Joseph (Joe) Boyd, Solicitor and owner of mixed court practice law firm Joseph G Boyd & Co Court Lawyers in Edinburgh, narrates his journey into the legal profession, including the impact of having a stammer.
I attended Portobello High School in Edinburgh, where I was a pupil for six years, leaving with seven Highers and one Advanced Higher qualifications. Thereafter, I studied the Law LLB Honours degree at the University of Edinburgh between 2004 and 2008. I became most interested and specialised in constitutional law, media law, and criminology and evidence subjects. I graduated with a 2:1 Honours degree in Law in 2008. In 2009, I graduated for the second time with my Diploma in Legal Practice, which you need to obtain in order to become a Solicitor.
I undertook my legal traineeship in the summer of 2009 with an all-encompassing rural firm in the Scottish borders. There, I worked in the court department and trained in all aspects of criminal defence, civil litigation and children’s law. Shortly after fully qualifying as a solicitor in 2011, I moved back to Edinburgh and became an in house lawyer with Royal Bank of Scotland ('RBS'). I felt that I wanted to experience different types of legal practice areas, disciplines and environments to those I had experienced in my traineeship.
Between 2012 and 2016, I worked mainly in corporate and commercial law disciplines for RBS, including dealing with executive and legalistic complaints, policy and compliance, and finally corporate governance and secretariat. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my time at RBS, and was grateful for the significant knowledge, skills and experiences I amassed during my time there, I ultimately started to miss the court work.
So in 2016, I decided to move back to private practice to work with an Edinburgh criminal defence firm. I knew that court work was where my heart really lies. I continued to work as a criminal defence solicitor, until in February 2019, I decided to set up my own law firm and begin practicing as a sole practitioner. My firm is based in Edinburgh, but I can cover the whole of Scotland. I have also reverted back to my roots and have a mixed court practice, undertaking work in criminal defence, civil litigation and children’s law again. It has been nine months since I have been working on my own, and I am absolutely loving it. It is extremely hard work, but the rewards of being your own boss and finding your own way in the profession and job that you love are fantastic.
What was your motivation for becoming a solicitor?
I was interested in the law and how this worked from an early age. As I progressed through school and got older, I became aware of how important the law was in relation to everything that I did. For example, the fact that I had to go to school at all, the age at which I could start working as a paperboy, and the necessary means by which I could work in the career I wanted to in the future, were all governed by sets of laws, rules, regulations or criteria of some kind. Indeed, I think as I experienced and learned more, I also continued to develop a thirst for thinking about why and how I was doing this, and an appreciation and understanding of the different views or arguments as to how something should specifically be done.
The opposing theories and arguments engaged my attention, and I began to read books and watch TV programmes and films with certain legal content. The criminal law became of particular interest to me, I think because I found this the most intriguing in terms of some of the case stories, and exciting in terms of the proceedings.
In terms of my motivation to become a solicitor in particular, this was undoubtedly to practice in court. I loved reading books, watching films and TV programmes which revolved around court cases. I’ve always liked the tradition of the proceedings and the attire that is worn, for example. It always looked like a really important and varied job to do, and one that commanded respect. But I also liked the stories that revolved around the so-called ‘weaker’ or ‘underdog’ parties arguing their cases out and winning against the ‘bigger’ or ‘favourite’ parties to a case.
Now, I undertake a lot of legal aid work. The reason that I like doing this in particular, is because I like helping other people. Particularly those people who without a solicitor representing them wouldn’t stand a great chance against bigger, stronger or more knowledgeable parties to them. Those who would otherwise have no effective voice in important decisions that are made affecting their lives. I know it is a cliché of sorts, but I have never felt comfortable in refusing to help someone who has asked me to, when I know that with my help I could make a big difference to the outcome of the particular case or legal issue that they are facing.
What challenges did you encounter?
I think the biggest challenges I have faced from initially training as a solicitor to now owning my own law firm, have been in relation to my own motivation to carry on, primarily because of the effects of my stammer. I have had a stammer since I can remember being able to speak at all. I have had various instances of speech and language therapy over the years, both on the NHS and in the private sector. I still have a stammer and I stammer daily.
A big part of my journey so far has been learning about and then trying to accept that it is not going to go away, as much as I would love this to happen. It is very easy to ‘hate’ your stammer and let it get you down. Quite naturally, you grow up thinking that your stammer is a weakness of yours; that it shows your incapability in comparison to others who speak fluently. You try your hardest to cover it up and give off the impression that you can speak normally. But the more you fail, the more disconsolate you become.
These feelings tend to be driven by bad experiences, particularly when you are younger, but also of perceptions that you allow yourself to believe, for example that other people consider it as big a deal as you do. When in most cases, they either don’t notice it at all, or even if they do, they don’t consider it to be anywhere near as big an issue as you do yourself.
The best illustration I have seen of a stammer being explained is the ‘iceberg analogy’. Namely, if you think of an iceberg at sea and the part of this that you can see in particular i.e. the top part which sticks out of the water. This is like seeing the physical effects of a stammer – the person physically stammering. But what you don’t see, just like the bigger part of the iceberg that is hidden under the waters surface, is what is going on inside the person who is stammering. The guilt, shame, panic, fear, anxiety, hopelessness and isolation that they are feeling.
How did you overcome these?
I’ve undergone speech and language therapy since a young age, both on the NHS and privately. All of these methods try to teach you ways to cope with your stammer, for example ‘word substitution’ and ‘slurring’ into certain sounding words. However, it is not always possible for a court lawyer to employ a strategy of ‘word substitution’ as often you have to quote what a person has said verbatim.
As I say, it is not and will not be cured, so I suppose I have not ‘overcome’ it as far as that aspect of it is concerned. But what I have tried to continuously overcome is the reluctance to do certain things, go certain places, and dare I say it, ‘feel the fear but do it anyway’. There will always be people who either don’t understand or make allowances to help you, and whilst these experiences strike at the heart of your self-esteem, they are rare and there are many more positive experiences that outweigh the negative.
For example, I will never forget what happened to me when I was conducting a Jury trial in the Sheriff Court a couple of years ago. I was representing an individual charged with various serious charges; convictions for which would have undoubtedly resulted in a custodial sentence. I was cross-examining a witness one day during the trial, when I became totally stuck for words and could literally get nothing out. This (very helpfully!) was just at the crucial point of the witness’s evidence. I stopped and I asked the Sheriff for a brief adjournment, which they granted without hesitation. What happened next absolutely dumbfounded me.
As I went to leave the court to get a breath of fresh air and try to calm down, I caught a look at my client in the dock, who was staring at me with what looked like a horrified look on their face. Of course, my initial reaction was that they were mortified at what they had just seen; their lawyer, the person who potentially stood between them and freedom or otherwise couldn’t even speak when it mattered most. ‘How can I possibly carry on with someone like him defending me when he can’t even speak?’ was what I thought they were thinking.
When we came together, they asked me if I was all right. “Yes”, I replied, and being fully aware of what they had just witnessed added: “I have a bit of a stammer and sometimes just need to take a little break…” I think I even closed my eyes at this point wincing and waiting for the inevitable ‘we can’t go on’ reaction from the client.
At which point they replied: “Yeah, I noticed. But I think you’re doing great.” They went on to talk about how someone in their family had a stammer and they understood the frustration this caused them. I honestly couldn’t believe it. A person on trial with a significant amount of time in their life at stake didn’t think it was a problem. In fact, they applauded me for it. And that’s just it. It is the many reactions like that you get from people who actually think you are brave and all the better for it that count the most, and that you should always try to focus on during the bad and difficult times.
There are certainly not many more difficult jobs you can choose to do with a stammer than being a court lawyer and speaking in public every day. But you ultimately learn in time and through doing the job, in spite of your stammer, that you can actually do it, and you tend to do it very well. Particularly because your attention to detail with regards to the law and the case you are dealing with becomes heightened such is your fear of going into court unprepared, and thus increasing your chances of stammering. You also realise that there is more to being a court lawyer than just speaking in court. Before you get to that stage, you more often than not will have had to draft certain written documents or pleadings for the purposes of the court case. Doing this well is arguably more important than the speaking part, as it is in your written work that the essence of your case is contained, particularly in civil proceedings. If you don’t get this bit right, then quite frankly it often doesn’t matter what you say or how you say it in court.
Have you any advice for anyone considering a career in law?
Don’t let anything hold you back working towards the job or career you want to do. There is absolutely no reason for you to do so. Perceptions can be both good and bad things to have. Good because they show you all that is attractive about the job or career that you are interested in. But bad because you can develop negative thoughts as to why you may not be able to do the job based on your own assumptions.
Talk to people who you know and trust before you make any big decisions. Seek help and advice from those who already work in the job or profession and prepare a list of specific questions that you have in advance so that you don’t forget anything in the moment. You will probably be surprised about the number of people who will actually be more than happy to help and advise you, primarily because they were in your position themselves one day.