Inspirational Woman: Michelle Heeley QC | No5 Barrister & Leader, Midland Circuit

Michelle Heeley QC reduced sizeTell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I grew up in Erdington, Birmingham, and I was the first in my family to go to university. Despite having no connections with the law, I had always wanted to be a Barrister, so I studied Law and German at Nottingham Trent University. I managed to get pupillage (effectively a final training step towards becoming a barrister) by winning a Mooting competition – this is a simulated court hearing that law students will often take part in. The Moot judge was a former member of No 5 Barristers’ Chambers, who was impressed enough to invite me for an interview. That that was 20 years ago, and I’ve been at No 5 ever since!

I always wanted to practise in crime, and I am proud of having managed to forge a career in that. I became a Recorder (part time Crown Court Judge) in 2012 at the age of 34, Silk at 38 and this year became Leader of the Midland Circuit. My role now is to promote and protect the interests of barristers on the Midland Circuit, by liaising with government leaders to ensure our voice is heard.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not in writing, but I certainly had a career path in mind. For instance, I knew that I wanted to be a QC. If I was going to be a barrister, then I wanted to be one of the best, to that extent every case I did was with that goal in mind. There came a point when I knew that I had the experience to apply to become a QC (Queen’s Counsel), and at that point I planned out the next three years until I took Silk. For now, I am enjoying the role and wait to see where it takes me.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

As a young-looking, short female I was not taken seriously at first. People underestimated me, and defendants did not want me to represent them. I began to prosecute more, and success brought more serious cases. Thereafter I was instructed in my own name as my experience grew.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Taking silk at the age of 38, the youngest criminal Silk at the time. For those not familiar with the term, taking silk is essentially when you are regarded as a senior barrister, with a number of big cases under your belt. It’s also known as a QC (Queens’ Counsel), and to have achieved this by the age of 38 is something I am immensely proud of.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

The support of my husband, who let his career take a back seat in order to support me. We are very much a team with different strengths and weaknesses, which complement each other well.

You’ve had an amazing career, whilst juggling home life and children – do you have any advice juggling a work/life balance for our readers?

You can’t be “brilliant” at everything, but you can be good enough at everything.

For me this means prioritising the hardest cases and the important things for my children. If I have to be in chambers on a given day, I work hard and make the most of it. If I can work from home then I endeavour to do that, so that I can do the school run.

After court I make sure I am there for the children, and then I work once they are in bed. One of my biggest hopes is that I am setting my boys a good example of a strong woman.

How can we help encourage girls and young women into a career in law?

It’s not so much difficulties in encouraging women into the law, more so in keeping them in law, as they juggle the pressures of work and family. I would say it is doable, so long as you keep in mind it’s not about presenteeism, but about being efficient with the hours you have. When you are away from work, turn the phone off and be there for your family.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Don’t panic, that D in your German A level isn’t the end of the world!

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I am looking forward to being Leader of the Midland Circuit for the next three years. I truly hope that during my term I am able to increase social mobility at the Bar, and redress some of the retention issues. After that, I await with interest and see what will happen!

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