Sue James speaks to Miranda Grell about why she made the decision to pursue a new career in law and the personal satisfaction it brings her.
‘You have to keep going. You have to keep that dream alive,’ friends told Miranda when she was at her lowest, when she thought she would never make it as a barrister. It was those words that sustained her through what she describes as her ‘tortuous route to law’.
I decide to interview Miranda after bumping into her at a mutual friend’s birthday party last November. She was just two weeks into her second six pupillage at 10 King’s Bench Walk and bubbling with a mixture of outrage and excitement. Listening to her made me smile but at the same time wonder what she would be like at the end of pupillage. I thought it would be interesting to capture that – if I could.
We agree to two meetings – six months apart.
We arrange our first drink the following week at the Pegasus Bar and Restaurant in the heart of Inner Temple – the middle of her new world. It’s the kind of place you wouldn’t naturally visit (or find) unless you were a lawyer. Miranda chose it as she had a chambers meeting already scheduled that day and I join her at the end. As I open the door I am confronted by a sea of black and white – barristers and attentive serving staff in their regulation colours.
Miranda orders an Aperol Spritz and, as I’ve never had one before, I decide to join her.
Miranda Agnes Jayne Grell comes from a long line of strong, bright Caribbean women who are known as the ‘George Women’ after her grandfather, George. She tells me her aunties were not allowed to go to school but are ‘sharp and witty and devour books and current affairs’. She tries to be all of the ‘George Women’ when she goes into court.
Miranda was the first person in her family to become a lawyer. Her mother was the first to go to university. ‘I don’t really care about things,’ she says, ‘everything I have is based upon what I have studied for.’ She understands the power of education to be transformative. She has a first-class degree from Manchester University and is fluent in three languages. She recalls that, after a burglary of the family home, the first thing she checked for was her degree certificate.
While at university, Miranda became friends with Chuka Umunna, who encouraged her to join the Labour Party, but she didn’t really get involved until she returned home to Leyton. She says: ‘I went to this draughty hall with three people in it, and because it’s me I kind of took it over.’
She was encouraged to stand as a local councillor. There were ‘safe’ Labour council seats in Walthamstow, part of the London Borough of Waltham Forest, but she wanted to be elected in her home ward of Leyton, which is in the south of the borough – the ward where she was born and brought up, but which had been held by the Liberal Democrats for 25 years. She won, overturning the Liberal Democrats’ 600-vote majority, but then found herself at the heart of a public scandal.
Eleven months after the election, she was telephoned by a police officer from counter terrorism command at the Metropolitan Police and informed that there was a complaint against her and she was to be prosecuted for alleged misconduct. The details are public record; she became the first person to be prosecuted under Representation of the People Act 1983 s106. She was found guilty but has always denied the allegations (and still hopes to clear her name). She lodged a first application with the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 2009, assisted by Lord Gifford QC and, although unsuccessful, it was the start of her awakening to law and the end of her life as she knew it. ‘I had to give up everything,’ she says. ‘In December 2007, I just died.’
It was the election of Barack Obama that brought her back to life. Miranda says she watched Obama’s speeches under her duvet as he tried to become the candidate. It was his success that motivated her to get dressed and start campaigning. She volunteered in the UK, assisting with the postal vote, and once this ended couldn’t return to her duvet. She located the most marginal seat in the US and decided to head out to Tampa, Florida.
I remember watching the barristers and thinking, ‘I could do that.’ And I was basically bloody minded that they could use the law to stitch me up in politics.
Newly recharged, she returned to the UK with a plan to go to law school. It was while she was sitting in court on her own case that she formed the idea: ‘I remember watching the barristers and thinking, “I could do that.” And I was basically bloody minded that they could use the law to stitch me up in politics. I had never been in a courtroom before. I had no interest in law before then.’
She started on the GDL in the summer of 2009, which she calls ‘a leap of faith’ as she didn’t know whether she would be allowed to be called to the bar or admitted to an Inn of Court because of the conviction. Her journey hasn’t been easy: appearing before the Bar Council; having a pupillage withdrawn; a second chambers collapsing; and her current chambers merging just before pupillage.
Law Centre family
Miranda describes the Law Centres Network as a family, a place where she was allowed to flourish. She started at Hackney Community Law Centre as a volunteer in November 2010, became the business development manager in 2012, and won the Law Centres Network Outstanding Achievement award1The Reita Clarke Memorial Award for Outstanding Achievement.
She didn’t work as a lawyer at the law centre, but she could see the way that the lawyers approached their cases and the vulnerability of the client group. She uses this understanding and awareness in her present role. She says that the best instructions have come from law centres, in terms of the quality, the knowledge and how they are prepared.
She found Hackney Community Law Centre ‘the most wonderful place, with the most compassionate, wonderful people’. It was the best professional experience she has had, but she couldn’t stay: she didn’t want to get too comfortable. ‘I need to challenge myself,’ she says.
She is adapting to the change in her relationship with the staff as ‘the former PR girl’, but says that since she has won every case so far, the solicitors have now gone beyond the initial ‘sympathy instructions’ and are giving her cases because of her merit.
Old vs new
‘If I have to quash my personality I may as well stop breathing,’ Miranda says in response to my question about life at the bar. She has found it hard to suppress her ideas and natural energy just because she has the title of pupil. There’s still an old-fashioned view that pervades the profession, of pupils as blank canvases; a lack of acknowledgement of their past. This is particularly challenging for Miranda, who has what she describes as a hinterland: a master’s degree in industrial relations; a traineeship at the European Commission; a position at Acas in its new strategy unit; and later a job with the deputy mayor.
She considers herself a new barrister: she reads instructions on her phone, uses her laptop in court and social media to campaign and inform. She says her clients are more reassured by meeting her than someone who ‘looks like they’re 10 years old’ but she feels that the profession should be more involved in the community and that more work needs to be done on what makes a good barrister.
I ask Miranda what it’s like to be a black woman at the bar. She says she is used to being different. She was the only black person on her degree course out of 100 students and again as an intern at the European Commission. In chambers, she is the only black woman at her level, but there are other pupils now who are black or Asian, so she doesn’t feel isolated.
I ask her if things are changing. She says they are, but expects things to get harder again because of increasing tuition fees. ‘We are going backwards in terms of social mobility full stop, not just in terms of race but for any disadvantaged group,’ she says. Miranda’s one policy goal (if she ever went back into the political arena) would be to abolish private schools. Education changed her life and gave her opportunities, but this was all before the introduction of tuition fees. ‘The monetisation of education is absolutely disgusting,’ she says.
If you don’t have connections, then how do you get a mini-pupillage, or advice on writing an application form, or the confidence to be yourself around whoever?
Miranda sees class as a barrier to joining the profession. ‘It’s not just your grades,’ she tells me, ‘but your social capital. If you don’t have connections, then how do you get a mini-pupillage, or advice on writing an application form, or the confidence to be yourself around whoever? And the situation is only getting worse.’
Her experience at Inner Temple has been ‘absolutely wonderful’. She suspected it might be a good place for her to be from the website picture of three young women in their late 20s/early 30s, one black, one Asian and one mixed race. She says: ‘I looked at it and thought, well that means Inner Temple think people like me are barristers.’
Six months on
Half a year later, we meet at the Southbank Centre. It’s a lovely sunny May afternoon and I’m already there, enjoying the views of the Thames and feeling pleased with myself that I’ve secured a prime table. Miranda is running late and looks hot and stressed when she arrives. She tells me she is in need of a G&T but before I can go to the bar, she insists we move tables as she thinks it’s too noisy for the interview. I (reluctantly) follow her inside.
I have only one question: what advice would you give to yourself six months ago when you started your pupillage?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s somebody’s life, you don’t want to mess up their case.
‘Don’t be afraid to ask for help,’ she replies. ‘It’s somebody’s life, you don’t want to mess up their case.’ She has a reservoir of people whom she can call on, and has done so. She has made a lot of friends over her eight law centre years.
She says that coming to the bar slightly older, she isn’t panicked by the ‘feast and famine’ nature of the work. She is determined not to become ill or burn herself out, and doesn’t feel insecure. ‘I take each day as it comes,’ she says. ‘I am very Zen.’
Before setting out, I reread the transcript from our first meeting in November and am struck by Miranda’s description of the law as a language and her role as translator. I ask her how fluent she has become since we last met. She says that six months on, she is now above conversational, more intermediate, understanding the idiosyncrasies of the language rather than just being able to order a beer: ‘Una cerveza, por favor.’
We talk about how hard it is for litigants in person being submerged in this language without help or training to fall back on. Miranda says that judges ‘light up’ when they see an advocate in court. Now, at the end of her pupillage, she tells me she feels enriched by the experience.
I love listening to her stories, her courtroom battles, but it’s the stuff around them that I find most interesting. Miranda likes people – she tells me this often, but it shows. She sits with her clients outside court and wants to know more. Often, it’s to fill in for sparse instructions, but mainly it’s because she genuinely cares and is interested. She has empathy. She describes chatting to her clients as ‘girly chats’, but I think it’s so much more. Through these ‘chats’ she builds trust, probes deeper and gets to the heart of the matter.
As I come close to finishing the story, I receive an email from Miranda with the heading ‘Tenancy’. I open it thinking she has a question for me, but I’m thrilled to see she has been offered a tenancy at 10 King’s Bench Walk. Resilience is a word we often use for legal aid lawyers; Miranda has it in abundance. As she embarks on her new career, I think she will do what she does best: make the law her own.
Hero in the law
Lord Gifford QC; Baroness Scotland PC QC; Diane Morrison
County Court at Clerkenwell and Shoreditch (because it makes me feel like I’m coming home)
Favourite animal case
I quite like mullets (I lived in Germany for a while)
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, Queen
Favourite lawyer in TV/film/book
Martha Costello, Silk; Alicia Florrick, The Good Wife