So would you heckle a lawyer?

JUST about everyone knows the joke about the lawyer who sees a thief fleeing a bank robbery and shouts "Stop thief!" before his legal training kicks in and he changes his entreaty to "Stop, alleged thief!".

Susan Calman, who quit her 50,000-a-year career as a corporate lawyer with Dundas & Wilson in June to take her chances in the highly competitive, masculine world of stand-up comedy, is better placed than most to appreciate the wry nuances of such humour.

Calman, 34, insists that lawyers aren't the bores and stuffed shirts they are sometimes portrayed as being. "There is a lot of creativity among lawyers," she says. "I have friends who are artists and writers in their spare time, sometimes writing under a pseudonym.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"But there's an arrogance about the profession that they are better than others. There is still a bit of an issue in Scotland, especially Edinburgh, of maintaining the image of being a solicitor. It's a sort of Queen Victoria 'We are not amused' thing. When you're at the High Court and see them walking about, you wonder if they ever smile.

"That's why I've been so taken with Tommy Sheridan firing his legal team and conducting his own defence. It's wonderful, wonderful."

Calman is about to star in A Little Lady Presents Jest at the Edinburgh Fringe, she has plenty of gigs lined up at The Stand comedy clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow and also has regular work with the Comedy Unit, which launched The Karen Dunbar Show, Chewin' the Fat and Still Game.

Calman had been leading a double life, working the comedy circuit at night, doing gigs such as the Mecca Bingo Hall in Parkhead and working as a lawyer by day, until she decided to make the leap and follow her dream.

Her parents encouraged her; her father, Sir Kenneth Calman, the new Chancellor of Glasgow University, has written a number of books on humour and is an avid collector of cartoons.

She is delighted to be making the leap and says she always felt she was forced to choose a legal career too soon. "I filled in my UCCA form for university when I was only about 16 at the High School of Glasgow, a private school where there was the expectation you wanted a career in law or medicine," she recalls. "The only other thing that appealed was drama but that was regarded as bit flaky."

Calman's leanings towards the bright lights was nurtured by her grandmother, who was a fan of all the old Hollywood film stars.

"She also had a sense of the dramatic and we would sit and watch Crown Court together," she remembers. "Part of me wanted to be the one in the wig and gown. But seriously, my earliest recollections of lawyers was Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and was probably one of the most influential. Gregory Peck's portrayal of him was immense.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"I loved LA Law as well, much more than Ally McBeal, even though both programmes are miles away from the reality of being a lawyer. Later on I realised This Life reflected most accurately what it's like to be a lawyer - the training, office romances and politics."

Calman's introduction to law at Glasgow University in 1992 - where she studied for an honours degree in public law - dented that initial enthusiasm: "Doing a law degree was so different from what I'd imagined. Ploughing through the Historical Introduction to Scots Law written around 1525 was very, very dull."

But in her third year, she won the Judge Brennan scholarship and went to North Carolina, where she ended up working on Death Row for a legal centre, trying to get death sentences commuted to life without parole - or for the prisoners to be released if they were innocent.

"It was kind of like Silence of the Lambs walking into a cell to interview a multiple murderer. It was a huge eye-opener - not only to meet prisoners but also to see the standard of legal representation in the US. Many had very poor quality legal advice - sometimes by lawyers who were obviously intoxicated in court.

"It was an inspirational time for me, travelling around the southern states, with a psychologist, interviewing witnesses and preparing briefs for the court.

"Looking back it was the most amazing thing; there I was, a 20-year-old girl from Glasgow, going to North Carolina and ending up with huge responsibility. Then the reality hit when I actually started looking for a job."

After completing her four-year degree then a one-year diploma, Calman started a traineeship at Maclay Murray & Spens, one of Scotland's top four firms, where most of her work was in property law.

Why had the girl who worked on Death Row decided not to pursue criminal law or something with a touch of the drama she had tasted?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"Even though you've got a law degree there is still a fear you won't get a job," she says. "I was being offered a start in a good firm so I sort of navely just said, 'Thanks very much.'"

Calman moved on to Biggart Baillie at the start of the dotcom boom, but gradually began to feel shackled by the legal culture: "It's quite rare to move outside corporate and if you do try to get into say, criminal law, at this stage you'd be up against people with two to three years' experience.

"Becoming a lawyer is so difficult it makes you think you have to behave in a certain way. There's a certain level of decorum expected and I felt repressed. You don't want to rock the boat and create a kerfuffle."

While admitting she has plunged into a new arena which is equally if not more competitive, Calman insists there is a major difference.

"It's a similar situation but this time I'm fighting my own corner by my rules. In the comedy world, if someone doesn't like you, they tell you to your face and don't book you. In the legal world there's an awful lot of smoke and mirrors."

However Calman is the first to acknowledge how useful her legal armoury has been while being heckled by stroppy punters in the gladiatorial bear-pit world of comedy clubs.

"You have to be quick on your feet as a lawyer and the thing which has been invaluable is negotiating tactics to play for time. Being a lawyer has given me a lot of confidence and there's very little that fazes me."

The loss of a comfortable income is not a major fright-factor for Calman. She describes her lifestyle as "frugal" and says she will live off savings to give herself a real chance in the comedy world.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"I'm not one of those women who are drastically into shoes and clothes. It's amazing how many female colleagues began dressing differently when Ally McBeal was on television but although I'm under 5ft tall, I'd have to stop eating for five years to look like that."

• Susan Calman is appearing in A Little Lady Presents Jest at the Caf Royal Fringe Theatre, 6-26 August.