SJ interview: Dave Fendem
Chaynee Hodgetts talks to Dave Fendem, barrister and author of Dirty Briefs
CH: Thank you for making time to speak with us. Please tell us about yourself – what’s your current practice area?
DF: Street fighting criminal practitioner.
CH: How did you become a barrister?
DF: A question I ask myself daily, alongside why? I was struggling to choose a degree after A levels and my solution to assuage the constant wrangling with my dear mother was to simply follow in my older brother`s footsteps. While he became a hot shot finance lawyer and director of a large fund management company in the Caymans, I preferred the idea of the cut and thrust of criminal law. Starting out in an inner-city law firm, the idea of leaving behind the insurmountable file mountains and 24 hour police stations in exchange for the bright lights and theatre of the Crown Court was an enduring draw. I practised for a couple of years as a solicitor advocate and then transferred to the Bar.
CH: How did you become an author?
DF: After over 20 years working mainly in criminal law but also in mental health, I had amassed a huge catalogue of amusing and shocking stories which recounting them appeared to greatly amuse my friends. The vicissitudes of life, both at the Bar and away from it, such as they were, I found myself in a mess; skint, with vices – and a disaster with romance. And it seemed I was in good company among other barristers. Journalling was recommended by a therapist to ease my troubled mind. It was a conflation of my journal and the stories from the law that gave life to my book, Dirty Briefs. A publisher with a slightly warped sense of humour thought it was a good idea to put it into print!
CH: What sets your book apart from The Secret Barrister?
DF: The Secret Barrister has worked hard to expose some of the major failings of the criminal justice system. She strives for a fairer system and cares deeply about the administration of justice. All those working in the system or otherwise find themselves somewhere within it owe some gratitude to the SB for her activism.
Dirty Briefs came from a very different place; probably somewhere slightly darker – adversity being the source of much humour. It was never supposed to end up in print – and has, therefore, little hint of politics, crusade or ulterior design. It might be considered as honest and as raw an account you may get from a lawyer, warts and all. I also lack the attention span and moral fibre to write anything that might challenge the reader as much, or demand the same level of investment, as the Secret Barrister. It is a lighter read, badly behaved and with possibly a greater emphasis on humour than worthiness.
CH: What do you enjoy most about practice at the criminal Bar?
DF: The lack of boss, daily variety and camaraderie among fellow barristers. There is also no doubt the dopamine hits intrinsic to successfully pitching your wits against another and persuading a jury your take on justice is the one to prevail, offers a real high! I must also mention the occasional good feeling that rewards you for doing a good job and helping someone during one of the most difficult times of their lives.
CH: What do you find most challenging about practice at the criminal Bar?
DF: The job can be enormously stressful. Every day is a fight. The stakes are often high. You never find yourself in a position where you feel on top of your case load and instead spend much of the time putting out fires and burying the evidence. It can also be quite a lonely pursuit at times.
CH: What do you enjoy most about writing books?
DF: Complete escapism.
CH: What do you find most challenging about writing books?
DF: Nothing at all. Writing is a pursuit that completely frees the mind, hugely medicative and indulgent for me.
CH: What is a typical working day like for you?
DF: Out of bed at 6am, court from 9 – 5 – and then an evening of prep for the following day. The clerks finalise the diary at about 5pm – after which it is all hands to the pump. If I am lucky I will be able to grab an hour at the gym or pool, but I probably do work harder than is healthy. We all do!
CH: Are you involved in any charitable or pro bono work?
DF: When working in crime, there is little time or scope, especially as the majority of the work is publicly funded. The pursuit of helping others, though, is a driving force for me both at and away from work.
CH: What’s your most memorable case, and why?
DF: I have a huge catalogue of weird, wonderful and grotesque cases to my name but two stick with me. The first was a little banking fraud I defended; unique because my client gifted me some cufflinks as a ‘thank you’ at the end of it. The second was a lady who had been accused of assaulting her husband (who, may I point out, was a man who thoroughly deserved it!) She wrote me a card saying how I had changed her life and how grateful she was. As barristers we seldom feel appreciated. Every case takes a little bit of your soul and you go until you have no soul left. A small gesture of gratitude puts a little bit of it back and can keep you going a while longer.
CH: What would your advice be to newcomers to the Bar – or new solicitors?
DF: Be strong! You will get s**t from all sides and you will be knocked down, frequently. Wherever those knocks come from, come back up with a haymaker from the floor.
CH: What’s your position on mental health at the Bar? And for solicitors?
DF: As a barrister, you are a fighter. None of us want to appear weak. We need to reinforce the fact mental illness is not a weakness. Life at the Bar offers the ingredients for mental instability. It is a world of ups and downs, creativity and stress. I myself write about my own struggles with my mind and how I ended up close to the edge. I still don`t think there are enough discussions or support for lawyers although it is improving. Anyone struggling must try their best to talk about it. I guarantee most others at the profession will have had their own struggles and may appreciate a chat themselves.
CH: What do you do to ensure work-life balance when you're not working?
DF: I am pretty certain I haven`t got this quite right yet and am also looking for the answer! Work can creep up on you and before you know it, you are doing too much of it. Right now, I think I owe myself a talking to about this!
CH: What’s your proudest achievement?
DF: Making it through life without a criminal conviction and being an all right Dad.
CH: What one thing do you wish you'd known before now?
DF: Life is one large banana skin, wear padded pants.
CH: What one thing do most people not know about you?
DF: That is a tough one. I absolutely wear my heart on my sleeve. People tend to know stuff about me even before I do!
CH: Why should anyone read your book?
DF: Because they have stolen half an hour in the lavatory away from their significant other and want to immerse themselves in a wild, hilarious and unruly world. They will also delight in a good helping of schadenfreude as well as learn a bit about a career at the sharp end of the law.
CH: What’s next for you?
DF: To continue with my head wedged firmly below the parapet alongside an enduring hope of surviving the next day professionally and emotionally unscathed. Taking silk would also be nice – don`t worry, it will never happen!
CH: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
DF: It`s way past my bedtime, you will have to read the book! Goodnight!
Dave Fendem, criminal barrister and author, was interviewed by Chaynee Hodgetts, our features & opinion editor and barrister with Libertas Chambers. “Dirty Briefs” published by Mardle Books, is out now: davefendem.co.uk