"Let's do some due diligence first," said Professor Ngaire Woods, as she sat down in front of the audience with barrister and author Sarah Langford. "How many of you are lawyers?"
Approximately half of the audience raised their hands.
Fortunately for the rest of us, Langford's talk, like her book In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law, was extremely accessible to people without a legal background. Indeed, as we soon learned while listening to the conversation, Langford herself became a barrister via a less-than-traditional route. Instead of being born to a family of lawyers and judges, and diving straight into a Law degree at university, Langford comes from a farming background, and completed her studies in English Literature before a friend convinced her to "just have a go" at training as a barrister. Langford was candid about her reasons for making this switch - she wanted to use words in her work, she didn't want to be behind a screen all day, and she liked showing off.
Langford described how she entered the world of the law, working as a legal secretary, attending trials, and, most importantly, doing bar work at a pub where a large number of barristers drank. She set aside her preconception that barristers "all looked and sounded like Rumpole of the Bailey", and, after a lot of hard work and a law conversion course, started practicing as a criminal (and sometimes family) barrister.
In Your Defence is arranged so that each chapter deals with one case, and Langford read us an extract from a particularly interesting one - the tale of an inept burglar who had been known to get stuck in windows, leave fingerprints all over crime scenes, and, on one occasion, leave a rude note for the police officers who'd raided his flat. This and other anecdotes were funny and lighthearted, but Langford never lost sight of the main thread of both the book and the evening - the need to make the law accessible, both for people to use, and to practice. Langford and Woods discussed cuts in public funding for legal aid, the dark side of magistrates' courts, and the difficulty of retaining women at the bar. The overall message was clear - the law is crucial, affecting our lives even when we don't feel directly engaged with it, but gives the impression of being aloof and elitist, practiced by Rumpoles rather than ordinary people.
The interesting talk was followed by a lively Q&A session, and Woods did an excellent job of keeping some very verbose lawyers in line. Langford was an engaging speaker; her love of the law was obvious even while she was detailing its drawbacks and weaknesses. The hour flew by, and left me wanting to learn more about the legal system in the