Saturday, 19 July 2008

Defending the Best: A glimpse of life at the Bar (Published in the Obiter Dicta Law Journal)

For online print version visit the Warwick Law Society site here.

‘It was so cold last week that I saw several lawyers with their hands in their own pockets’. Leaving financial exploitation aside, there is a heteroclite point worth making about lawyers, particularly barristers, and their hands. Traditionally, Barristers did not shake hands with one another. Generally, the purpose of shaking hands was to demonstrate that people had no concealed weapons. It was and is unthinkable to even consider that a fellow barrister might greet another with a weapon, and offensive to suggest that such precautions were necessary as between colleagues at the Bar. Indeed, Barristers were expected to know one another, thus introduction or shaking of hands was supposed to be unnecessary. This presupposed intimacy and courtesy is reflected, for instance, in the exclusive manner they refer to each other in court i.e. ‘My Learned Friend’.


The Bar is perceived, perhaps quite rightly, as a privileged coterie – a clique. They’ve been irresistibly plucked by miniscule tweezers from a narrow social pool. They are discrete and high shoulder braggarts – sometimes exhibiting frigid pride - with enviable intellect and an ability to articulate solutions to the most intricate and perplexed legal problems. Is entry to the bar biased towards the affluent? Some think of it as a patriarchal exclusive club, dominated by public school and Oxbridge students – a place where women have no say, or worse, no part to play. It is arguable that it is also a monochromatic representation of our very colourful contemporary society. All this leads most of us to paint a most tainted, and as I will argue, partially distorted, picture of what life at the Bar is really like.

I have therefore embarked into a rather ambitious task and dedicated my already scarce spare time at looking at the mechanics of life at the Bar. This machine of advocacy, motioned by intellectuality, has come under my magnifying lens. I have interviewed, to your delight, a group of judges and barristers to ascertain their experiences of the profession.

The distinguished panel includes:

Lord Hoffmann (Lord of Appeal in Ordinary)

Geoffrey Vos QC (Chairman of the Bar)

Cherie Booth QC (founding member of Matrix Chambers and the Prime Minister’s wife)

James Wood QC (Doughty Street Chambers – Warwick Alumni)

Rosalind Phelps (Fountain Court Chambers)

Emma Jackson (3 Stone Buildings – Warwick Alumni)

The Bar is changing: but is it getting better?

The Bar had been organised as an association of the members of the Inns of Court by the 14th century. As Baker notes:

“The western suburbs of London were filled, by the 14th century, with the town houses or inns (hospicia) of the statesmen, civil servants and lawyers whose work brought them to London when parliament and the courts were in session…by the middle of the 14th century some of the inns had taken over the responsibility for educating lawyers.”

The law students of that time followed an educational regime, with oral pleadings exercises (moots) and other exercises based on writs. The 15th century inns of court and chancery together formed a law school not much smaller in size than Cambridge University – it was called ‘the Third University of England’. After his elementary grounding in an inn of chancery, a student who aspired to the Bar would seek admission to one of the Inns of Court as a student. He would spend seven years (our 3 year law degree is not so bad afterall) or so attending courts, performing in more advanced moots, attending lectures, and keeping commons with his fellows. After this, he might expect to be called to the Bar.

As you may have noticed, nowadays training is very different. Indeed, the legal profession has revolutionarily changed in the 20th century, a change likely to be attributed to the growth of the legal market and globalization. Thus, there was little point in turning to Lord Hoffmann, as I did, to seek advice about joining the Bar. When sought, he replied,

“…my experience at the Bar lies too far in the past to be of much value to anyone thinking of joining today”.

Probably asking Lord Hoffmann about it wasn’t too good an idea. Indeed, his experience would not be of much use to an aspiring barrister nowadays: it would be tantamount to using an obsolete precedent in modern litigation. This is because the Bar has changed. “The Bar is getting better”, says Geoffrey Vos QC, present Chairman of the Bar of England & Wales. But surely the Bar has always been a great profession, and in my view, one of the greatest. Accordingly, what Mr Vos QC meant was that, the Bar is getting better at providing access so as to make it more diverse.

Diversity: but does it really matter?

Yes it does. There are approximately 15,000 barristers in England and Wales. Upon a brief examination of the statistics provided by the Bar Council, I was surprised that 32% of practising barristers were female. But the figure does not reflect contemporary society. Indeed, 48.9% of students called to the Bar in 2005 were female. The evidence therefore suggests that the number is increasing and will eventually outweigh its male counterpart. I asked Cherie Booth QC about female representation at the Bar. Contrast the statistics aforementioned with the position at the time she joined the profession. She recalled,

‘I have no doubt that in 1976 when I was called being female was an undoubted disadvantage. For a start there were very few practicing barristers who were women. 1976 was the first year that the number of women called to the Bar got into double figures from 9% the year before to 16%. Many chambers still had a one female only policy. I can still remember one of my first cases outside of London when I went into the all male robing room only to find the whole room fall silent as I walked in which was pretty off putting for a 22 year old beginner. Luckily, things are very different today with women accounting for nearly 40% of the people called to the Bar far more women silks and positive encouragement to women to apply for judicial appointments.’ Diversity is good. It recycles the soil to allow more fragrant flowers to flourish. But many people assume – with reason – that women are still being discriminated against at the Bar. Once again, I turned to Cherie Booth QC, and asked her what particular advice she would give female students aspiring to join the profession. Eloquently, she replied ‘the same as I would give the male students. You need to have a passion for a career at the Bar and you need to get as good a
degree as possible
and demonstrate a practical commitment to advocacy whether by way of drama, public speaking or mooting.’

Due to the scope of this article I have decided not to inquire into the ethnic diversity of the Bar. This is nonetheless a very important matter which calls for consideration and reform.


There are now more female law students in the UK than their male counterparts. This leads me to tickle the idea that in the next 50 years what is now the testosterone-packed-House of Lords (this will eventually change to the ‘Supreme Court of the United Kingdom’ when the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 takes effect) will be equally (if not disproportionately) populated by female Law Lords. However, reforming the Bar isn’t just about increasing diversity and equal opportunities. The Bar’s recruitment process has been criticised for being secretive, exclusive and based on family contacts. Is this true? Or more importantly, is this still the case today? I probed Cherie Booth QC about this by asking her, ‘is the Bar an exclusive club?’

No I think I am a good example of a girl who was a first generation university entrant, with no private income or legal connections who still made it at the Bar. Nevertheless I am concerned that the costs of qualifying for the Bar, together with the uncertainty of a placement, is deterring some good candidates from applying, which is why I welcome the work of the Sutton Trust and the Bar Council to encourage diversity at the Bar.’

In similar fashion, Rosalind Phelps opined:

“No. It is to some extent "exclusive" in the sense that many more people want to do the job than are able to. But it is certainly not a "club" if by that it is meant that the people in the profession only want to recruit people in their own image, or are inward looking. These days the Bar recruits on merit only: it would not survive if it did otherwise.

It is arguable that the Bar is relatively more transparent. Statistical data helps us understand the mechanics of these changes. The Bar is, however, dominated by the Oxbridge produce. This leads me to inquire: Is there a silent policy at the Bar that suggests preferential treatment is given to Oxbridge graduates? Rosalind Phelps, despite being an Oxbridge graduate herself, answered this in the negative. Therefore, there is arguably a recognition that as long as you’re good, you’ll make it, regardless of where you graduate from.

It’s always reassuring to know that Warwick graduates have made it to the Bar, and have made it quite far. James Wood QC graduated from Warwick in the 1970’s and now practices at Doughty Street Chambers, one of the leading Criminal and Human Rights sets in the country. He believes the Bar is no longer an exclusive club.

“it is an open profession, where selection is on merit, and connections will not help you get in. But also, yes, in the sense that we are a referral profession, only getting our work from solicitors, and therefore without access to the high street and to the public. The concept of an "exclusive club" contains much of what I disliked of the Bar. The pomposity, and self opinionated character of (now very few) practitioners, with which the Bar has traditionally been associated, is now (thankfully) very much a thing of the past”

Education & Pupillage

After you graduate with a degree in Law (or CPE), you must join an Inn, undertake the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) and secure pupillage. However, it’s not that simple. I can think of three crucial weapons you will need under your belt before you start contemplating joining the profession: intelligence, determination, and…funding.

Do you really need a First? What happens after University? How difficult is it to get pupillage?

Emma Jackson, barrister at 3 Stone Buildings and a Warwick graduate, points out that:

It is definitely very competitive and if you want to go into areas such as commercial, chancery, tax and the like a first class degree is a definite advantage. This is particularly because as non-Oxbridge (or Bristol) graduates you will be part of a minority at the Bar that has to go a little further in order to prove yourself. That said, Warwick is certainly not unheard of amongst chambers, and I, and friends of mine, found that Warwick often formed a talking point in interviews, as interviewers are interested to hear about the sociological approach that Warwick takes to teaching law. The Bar is increasingly recognising the need to diversify so as to better reflect society, and taking applicants from a range of universities is part of this process.

It goes without saying, but getting involved in things such as mooting, debating etc and doing some mini-pupillages also helps with applications and interviews. I also attended a university dinner at Lincoln’s Inn, whilst at Warwick, which was a very useful way of meeting people and getting a better idea of what life at the Bar was really like.

When it comes to choosing chambers to apply to, do your research thoroughly (and do a good range of mini-pupillages). Although it can be difficult, try to focus your application on a particular area or areas of law so that you come across as committed and genuinely interested in that particular chambers.

If you have the time and inclination it can also be helpful to do some work experience at solicitors as this will help you to justify why you have opted for the Bar instead of becoming a solicitor.”

James Wood QC, a more senior practitioner, advised:

“Ensure you get a minimum of a 2:1. Do other things (jobs, voluntary work, work placements etc), which might cause you to stand out from the crowd. It is an advantage at the Bar to have some other experience of the outside world. Think carefully about whether you really want to go to the Bar, or whether you would be better off as a solicitor. It is very tough getting in nowadays. My normal advice to people is to become a solicitor, you have the idea of a career at the Bar coursing through your veins. Building a career at the Bar is very difficult now. Most junior advocacy is done by solicitor advocates in the Magistrate’s courts. Solicitor advocates have higher rights of audience, and now frequently act as my juniors in Crown Court trials. Moving from being a solicitor to being a barrister is easy, going the other way involves taking exams. Getting into the Bar is a nightmare. We have over 600 applicants in chambers for 6 pupillages, and one guaranteed tenancy each year. Only do it, if you are absolutely convinced it is what you want to do. It is a perfectly safe option to become a solicitor, and try out advocacy, and see whether you really want to specialise in it. When you are sure you have the necessary skills and the inclination, move to the Bar. Your experience as a solicitor will stand you in good stead at the Bar.”

Mr Vos QC, Chairman of the Bar, gave me a few hints on what chambers look for in candidates. He stressed the importance of good advocacy skills, intelligence, incisiveness, personal and presentational skills and, above all, single mindedness. As he put it, “the object is to find clever people, irrespective of their social background.” Despite the many scholarships offered by the Inns of Court, he recognised that there is indeed a lack of funding for intelligent students who are unable to cover the costs of training. Amongst many initiatives that he will be leading this year, he has recommended a scheme whereby funding would be provided by banks, thus supplementing the work done by the Inns.


In 1614, the legal Scholar Davies pointed out that “the common law of England is tradition and learned by tradition as well as books.” What is tradition’s role at the Bar?

Mr Vos QC, eloquently points out that,

“The role of tradition in the law is based on precedent i.e. the written tradition of binding precedents and the doctrine of stare decisis, where the historical applies to the present. Modern developments have, however, ruled out tradition in many aspects of the way we practice. The introduction of the Legal Services Bill is a case in point. It will develop new professional structures that we are currently unfamiliar with.

Indeed, the Bar does arguably possess more traditional features than that of solicitors working in modern City firms. The wigs, the drama, the gown, the court room, the etiquette are among many other features which make the profession seem “traditional”. However, this is all changing. As Mr Vos QC put it, “we’re moving ahead, but not without careful consideration.”

Barristers at the Bar (drinks-wise): life/work balance

A solicitor working in a Magic Circle law firm has recently died following an alleged suicide because he couldn’t cope with the working hours. Indeed, one of the questions I have always asked when interviewed for internships on my penultimate year was: “how’s the social life at this (boring looking – despite all the fancy restaurants, gyms and even beds!) place?” Conversely, what’s the social life at the Bar like? Well firstly, it must be noted that barristers practicing out of chambers are self-employed. Secondly (and no offence to aspiring solicitors), they’ve got more work to do than most solicitors. The Bar is an extremely challenging profession – it requires, inter alia, exceptional intelligence, profound determination, resilience, and an ability to work independently.

Rosalind Phelps, a relatively new practitioner, gave a little insight on what the social life as a barrister can be like:

“There are two focuses for social life as a barrister: one is your individual set of chambers, and the other is the Inns of Court. As for the latter, you will be involved with this as a student barrister as you have to complete a certain number of dinners there before being called to the Bar. All four Inns also have informal bars which can act as a focus for socialising, as well as organising various events throughout the year; the extent to which you carry on socialising within your Inn after being called to the Bar is very much a matter of personal choice but the options are there. Individual chambers vary as to their atmosphere and cohesion. My own chambers is a very friendly place and we have frequent social events (chambers drinks at least once a month), as well as the inevitable client events.”

A matter of personal choice. Yes, I reckon that’s true of any profession. You’re not really forced to go out and socialise. You do that if you want to. Just like at University. It’s a matter of personal choice. James Wood QC adds to this, that

There is a good spirit of camaraderie and friendship in the job. The work can be isolating, and discussing work in chambers and "down the pub" is much the same as for any other profession.”

The Future of the Bar

Will the Bar survive? This is the question that academics, practitioners, international commentators and aspiring barristers ask themselves. The answer is, quite simply, a positive one, despite what the Clementi Report may have suggested. “The Bar is positioned favourably in the context of Clementi” says Mr Vos QC, “the Bar has been growing. Before we inquire into whether the Bar will survive, one must first consider what’s the role of the Bar in the legal market: What is the Bar? It’s a profession of specialist advocates and advisers.” Mr Vos QC, continues, “The Bar operates to a very high standard. But we need to retreat from the idea that it is a social elite and we need to widen access.” Indeed, he rightly points out that the Bar as a profession will survive but it needs to readjust its accessibility to the values of contemporary society.

In more detailed fashion, I asked Rosalind Phelps whether the Bar will still be around in ten year’s time. She responded,

“The Bar will still be here ten years from now. Solicitor advocates have been around since the Courts and Legal Service Act 1990 but are even now very few and far between (I have only come across one in my whole career). The vast majority of High Court advocacy is still done by barristers and I do not think that is likely to change. One effect of Woolf reforms (as well as the stable state of the economy over the past few years) has been that there is less civil litigation than there was ten years ago. The likelihood is that this will continue in the future, and that commercial barristers will find themselves doing less court work and increasing amounts of other work such as alternative dispute resolution, arbitrations and tribunal work. But there will in my view remain a place for the Bar as specialists in advocacy and litigation/dispute resolutionnfor the foreseeable future.”

This goes hand in hand with Mr Vos QC’s description of the bar as a specialist profession doing a special kind of job. It’s all quite simple. Just like a carpenter is the business of carpentry, and a teacher is in the practice of imparting knowledge and skill, so too are barristers a distinct and specialized profession which operates to very high standards and undertake tasks which requires a special type of training and skill.

James Wood QC echoed the defence of the profession’s existence, emphasizing the expertise of barristers:

“I have lived with the suggestion that reforms were going to see "the death of the Bar" since the start of my career in 1975. In fact the profession has adapted and modified well. My fundamental conviction is that an elite advocacy profession will always survive, and there will always be a need for a significant body of its work to remain publicly funded. We should not be afraid of reform, but should embrace it, and constantly work to modify the profession. The Bar is now a profession where racism and sexism are largely of the past, and where intellectual excellence is rewarded in an intensely competitive market place for our services.”

Learn from the Best

I know what you might be thinking. I’m not good enough, I’m not going to make it, and they’ll never take me on. Emma Jackson, barrister at 3 Stone Buildings, a top commercial set in London, graduated from Warwick with a First Class degree. She applied to 12 chambers and only got one interview. So do not panic! Even Mr Vos QC, the Chairman of the Bar, voted Barrister of the Year in 2003, a judge of the Court of Appeal of Guernsey and Jersey, found it difficult to secure tenancy when he was our age. As we were coming to an end of the interview, he said:

“The most salutary experience of any barrister’s career is to be rejected…”

Truly inspiring words. Even if you don’t make it as a barrister, don’t torment yourself. A.V. Dicey, the constitutional theorist, was a failed barrister who then went to academia to become Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford and leading constitutional scholar of his day.

Having met so many barristers, and undertaken quite a few mini-pupillages, I would advise you to work hard, get a good degree, try doing at least 2 or 3 mini-pupillages, participate in some sort of public speaking such as mooting, drama or debating, think about the money factor and ask yourself this: do I have what it takes? If the answer is no, think again, because the image of the Bar that you may have in your mind is changing as I write – the conventional perception of the profession won’t help you much in making an informed decision in managing your career prospects. To paraphrase Lord Hoffman, that perception now “lies too far in the past to be of much value to anyone thinking of joining today.”

The Bar is evolving afterall – it is no longer a patriarchal and exclusive institution. Traditions are accumulated over centuries and eroded by contemporaneity. Our very own precedential system suggests a tendency to look at and rely on the past. This finds strength with the doctrine of stare decisis et non quieta movere, (stand by decisions and do not move that which is quiet). Silence now needs to be disturbed and we must revisit the rationales and realities underpinning our legal profession. The examination undertaken in this article has demonstrated that the Bar is an extraordinary career, extremely rewarding, adaptable and welcoming to intelligent and determined individuals. “We choose people of quality” says Mr Vos QC. If you think you’ve got what it takes, do not hesitate further; for this is your wake up call if you’re thinking to be called to the Bar.

The author would like to express his gratitude to Camille Noirot for her assistance in the preparation of this article.

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