I recently attended the Annual Bar Conference. The keynote speaker, Lord Sumption, reflected on his career by asking himself three questions: what he had come looking for at the Bar; whether he had found it, and whether one could expect to find it today.
He concluded, rather wryly, that first and foremost he had come looking for money; that he had found quite a bit of it, and that – for certain areas of practice – one might reasonably expect to do the same today.
I gratefully adopt the structure of his Lordship’s submissions. But, as his Lordship acknowledged, the content does not reflect a universal truth.
The Bar attracts characters from all walks of life: the independently spirited, the intellectually meticulous, the ambitious, the curious, the righteous and the wronged, as well as those seeking to enrich themselves.
They may pursue justice, or mental stimulation or a healthier bank balance. But whatever measure of success one pursues, they are unlikely to achieve it alone.
We are the progeny of a system of precedent. From pupillage upwards, we learn by observation and emulation – foundational skills to which we may one day be fortunate to add a flare of originality. But more than that, ours is a collegiate profession. There are few outside it who will understand the fraught and sickening strains that come of a poorly managed case, fast descending into farce, with sky-high stakes which rest, ultimately, on you. A sense of perspective is vital. And perspective is always assisted by those who have survived worse and are sitting sympathetically opposite you in Chambers.
It’s easy to forget that we are members of a profession. And that despite the independence and the solitary stresses of self-employment, the challenges which affect the Bar affect us all.
Even if you remain unperturbed by the erosion of our justice system by constant cuts and a lack of public and political respect, on a purely mercenary level it is easy to see how discontent with a straw-man band of ‘fat cat lawyers’ leads to cuts in legal aid today and fixed fees for all tomorrow. Moreover, the advent of ‘virtual’ justice and so-called “flexible” operating hours herald changes for our system as a whole.
The challenges which the Bar faces affect us all. And they should engage us all in equal measure.
The Bar Council does vital work promoting and protecting barristers’ interests in a way that individual barristers would struggle to match. We lobby the government and liaise with the regulator. We marshal responses to the numerous consultations the results of which dictate our profession’s future. We are constantly vigilant to these challenges and changes and we strive to keep the profession informed and equipped to deal with them. We provide training, guidelines, mentoring and an ethics helpline. We organise domestic and international events and promote the Bar – as a whole – at home and abroad. And we do this with the dedicated support of a core of employed and self-employed barristers who are members of the Bar Council and its committees, with a fantastic team of staff, and with the financial support of those who pay their Bar Representation Fee.
The coming year will be a typically busy one for the Young Barristers’ Committee. Already on our agenda are an enormous range of issues including pay (AGFS, mags fees and the LASPO review), social mobility and diversity, the online court, flexible operating hours, wellbeing, judicial bullying and Brexit.
If you are in your first seven years of practice and would like to contribute to the Committee’s work, please write to YBC@BarCouncil.org.uk and let us know. Even if you don’t feel you have the time to be involved on a regular basis, we are always in need of ad hoc volunteers for events or practical input to consultation responses. It can be hard work and it can be frustrating. But it can also be interesting, worthwhile and a lot of fun. And for some of you, it may turn out to be just what you’ve been looking for.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Athena Markides is the incoming Chair of the Young Barristers’ Committee, and a barrister at Crown Office Chambers.