“20 Questions with…Michael Upton”

Michael Upton | Advocate at the Faculty of Advocates

Our next guest is Michael Upton. Michael is an excellent Advocate at the Faculty of Advocates with admirable experience and expertise to prove it. Following the completion of a Philosophy & Politics degree at Oxford, Michael graduated Magna Cum Laude in Law at the University of Edinburgh. Michael has generously participated in an interview with Sean to share his insights and experience into the thrilling life of an Advocate.

1. Tell us a bit about your background. Which university(s) did you attend? Did you take a year abroad? What were your favourite/worst subjects in university? Did you participate in any societies?

Half-English, half-Danish, I was born in Peebles and grew up near Penicuik – I went to Glencorse Primary School, then George Heriot’s in Edinburgh  –  and then as a very callow eighteen-year-old straight from school to Oxford to read Philosophy & Politics, followed by Law at Edinburgh.  I also spent a glorious year at the E.U.’s European University at Florence, taking a Master’s in European Law.

2. What made you choose to pursue a career in the legal profession? How did you know you wanted to become an Advocate?

Two reasons.  First, growing up at Glencorse, we learned of Robert Louis Stevenson’s love for that leafy old parish, and its appearances in his writing  –  so I wanted to do what he did, and he had been an advocate.  Secondly, I quite rightly had no confidence in my employability, plus a great fear of fixed employment, so wanted to be self-employed  –  which for advocates is compulsory.

3. When applying to undertake a period of devilling, how did you find the process? Did you already have legal experience before applying? How did you find the Faculty examinations?

Leith’s historic old firm, Boyd Jameson & Young W.S., were so charitable as to take me on as a Bar Apprentice, for the minimum one year needed to go to the bar  –  my only experience of the solicitor’s profession.  Folk at the Faculty of Advocates were very helpful; I approached Patrick Hodge and Robert Reed out of the blue, and they were happy to give me good advice.  The exams were a bit gruelling, but if you’re fresh out of university, you’ve still got the habits for revision  –  they might be harder for an older intrant.

4. What sort of tasks and responsibilities did you undertake during your devilling at the Faculty of Advocates? Did you get on well with your Devilmaster(s)?

I did very little of any use for my devil-master.  He had a blue-chip commercial practice and I barely understood many of the hearings and consultations I sat in on.  At that time devilling was far less structured, so for most kinds of hearings, the first one that I ever saw was the first one I appeared in after I had qualified.  In at the deep end, paddling furiously.

5. What advice would you give yourself as a law student looking back as a now as an Advocate?

You’d worry much less what other people think of you, if you realised how rarely they do.

6. What does your role as an Advocate look like day-to-day?

It is a wonderful job.  You are privileged to learn about the working and private experiences of all kinds of people in all parts of the country.  It is rewarding.  It can satisfy a taste for intellectual analysis, or for history, or for helping your fellows in difficulty, or for developing the law, or for liking the sound of your own voice, or for a career on the bench or in politics, or for being the master of your own time.  Parliament House and the many talented people who work there act as a clearing-house for many of the country’s highest-profile and most important disputes  –  so even if you’re not in the show, you can often enjoy a ringside seat.

7. What is the most rewarding part of being an Advocate?

The absence of anyone telling you what to do.

8. How did you get over the nerves of appearing in court and dealing with client pressure?

If you do anything for years on end, it becomes a routine  –  but the day you stop being nervous in anticipation of a court hearing is the day you stop preparing properly  –  and in court work, advance preparation is everything.  As for client pressure, well: Nerves = Preparation = Happy & Friendly Client  –  mostly!

9. Which case that you have worked on did you find the most interesting?

Lord Gray’s Motion, 2000 S.C. (H.L.) 46.  And a dispute about a lost boundary which ran through changing seaside sand-dunes, amongst which I once spent a sunny day, wandering around with a sheaf of old title plans.

10. Do you work from home all the time? Do you appear in court at all or is it all remote now?

When we’re not burdened by Plague Laws, like many advocates I divide my out-of-court time between the Advocates’ Library at Parliament House and home.  Home is best for working effectively, but P.H. is a sociable place, where you can break off from work to ask a colleague for advice, or chew the fat over coffee.

11. What is your work/life balance like? Do you find that your workload has increased or decreased since the lockdown?

Self-employment means if your work/life balance is wrong, then you know who to blame.  One advantage of a 9-to-5 job is you can switch off, at least at the weekend, but self-employment means that if you take Saturday off, then you know you’re losing money.  If you want to obsess about that, that’s your free choice!

12. In your opinion, what are the most important skills required for a successful career as an Advocate?

Intelligence  –  intelligence to understand the law, intelligence to understand other people, and intelligence to understand that, if you take the job seriously, then not only your opponents but also the bench will take you seriously  –  so that a judge faced with the challenge of how to decide the case will see you as someone who isn’t bringing problems, but bringing answers.  That helps you win  –  or at least helps the judge get the right answer, which is maybe more important!

13. How do you feel about the future of the legal profession? Do you think court procedure and dealing with clients will become more virtual permanently?

Virtual hearings can spare a lot of inconvenience  –  say, for a witness whose day might otherwise be taken up with schlepping to a distant court and back, all for some dispute not at all of his making.  But they shouldn’t become the norm, for lots of reasons  –  here’s just one: they deny the lawyers those minutes spent waiting for the judge, or packing up your papers at the end of the day, when an informal word or two with your opponent can open the door to discussions, negotiations, compromise, and peace.

As for the future of the legal profession, for the sake of the country, let’s hope it gets smaller.  It’s a sad society that spends more and more of its precious money on strife.  We have far more laws than we need  –  far more than we can enforce  –  far more even than the authorities who are supposed to be responsible for making and applying them can themselves keep up with  –  and  –  which is really critical  –  far more than the man in the street can understand.  If we preferred simplicity over perfection, were more charitable to each other, and applied a lot more common-sense to the fact that life is inevitably a perilous business, then we could dispense with a great deal of law and a great deal of lawyers.  There are lots of more useful careers, and a law degree is a first-class foundation for many of them.

14. How do you stay commercially aware with current events and what would you recommend for students?

Reuters’ website, and the free e-mailed news-letter Scottish Legal News!

15. What would you say to inspire law students who are currently considering a career as an Advocate?

It can be pretty tough at the start  –  so my advice would be to start as soon as possible, when you’re still young and have the modest tastes of student-life.  Being paid a bit more money than you really need to pay the rent for a shared flat, is a lot better than being paid the same amount of money when you have children and a mortgage to pay for.

16. How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Briefly puzzled star-dust.

17. What is your proudest achievement?

You invite bragging!  I’d like to say it was my cycle ride from Edinburgh to Rome, or restoring a 200-year-old blackhouse on a remote Hebridean island as I’ve been doing these last 33 years, but I’d have to go for climbing the Matterhorn.

18. If you could travel anywhere right now, where would you go and why?

Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, to see what Robert Louis Stevenson saw.

19. If not law, what other career would you be interested in pursuing and why?

A teacher in Uganda, or Yemen, or Taiwan, where children still thirst for learning.

20. If you could write a book/film about your life, what would the title be and why?

I would steal Benigni’s title  –  ‘La Vita è Bella’  –  because it’s true.


Interviewed by Sean Doig (Editor-in-Chief 2020/21). We would like to thank Michael Upton for taking the time out of his busy schedule to participate in the interview for the Law Review. You can find out more about Michael’s legal experience and specialisms on the Themis Advocates website here.

If you would like to participate in an interview with the Law Review, please do not hesitate to contact us at ednapier.lawreview@gmail.com


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