Sean Longley is a one guinea brief who lives in South London with his family. He talks to Law and More about working on the Damilola Taylor case and writing his first novel, “The Hartlepool Monkey”.
On the law and Damilola Taylor……
“I didn’t decide on a career in the law so much as slip into one. I was unemployed after a serious motorcycle accident and started in the lowest rung of the legal ladder by working as an outdoor clerk.
My less than meteoric rise in the legal profession took me to paralegal, then managing clerk, and finally to qualification via the distance learning route.
“It was very hard work, particularly working full time, studying and having a young family.
“I was briefly a partner at my current firm but I resigned this partly because I wanted to write and partly because partnership and management require a totally separate set of skills.
“I wanted to work in legal aid criminal defence out of a sense of idealism. I got into trouble when I was at University and was defended by Vera Baird in her pre QC and pre MP days. She was really inspirational, and cut the witnesses to pieces. I had no real ambition at the time but I thought that if I had to work at all, then I wanted to do what she did.
“My highest point as a solicitor was my 15 minutes of fame defending one of the four boys who were accused of murdering Damilola Taylor. This was at the first trial, and it had everything – high profile, incompetent/corrupt police, political importance and, best of all, a genuinely innocent client.
“As for the lowest point, that would have to be everything that has happened to Legal Aid and criminal justice since 1994. The “reforms” to Legal Aid which have effectively disenfranchised all but the very poor and the very rich. The undermining of the presumption of innocence, and the gradual creep towards the coercive state summon the ghost of an angry young man from the burned out hack I have become. The irony of Vera Baird being both my inspiration and the engine of my professional destruction is priceless. Eat your heart out Alanis Morissette.
“Working in Criminal Defence is an enormously varied job. Most of the clients are engaging people, and the job is a constant and humbling reminder that anyone is a few bad decisions away from active engagement with a criminal justice system that encroaches upon many areas of everyday life. It is always satisfying when you get a result for a client. It’s becoming more corporate though: the “Newspeak” of the Legal Services Commission and the encroachment of McValues into what should be public service keep me (and I suspect anyone else working in the same field) in a constant state of low level fury.”
On writing and “The Hartlepool Monkey”…..
“I always wanted to be a writer. The only thing that stood in my ways for years was having nothing to write about.
“A man I met at a party told me about the monkey that was washed up after a shipwreck, tried and ultimately hanged as a spy. It seemed to crystallise everything that was vainglorious and ridiculous about the law, and the consequences to those caught up in its process.
“Some time later I read one of my children “Barber”. The idea that the civilising force of French culture is so strong that an elephant would wear a bottle green suit and spats he if lived in Paris complete the picture: Jacques LeSinge – monkey, revolutionary and lieutenant in French Naval Intelligence - was born.
“The characters are a mixed bag of composites of people I have met over the years. “Mr Warren”, the monkey’s lawyer, is physically based upon a former colleague of mine, whose name I “stole” as well. His cynicism is someone else though. My colleague was a committed and idealistic man.
“Writing is surprisingly hard work, but I have a track record in taking up jobs I erroneously believed would be a soft option.
“Writing is also great fun, particularly as what I write tends to be on the ludicrous side. Plus, I have enjoyed researching the history of the French Revolution, and locations like the Paris Catacombs and chateaux in Brittany. It is great to be paid for what is, essentially, a hobby.”
On the future…..
“I am working on a second book at the moment. I do not see myself being able to give up law and become a full time writer unless I am incredibly lucky.
“A far more likely scenario is that the Carter Reforms mean that the job gives me up in favour of a partially qualified callow paralegal, that could be me fifteen years ago and who will work for food. If this does happen, the modest income I may earn from writing may sugar the pill of my future career as a mini cab driver.”
Read more about The Hartlepool Monkey here
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