When I was looking for pupillage, which is longer ago than I care to think about (1983), I was repeatedly told by everyone in the profession that getting taken on in chambers and establishing a practice was extremely difficult. I can still remember thinking that quite a few people had achieved it, and why should it not be me? I also remember responding in an interview to the standard question as to why I wanted to become a barrister by saying, amongst other things that I thought that being a barrister would be fun. Lucky for me (because that would have been thought a frivolous answer by many an interviewer), that answer struck a chord with the panel.
Although the work we do can be very challenging, and at times extremely emotional if you are a family lawyer, some 33 years later I believe that my early sense that the Bar would be an enjoyable career, and where success was eminently achievable, was right. There is nothing like fighting a case on behalf of a client, and nothing like doing your very best to persuade a tribunal to make the decision for which you are advocating. In family law (and no doubt in other fields as well) there is also the greatest satisfaction in team work and negotiation.
One of the biggest difficulties faced by the would-be young barrister is financial. Although some scholarships are available from the Inns, it is likely that many a talented graduate is put off by the thought ever more debt. Although the profession is acutely aware of this, the engagement of the junior bar in helping to advise as to practical solutions is crucial for those who follow..
If the individual manages to surmount the difficulties – and is prepared to persist, I am convinced that the Bar remains a very worthwhile career. Of course it is not for everyone. There are some who will find that the unpredictability and lack of stability are too hard to manage, and will leave the Bar to become employed.
For those who wish to remain at the Bar and to concentrate on family law, there are significant challenges. Not least is the future of publicly funded work. During the course of my career I have seen a reduction in publicly funded fee levels, a raising of the threshold for obtaining public funded, and now the abolition of public funding in most private law family cases. No doubt there will be more cuts, more changes.
The answer to these challenges, in my view, is for the young barrister to make sure of striking a balance in the work that he or she does and to be alive to new areas of work that are developing. I suspect this is true in whatever specialism, but in family law, even if you have a desire to confine yourself to a particular field in the long run, there is a great deal to be said for being willing to do what you are given within the first few years of your practice (within reason of course). Even if you want to be a money practitioner, it will improve your advocacy skills to do public law work. If you enjoy public law work (and I speak as someone who very much does), you should do other things too. There is a huge amount of private law children litigation in the courts, for example. Although many litigants are driven to representing themselves there is a significant group who will wish to be represented as long as they can be reasonably certain of the cost. The junior bar will benefit from this, especially those qualified for public access. International work is a growing area (and Brexit is likely to add to this), and so is surrogacy. Many say that family lawyers should become more involved in Court of Protection cases. By doing a variety of work you will not only gain in skills and insight, but you will be better protected if a particular type of work disappears through a change in the law or the government removes certain work from the scope of public funding. Advocacy, negotiation and problem solving are desirable and adaptable skills.
Finally, be prepared to get things wrong and to make mistakes without feeling as if it is the end of the world. It is inevitable that some cases will go well and less not. It is part of a process of learning in a difficult job, and everyone does it. The important thing is to learn from it, and then to take that forward to the next case.
Frances Judd QC, Vice-Chairman of the Family Law Bar Association (FLBA) and a barrister at Harcourt Chambers.
Frances Judd QC is a barristers at Harcourt Chambers. She is Vice-Chairman of the Family Law Bar Association (FLBA) and is a Deputy in the High Court.