HE'S a white, middle-aged man, a product of the English public school system, and he looks down his nose at the ordinary folk whose brushes with the law provide him with an ample income.

That's more or less the stereotype which many of us imagine sums up the barrister - the wigged and gowned figure whose skills could make the difference between jail and freedom for defendants in crown court.

Rob Griffiths, who works regularly at Bournemouth Crown Court, is a 41-year-old barrister, educated at St Peter's School in Bournemouth and Reading University. And he insists the law is not the class-ridden profession people might imagine.

"People will always have an impression of us because that's the way we're always portrayed in the media," he says.

"We're perfectly normal people. We eat, drink, have bills to pay, go to the supermarket. And most of us these days use IT - a lot of people use laptops in court," he adds.

"It used to be much more class-ridden than it was.

"I was called to the bar in 1988. In those days it was all white, Oxbridge-educated men.

"Fifty per cent of our entrants to the bar are women. For the last few years, most of our pupils have been women."

Now, twenty per cent of entrants are from ethnic minorities, two-thirds of bar students are from state schools and 85 per cent are from non-Oxbridge universities.

Mr Griffiths left school intending to become a teacher of German, but couldn't get on with the subject at university and changed degrees.

His grandfather, Robert Lewis Manning, was a solicitor in one of Bournemouth's most notorious murder cases, the killing of Francis Rattenbury at the Villa Madeira on the East Cliff in 1935.

Like most barristers, Mr Griffiths is self-employed, sharing premises with a group of fellow advocates in chambers at Southampton. His work for both prosecution and defence takes him anywhere on the western circuit, which extends from Bristol and Truro to Winchester and the Isle of Wight.

He tackles one of the most common criticisms of his profession: "People think all barristers see it entirely as a game and we're not interested in the outcome. That's not the case. All the barristers I know are very professional and we're trying to get to the truth of what happened. But because the system is adversarial it can come over as a combative way of doing it.

"It's a very small legal community and we all know each other.

"People think you're treating it as a bit of a game because they see you having a chat or having coffee together.

"But you want to do the best for whatever side you're on."

He believes the public gets the wrong idea from TV dramas - especially Judge John Deed, in which barristers play fast and loose with the rules.

"They'd all be hauled up in front of a disciplinary tribunal," he says. Rumpole of the Bailey was more accurate for its era, he says, not least because Rumpole was always running short of money.

As for barristers aggressively questioning helpless witnesses, he says: "It doesn't really happen like that in the real world.

"Those sorts of techniques which you tend to see on television don't really operate successfully because juries tend to rebel against it.

"They can see when someone's being bullied and they don't like it."

What about those occasions when a defence barrister finds himself telling some hard-to-swallow stories?

"The question everybody asks is: How can you defend someone you know to be guilty? The answer is you haven't got a choice," he says.

"If I'm available to do a case which it's in my professional capacity to do and I'm briefed to do it, I can't turn it down any more than a surgeon can say I'm not going to operate on that person because I don't like them'."

But a line is crossed when the defendant reveals he committed the offence, in which case the barrister has to advise him to plead guilty or find another barrister.

Are barristers the supremely confident individuals they tend to seem in court? "Most people get the adrenaline flowing when they're working.

"It's quite a high-stress profession," he says.

He adds: "I can remember my first time at Winchester Crown Court, having to tell the honourable Justice Ian Kennedy that my client had committed suicide over the weekend - not because I was representing him, I hasten to add.

"I didn't sleep the night before, I was that anxious.

"Winchester in particular is a very imposing courtroom. It's huge and quite terrifying. You don't forget that.

"You also remember that for witnesses, that's how they feel when they're first there. For them it's a nerve-racking experience and we have to remember that."

It's a profession with "dramatic elements to it", he concedes, and it can be compelling to watch.

"If people want to see what it's really like, come and sit in court. It's free and it's the best entertainment in town."