Ex-medical negligence partner now working for a virtual firm
Richard Barr qualified nearly forty years ago. Having started out as a general practitioner, he has become a specialist in medical negligence and multi-party claims and has worked on a number of high profile issues, notably the MMR litigation. After being a partner for many years, he went from financial security to being made redundant as he neared retirement. He now works for a virtual firm and regularly writes a column for Solicitors Journal. He spoke to us about his career.
mtl: Hi Richard, why did you become a lawyer and what made you focus your career on medical negligence?
Richard: Like many lawyers I’m sure, I still haven’t decided what to do when I grow up and for a long time law was supposed to be a stopgap until I decided what to do. When I qualified in 1971, I opened a branch office in Kings Lynn, which is where I worked as a partner for a large part of my career.
In the late 1980’s I began to take on personal injury work and became involved in multi-party litigation at a time when this type of case was in its infancy. Through various twists and turns of fate I became the lead solicitor in a group of cases in the Opren litigation (claims arising from an anti-arthritis drug that was associated with a large number of side effects and deaths), which in turn led on to specialising in medical negligence. I was drawn to it because it is very interesting to crawl over medical records to see what was done and not done. My mother was a doctor, my wife is a scientist and my step-daughter is brain-damaged as a result of clinical negligence, while another step daughter is a neurosurgeon, so I also have many personal reasons for finding it an interesting subject.
Qualified as a solicitor
Partner at Dawbarns (later to become Fraser Dawbarns)
Partner at Hodge Jones & Allen
1999 – 2004
Partner at Alexander Harris
Locum position at Gadsby Wicks
2005 – 2008
Partner at Fraser Dawbarns
Made redundant, joined SCOMO
My career took a turn (some would say for the worse) when I became involved in three high-profile multi-party cases, particularly when I was approached to run the MMR litigation. The firm I had been in for most of my working life was not geared up for this kind of work so, when I was within six months of becoming the senior partner, I and others in my team (including my wife who had joined us as a scientist) moved to Alexander Harris to obtain the support I needed. There I became a junior salaried partner. For a large part of the time I was working remotely for them from a portacabin in our garden in Norfolk.
That arrangement lasted from 1998-2004, during which time I worked mostly on the MMR litigation. During that time we were under unrelenting pressure and I worked 16-17 hour days, often seven days a week almost continuously for years. Despite the hours that my team put in, we were completely out-resourced.
The case ended when legal aid was withdrawn on the basis that there was not a strong enough case for success We sought Judicial Review of the decision as it felt very unfair, particularly as we had a huge amount of evidence, 30 experts’ reports and the opinions of three QCs supporting us. Judicial review was refused and my entire team was made redundant. It was a hard pill to swallow as it had been my life’s work for the previous five years. Many of the families that I worked with felt that there had been some intervention in the case and that the big pharmaceuticals could not let us proceed under any circumstances.
mtl: We’ve all heard the MMR controversy mentioned in the press - can you summarise what the case was about?
Richard: In my opinion, vaccines have benefited humans, so our case was never against vaccines per se. However, serious side effects of the MMR vaccine have been recorded and from our observations (and some results are beginning to emerge from the US supporting this link), there seemed to be a small percentage of children with immune problems or possibly a genetic predisposition, who were more susceptible to reacting to the MMR vaccination. In certain circumstances these children’s immune systems seemed not to be clearing the vaccine viruses as they normally would. In turn this appeared to lead to brain damage that presented itself as similar to autism. No matter what age the child was at vaccination, the symptoms always seemed to present themselves within a few weeks or months of the children being immunised. At the same time it was claimed that the children would frequently present with other characteristic symptoms such as bowel problems, loss of temperature control, increased thirst and loss of sleep patterns.
mtl: What did you do after the MMR litigation collapsed?
Richard: I took on a locum role in Chelmsford for a year, doing specific clinical negligence work, which was a good thing to do at that point as I had done nothing but MMR litigation for several years and I needed to reacquire my skills in clinical negligence cases. I then spent some time working on a book on MMR (still not completed!), before rejoining the firm that I had started out with in Kings Lynn (but this time once again at the bottom of the ladder). I re-started a clinical negligence practice and built up a significant workload. However there are always cash flow problems in this area of law due to the length of the cases and the no-win, no-fee arrangements, and the department was closed in November 2008.
Being made redundant again was very tough, particularly at the wrong side of 60. In response to the situation I decided to join a virtual firm called SCOMO and to work when and where I wanted to i.e. at home with a part-time secretary. I already knew one of the partners and a former Alexander Harris colleague was working there too. I took my work in progress with me by buying the cases that I was involved in from my former partners. I had to borrow a lot to do it but it paid off after a year.
There are eight of us doing personal injury and clinical negligence work at SCOMO and we have regular meetings in London to discuss problems and updates in the law. The firm provides a case management system with time recording, document creation and file management and it also monitors compliance and offers general support and practice development. Crucially, it also provides professional indemnity insurance cover – something that is in the minds of many solicitors at the moment. All mail is scanned and emailed out to us every day, so there is no delay by being remote from the office. Last year I took on a major case through the firm but generally we bring in our own work, so I advertise locally in papers and have my own website which is linked to the firm’s website.
I highly recommend working in this way now rather than being part of a partnership structure. There are huge stresses as a firm gets bigger and you are never really your own boss. Now I am essentially my own boss and I have a lot of freedom. I work almost full-time but am also doing other interesting things including being on the Council of the Law Society, being legal advisor to the Society of Homeopaths and a member of the Standards Committee of our local council.
mtl: Tell us about the writing you do…
Richard: I have written a column in Solicitors Journal for about 15 years and have kept up a narrative for all that time. It started by just sending in an article which was accepted for publication and I enjoy being able to do more of it now. Changing firms gives you many different things to write about… I’d like to do more creative writing but in the meantime I am completing my book on MMR.
mtl: Do you have any advice for readers?
Richard: I think you need a bit of life experience and a rounded personality to be successful in law. It’s a shame that it is so highly specialised at such an early stage now. In the 1970s, junior lawyers covered everything and moved torwards specialisation so that they had a general wisdom about life and law, rather than focusing on a narrow area so young. As this approach no longer seems possible, I think it would be good to get a rounded education from something other than law before becoming a solicitor.
To do clinical negligence, you have to be very interested in it as a subject and be able to tackle detail, as getting inside the story is what counts. You also have to be interested in medicine. My library at home has far more medical text books than legal ones. It also helps to have members of the family involved in medicine. Obviously the normal rules apply and you have to be thorough and keep cases going. The aim is to get the case to a point where the other side will pay up as these cases don’t often go to court.
If you are made redundant then try not to become a rabbit in the headlights. By all means get angry, but then sit down and be clever and realistic. Don’t panic, take stock and then work your way through it. To see what I wrote about the experience, and how I coped click here and select “All change” and “Down Under but Not Out”
mtl: Thank you for your time Richard.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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