is what led him to the degree of Barrister–at–Law in King’s Inns.
Joe was awarded the Arthur Browne Prize, given to the person who achieves the highest grade in the Entrance Examination to the course. He was also the recipient of the Niall and Barbara McCarthy Bursary, a scholarship which is awarded annually to one student in King’s Inns. The aim is to incorporate in the scholarship significant qualities evident within the best of former Supreme Court Justice Niall McCarthy’s work and qualities cherished by both the McCarthys. Joe confirms he is extremely grateful for the support that prizes and scholarships provided during his studies.
Around the same time he started his full–time studies at King’s Inns, Joe got a job as a judicial researcher in the Supreme Court. He worked for the Hon. Mr. Justice Liam McKechnie and the Hon. Mrs. Justice Susan Denham, at that time Chief Justice of Ireland. Joe switched to the Modular BL programme so that he could combine work and studies, and feels that in doing so he got a good combination of theory and practise. Joe speaks enthusiastically of his time as a judicial researcher, saying that his time in the courts is what convinced him to come to the Bar. He says,
“…suddenly I was in the courts Monday to Friday, going to the Supreme Court – working with a Judge, seeing cases, and then at the weekend I was doing the Mod, learning to be a barrister… I just really enjoyed it, and I liked the look of what the barristers were doing, so I figured it might be something I should try my hand at.”
Joe says that he feels very lucky to have worked for the Supreme Court as he learned so much during his three years there. He explained that he loved the variety of the cases in the Supreme Court, each raising such interesting legal points.
Call to the Bar
Joe passed his Barrister–at–Law degree with flying colours, awarded the John Brooke Scholarship for highest overall mark in the final examination. Once qualified, you are called to the Bar of Ireland, admitted to practise and eligible to become a member of the Law Library.
Joe with his mother Dympna at his graduation from KI degree of Barrister–at–Law
Just some of the student activities at ‘the Inns’ include Mooting and Debating, with a number of competitions and debates organised throughout the academic year. Joe is the Mooting Coordinator in the King’s Inns. And at this point I must confess … I didn’t know much about mooting until I joined King’s Inns last year. Debating? – yes. Mooting? … not so much. I took the opportunity to discuss mooting with Joe.
For the uninitiated (like me) a moot court is a simulated court proceeding in which law students make submissions on a fictitious case, responding to the arguments made by the other side and dealing with questions asked by the moot judge (usually a junior barrister). Joe credits his own experience with mooting in university as being one of the primary things which made him consider coming to the Bar. He explained it helps to develop the core skills of a lawyer: issue spotting, legal research, written submissions, and oral advocacy.
Joe organises the internal mooting competitions in King’s Inns: the Maidens’ Moot (for those who are new to mooting) and the Brian Walsh moot, which is open to all students. Joe also coaches the King’s Inns teams in international mooting competitions, including the Jessup Moot Court competition (the largest moot court competition in the world, with over 650 universities entering annually) and the International Criminal Court Moot Court competition. He is very proud of the Inns ICC Moot Court teams which made the grand final of the latter competition in the ICC in The Hague in both 2018 and 2019.
Joe with the Inns’ 2018 ICC Moot Court Team in Amsterdam
What the devil is devilling
Joe started at the Bar in 2018. The first year or two of practise is as a pupil, learning with a ‘master,’ and is a process also known as devilling. Joe devilled with Tony McGillicuddy BL in first year and with Brendan Hennessy BL in second year. Joe’s particular interests are in criminal law and administrative/public law and he spoke warmly about his relationship with his masters and his devilling experience, which he feels has set him up well for a career at the Bar.
We discussed the stresses of being a new barrister; Joe confirms it’s a steep learning curve. Although he feels King’s Inns does a very good job of teaching practise and procedure, he does say it’s extremely hard to replicate in a classroom the pressure involved in real–life practise.
“The way I explain it is that, first, it’s in public – everybody can have a bad day at work but it’s rare in most professions that it would be in a crowded court room in full view of your colleagues, a judge, the public, your client and your solicitors. Second, it’s an adversarial clash between two talented people, in public. It’s an unusual job in that you are so directly competing with someone who is trying to get the opposite to what you are.
As a devil everything is new – even in my case with a lot of mooting experience and public speaking it’s very different when you are doing it in a court room. Suddenly there is a real person whose liberty, or job or whatever is on the line … you are really the representative for this person. It’s a lot of responsibility so there is a whole lot of factors at play.”
I am reminded at this point of Mr Justice McCarthy’s obituary in The Independent which said ‘…his special distinction was in presenting the law not as cold abstracted logic, but an instrument with real human consequences.’
Joe confirms there are a number of supports in place at the Law Library, but “the more supports you can put in place for people, the better.” At present the devilling system is unpaid work, something Joe believes constitutes a barrier to entry to the profession and would advocate reform of. He says,
“considering the time, money and effort invested you are then largely unpaid for at least one year if not more, which I don’t think is right. It’s not the easiest of jobs to be doing for the first couple of years.”
Barrister–at–Law – No one size fits all
Now in third year, Joe confirms that this is the stage at which a barrister has flown the nest and is out on their own. I ask Joe if there are key characteristics that someone should have if they are considering being a barrister, to help them through the stresses and the job in general.
“It’s important to say first– there is no one size fits all. There are great barristers in the Library who have such different personalities and such different traits; you can have all sorts of different characteristics and still, if you know how to use them effectively, you can be an extremely successful and good barrister.”
He does confirm it is essential to have good preparation and stay relatively cool under pressure. A lot of things happen at short notice, so although on the one hand you need to be well prepared, you also need to be the kind of person that can adjust well to last minute changes.
Joe has already added lecturing to his bow and tutors on the Criminal Practise Course in King’s Inns. He says that this is something he really enjoys; this year it’s over Zoom which he says is a little bit different and brings different challenges but, as with the moot coaching, he enjoys working with law students to help them develop their legal skills. At this point I have to take a breath and ask – does he have any time for downtime?! He tells me that he lives in Dublin with his partner April, also a barrister, and that he enjoys reading (perfect timing for the newly launched KI Book Club), watching sports and playing football, including for the Bar Soccer Team. He tells me that he was training for a marathon until an injury thwarted his plans but hopes to revisit in the future.
‘And where do you see yourself in the next 5/10 years?’ – I cringe a bit when that dreaded (old school) interview question comes out, but I am intrigued where someone who has achieved so much already places themselves in the future. And to make it worse, I add ‘what’s your goal in that timeframe.’ We agree to revise it to 5 years, as 10 years in the current situation seems too much to contemplate!
Joe is very gentlemanly and says, “great question,” admitting his first ambition is to build his practise at the Bar, perhaps one day combining with some international law or returning to it in the long run, which he says would be the dream.
“I think the best route to getting there is to be a successful domestic lawyer with a good practise in your home country before you can even think of making the step to the international stage.”
For more information on the Niall and Barbara McCarthy Bursary and other supports available at King’s Inns, see here.
Special mention should be given to Joe’s late father Eddie, who I am sure would be very proud of what Joe has achieved to date, and his mother Dymps, to whom he credits all his success.