M.R. Hall: British Muslims, Barristers, Wigs and the BBC

[Ed. Note:When we got a heads up about English barrister-turned-writer M.R. Hall’s second novel, The Disappeared, we were more than a little intrigued. How often do you get a chance to interview someone who once wore a wig to work? But when we saw a blurb on his publisher’s website that said Hall left the law “due to a constitutional inability to prosecute,” we had to know more.

Hall, who has been a successful TV writer-producer in England, is set to debut The Disappeared this week, a follow up to The Coroner, which The Guardian praised for its “meaty characters” and “chewy plot.”

We recently caught up with Hall, who told us about the English legal system, what it’s like to wear a wig in court, and what that constitutional inability to prosecute really means.]

When you worked as a lawyer, you were a barrister. What are the pros and cons of separating the legal profession between barrister and solicitor?

A split legal profession does make for a very honorable system. In my experience, barristers conform to the highest ethical standards. A barrister’s primary duty is not to his client, but to the court: He must disclose every relevant case and statute to the judge and his opponent, whether it favors his case or not. Defense counsel has a duty to fearlessly defend his client to obtain an acquittal by whatever lawful means; prosecuting counsel has a duty to lay all evidence fairly before the jury but has no duty to secure a conviction.

On the pro side, trials are conducted to a high standard and the legally correct result is achieved most of the time. The major con is that clients can feel a little removed from or intimidated by their barrister. Barristers can also feel badly let down by lazy or incompetent solicitors who don’t give them all they need. But the greatest thing about the UK system is the wide availability of legal aid. The poorest criminal defendant can be represented by the same barristers who defend the richest [people]. Governments are always trying to hack at it, but cheap justice is no justice.

Was it strange wearing a wig to work?

Wigs, gowns and stiff collars are fantastic. They de-personalize the lawyer, render them androgynous and remove personality from the equation: Their biggest supporters are women.

On the downside, they are insufferably hot, especially on a summer’s day in a courtroom without air conditioning.

Your author’s bio says you left criminal practice “due to a constitutional inability to prosecute.” What does that mean? Sounds like there’s a story there.

In the UK we have a split legal profession: Solicitors handle non-contentious work, and in contentious matters, brief barristers (specialist advocates) conduct the case in court. I was a barrister. British barristers are like taxis at a rank: They are professionally obliged to represent whomsoever instructs them—an ancient system designed to promote impartiality and incorruptibility. This means criminal barristers both defend and prosecute, sometimes on the same day!

I loved defending. I’m always for the underdog, and I never failed to be moved in some degree by the plight of the (invariably young) men and women who fetched up in court. Nearly all of them had tragic histories and had been failed by adults while growing up. I soon found I hated prosecuting, to the extent I could hardly bring myself to do it. One day, I dried up in court—seized by a kind of nervous panic in quite a mundane prosecution—but it was because I didn’t believe in what I was doing. I can remember the faces of the jury and of the judge. It was both a mortifying and life-changing moment. I suddenly realized my subconscious mind, or whatever you like to call it, had told me ‘no more.’

So, did you quit that instant?

Very shortly afterwards I decided to take a three month sabbatical to concentrate on writing a screenplay. I did. I then went back to the law while I tried desperately to break into screenwriting. Fortunately, I got the job with Kavanagh QC about six months later.

Was it difficult to break in to writing for TV?

Throughout my early twenties I was trying to write screenplays. Looking back, I went about it in quite a lawyerly way: I studied the books and went to the courses on story structure and analyzed scripts until I understood what made them work. At age 27, I wrote a screenplay that finally got me noticed. It didn’t get made, but it got me a job writing for a major UK TV series, a legal drama called Kavanagh QC. I worked in TV right through to 2007 when I wrote my first novel.

What other shows have you worked on? Anything that’s been seen in the American market?

I have worked on many UK legal and crime shows, a lot of which will have shown at least on BBC America. Judge John Deed, Blue Murder, Scarlett Pimpernel and Dalziel and Pascoe.

Do you prefer writing to practicing law?

Practicing law can be thrilling, especially when you’re in the midst of a dramatic court case, but it doesn’t beat the satisfaction I get from writing a screenplay or a book.

Do you think your legal training makes you a better writer?

My legal training has been invaluable. Writing a screenplay or planning a novel is like creating a very complex logic puzzle; I feel I use the part of my brain that used to draft pleadings to work out a story, or even to tease through the text and sub-text of a run of dialogue. Writing relies on initial inspiration, followed by months of hard deskwork and endless refining and honing—a lawyer can handle that kind of drudge (it often is!) far better than most.

What was your best moment in law?

Securing my first acquittal in a jury trial. A young man had been arrested suspected of being involved in a violent disturbance. He may well have been guilty, I don’t know, but the six or so policemen who helped in his arrest all colluded in compiling their concocted evidence. Stupid people may have some excuse for lying. When police do it, there’s none. It gave me great pleasure to see lying cops watch their man walk free.

What was your worst moment in law?

Perhaps the most embarrassing was appearing in front of a bench of magistrates as a very young barrister and not being able to work out if the chairman was a man or a woman. Did I address him/her as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’? I opted for ‘sir,’ but I was wrong.

The Disappeared is your second novel starring Jenny Cooper (a lawyer-turned-coroner). How did you come up with the idea for her character? Is she based on someone you know? Did you spend time with coroners to get a sense of that profession?

I’d had a coroner in mind as a lead character for some years, but the idea only came to life when I thought about making her a woman. Suddenly I could infuse this character with vulnerability and emotional complexity, and she became someone I was fascinated by. She isn’t based on anyone I know, but I did go out and research with several coroners to get a detailed knowledge of how they operate. The fascinating thing about [coroners in the UK], is that they are judicial officers, answerable to the Ministry of Justice, but paid for by the local authority. This means they have a tiny budget, but huge powers which they can use to call the mighty to account, should they chose to do so.

What’s interesting about Jenny Cooper’s background as a lawyer is that she has really struggled (bad marriage, stressful career, anxiety disorder, prescription pill addiction). Is practicing law in England as hellish as it can be in the U.S.? Is there something universally hellish about the practice of law?

The practice of law can be particularly hellish for those who get caught up emotionally in what they’re doing. Personally, I found dealing with the ugly side of human nature every day a real strain. As I walked to the Old Bailey one morning, I remember thinking, ‘I’ll be doing this same walk in twenty years time, only for a serial murder rather than a single stabbing’ … Some people positively thrive on it, I don’t think I could have been one of them. My father-in-law, on the other hand, rose up to become a Law Lord (one of our Supreme Court Judges) and loved every minute of his 50-year career. I think the important thing is not to let yourself get trapped in a job that’s harming you.

In The Disappeared, Jenny is aided by a disbarred solicitor with a questionable history. How did you come up with the character of Alec McAvoy? Is any of you in him?

Alec McAvoy is a fearless lawyer with no sense of self-preservation and beset with human failings. I’m fascinated by the fact that people who achieve great things and overcome great injustices are often hopelessly flawed. In fact, only a person who doesn’t give a damn will have the courage to take on a really big beast and to hell with the consequences. I think Alec McAvoy is the kind of lawyer I’d like to have been, rather than the one I actually was.

Why did you decide to set the story in The Disappeared in and around issues relating to terrorism, radical Islam, and anti-Islamic views in the Western world?

Radical Islam is a very immediate issue in the UK. We have several million Asian immigrants, many now second and third generation; every small town and tiny village has an Indian or Pakistani restaurant. Britain was the imperial power in the Indian sub-continent, and we are wrapped up in its affairs. There’s a big issue of integration: Successive governments have followed a multicultural agenda, and now we’re wringing our hands wondering whether we got it all wrong.

The fact is, some young British Muslims, not particularly poor or deprived, went to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight U.S. and UK troops. The young men who bombed London buses and trains in 2005 weren’t poor or alienated; one was a schoolteacher. Caught between cultures, born in a land they don’t feel is truly their own, they were seduced by the idea of belonging to a powerful, global force that would deliver all the answers. This isn’t a problem that’s going away anytime soon and there’s no simple answer. Writers have to deal with these issues to inform the debate.

Do you have any advice for lawyers out there looking to become writers?

There’s nothing easy about writing for a living. Just like the law, it’s a tough discipline which requires several years of hard analytical study to master. Don’t just keep on writing the same stuff if it isn’t working. Most people have got something to say; writers know how to weave it into a compelling narrative. If you’re serious, read Robert McKee’s book Story, go to his course and master the basic techniques of story structure. If you’re willing to submit you creativity to rigorous discipline, then you’ve got the right stuff to make a career of it.

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  • Carl

    Very Interesting Article.  I think more ought be stated about the wigs, tho.

  • King Drew

    Wigs are silly. Thank god we didn’t keep that custom.

  • Jerome

    His first book was pretty good, actually.

  • BitterPD

    “ ‘I’ll be doing this same walk in twenty years time, only for a serial murder rather than a single stabbing’ “
    I have that thought every day, but I don’t get to walk to old Baily.

  • Anonymous

    this guy was a barrister? don’t see it.

  • Guano Dubango

    For many years, we had the Barrister/Solicitor system in Accra.  We did not, however, wear those puffy powdery wigs the way they do in London.  I met a pretty girl in London who wanted me to go home with her, but I did not think Aunt Ooona would approve of her, so I told her no.

  • David

    I read this guy’sbook today in one sitting – it was fantastic. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

  • Doug

    No way did you meet a pretty girl, Guanno.