21st century silk: the facts, the figures and six personal stories from this year’s round

Just 84 QCs were made up this year. It’s an expensive game, so we ask some of the chosen few why it’s worth it

When the QC appointments committee announced that just 84 would take silk in the 2012/13 round there was some disquiet at the Inns of Court. It is the smallest round since the appointments process was reviewed between 2003 and 2006 after just 183 advocates applied. Last year, of the 214 applicants 88 were successful.

Some have questioned whether the silk list should have been resumed after the 2003-2006 hiatus and others believe the cost has become too overwhelming for some to bear. The mammoth contraction in public sector legal spend is taking its toll while the looming end of the legal aid era is also having an impact. Some suggest that a broader picture is needed and in fact the smaller round is reflective of the pre-2003 era when the system depended on recommendations from the senior judiciary.

It is important to put the number into context. In 2001 just 77 silks were appointed and none of the magic circle crew picked up a QC between them.

One Essex Court’s Laurence Rabinowitz QC, now a stalwart of the bar, was rumoured to have been turned down twice despite being a recognised leader in his field. He was not alone.

In 2001, there was concern that the commercial bar had been snubbed as a way of controlling rates. When Lord Irvine announced the following year a bumper round of 113, gifting Fountain Court five new silks and bringing Rabinowitz into the fold, there was concern he had swung too far in the opposite direction. Many complained there was simply not enough work to keep all these new silks busy.

Until 2002 an average 14 per cent of applicants were successful annually, but in 2002 that figure rocketed to 26.3 per cent. Compare that with the latest round in which 45.6 per cent of applicants have been appointed – more than last year, when that figure was 41.1 per cent.

Lord Irvine called time on the appointments in May 2003, proposing that instead a new quality mark should be established. Elements of the bar lobbied heavily against the decision, supported by the Bar Council, and instead of being scrapped, the QC system was ­revamped.

Some believe it was a mistake and maintain the Lord Chancellor’s ­office should have held firm.

One senior clerk comments: “It was an opportunity to do away with a system that is out of touch with the modern bar.

“Many clients see it as a quality indicator but there are too many juniors who are very good being turned down because they just don’t get into court. The way cases are being run is changing – there is a lot more arbitration around and that doesn’t count on the application form.”

However, Essex Court Chambers senior clerk David Grief speaks for many when he insists: “Taking silk gives someone a quality mark. It’s something you’ve got to have if you want to excel.”

Those applying for silk now must demonstrate six key competencies: understanding and using the law; written and oral advocacy; working with others; diversity and integrity. They are tasked with completing a 70-page application pack that asks them to illustrate where these skills have been used in the cases in which they were instructed.

In addition, wannabe silks must have appeared in 12 substantive cases in the past two years and provide the application panel with 24 referees, 12 of whom should come from the senior judiciary. It is a gruelling process.

The competition closes in April and those who get through to the interview stage are informed in October. They then face a half-hour grilling on the application form as well as being quizzed about the judicial references they have submitted, but not seen.

It is understood that the Queen receives the list of successful candidates for sign-off in December and the barristers are told of their fate in February.

The entire system has been given a shake-up to make it more transparent. Nowadays, the QC appointments committee can provide a clear breakdown of the practice ­diversity in the silk list, as well as gender and ethnic diversity.

The guidelines for applying are lengthy but concise, although it seems that some are concerned it is still too much a game of chance.

“I can’t make head nor tail of the system now,” says St Philips Chambers senior clerk Joe Wilson, a one-time member of the Judicial Appointments Committee. He says it is important that the senior hierarchy of the bar and judiciary are aware of those with the ambition to move through the ranks.

Silks who have spoken to The Lawyer about their experience of the system say an element of luck is involved. Getting involved with cases that make it to court without settling is the biggest challenge for most. Many were also concerned about the demand for 12 judicial referees, and not all supplied that number.

But all new QCs believe the silk will boost their standing in the international markets as well as getting them leader space on cases in the civil courts. Ultimately, market forces dictate the need for the silk system. While litigants continue to see them as the force du jour when it comes to the big-bucks cases, QCs will remain in demand.

stevens hoare

Brie Stevens-Hoare, Hardwicke, Called: 1986, Practice areas: Property

Hardwicke’s Brie Stevens-Hoare had not planned to apply for silk.

“I was always conflicted about it,” she says, a few weeks after receiving the letter granting her the coveted kitemark. “It represented the Establishment – most of the rest of the bar feels alien to me.”

Stevens-Hoare applied four years ago, but invested relatively little time in the process and was not overly surprised when she failed to progress. She reapplied for several reasons.

“My work had got to the stage where I was getting silks’ work, but every so often people would say ‘I want a silk’,” she explains.

Another factor was the realisation that it would be good for Hardwicke if she became a QC, and the desire to give something back to a set which, Stevens-Hoare says, she owes much to.

She also realised that she had a number of Court of Appeal cases coming up – just the type of cases the selection panel looks for.

“The more you understand the process, the more you realise it’s about creating a critical mass of evidence,” Stevens-Hoare adds.

But the application process, as for many aspiring silks, proved stressful. For Stevens-Hoare it was not the size of the application form – after all, she argues, it should be difficult to become a silk – but the need to boast, first on paper and then in an interview.

“I found it excruciating,” she admits. “I think more women are inclined to think they’ll let their work speak for itself.”

One of Stevens-Hoare’s reasons for applying was her desire to be a role model for other female barristers. She is disturbed by the low number of female applicants and new silks this year – only 26 women applied and 14 were successful – pointing out that there has been parity between men and women at entry level since the mid-1990s, when many of this round’s silks were called.

“This is one of the things I feel I should do,” she says. “We have to look at the process and see if it can be adapted to be more female- and ethnic minority-friendly, and also to give them the confidence to put themselves forwards.”

Stevens-Hoare argues that the application process is not inherently discriminatory but rather that the system is now reflecting itself in a vicious cycle that does not support women or minorities.

“We’re reaching a crisis point – how are we going to stop so many leaving?” she says. “Maybe we need to look at what other sectors are doing to move things forward, and use that as a starting point for change for us.”

Now she is herself a silk she hopes she can both transition her own practice fully to silks’ work and help mentor the “talented” juniors and senior juniors at the set. She also wants to talk to other women and see if something can be done to encourage more to apply for silk; her enthusiasm for the task she is setting herself is infectious.

Meanwhile, there are celebrations ahead at Hardwicke. All three of its silk applicants this year were successful, including John de Waal and Stevens-Hoare’s long-time roommate Peter Kirby. Stevens-Hoare says she and Kirby had not planned to open their letters together but happened to both be in when chambers CEO Amanda Illing arrived with the missives. She describes both of them checking each others’ letters to be sure of the result before Kirby picked her up and “threw me around the room”.

“It was perfect,” she says.

jason coppel

Jason Coppel, 11KBW, Called: 1994, Practice: Public and procurement

If there is one piece of advice 11KBW’s new silk Jason Coppel would give future applicants it is to be prepared for the process of application to take much longer than you expect.

“We’re used to doing our work at the last minute or to a deadline, and if you start late on this and then realise it just can’t be done quickly you’ll be in a very difficult situation,” he warns.

For Coppel, the realisation that it was about time to apply for silk came to him over a long period.

“There’s been a natural progression in my work over the past five or six years whereby I’ve been doing more difficult and challenging work,” he says. “Most of my cases in court are against QCs so I came to the view, fairly slowly, that I could do the work of a silk.”

Like others in this year’s round, Coppel observes that some lay clients chose not to instruct him because he was not a QC.

Coppel turned to a consultant to help him through the application and interview process, and says the support was invaluable.

“It helped having somebody to help me express things in the best possible way, making the best use of the limited amount of space you have to describe your competencies and qualities.”

According to Coppel, he wrote “15 to 20” drafts for the sections where a description of practice or competencies are required and spent about two weeks of his time in total filling in the form.

“I knew from the start just by speaking to colleagues that the process was going to take a long time,” he says.

Coppel feels that, having obtained silk, he has a responsibility to build his practice – which is largely public and procurement law-led – in a slightly different direction.

“I expect to carry on doing much the same kind of work but at a slightly less frenetic pace,” he says. “I do a reasonable amount of government work and the balance of my practice will shift away from that. I’m looking forward to developing areas of my practice I haven’t had time to focus on in the past few years.”

Those areas, explains Coppel, include human rights work, EU commercial law and growing his Northern Irish practice. Although he praises 11KBW’s marketing team, he believes he has a responsibility to build up his own practice.

“There’s always an onus on individuals to think about exactly what kind of things they want to do,” Coppel asserts.

Houseman

Stephen Houseman, Essex Court Chambers, Called: 1995, Practice: Commercial disputes

Stephen Houseman was the youngest of four barristers to be successful in the latest silk round at Essex Court Chambers.

After 14 years in practice he says it was time to take the plunge and apply.

“You start to see people above you applying,” he says. “It was on my radar for around three years.”

The QC appointments committee requires that every applicant should put forward up to 12 judicial referees. For many aspiring silks this means getting airtime before a judge in court is essential. With so many cases moving towards alternative dispute resolution or settling, this is no mean feat. Plus Houseman had taken time out for paternity leave and returned in February 2011, leaving him a year to pick up instructions on those all-important cases.

“It was a busy year,” Houseman recalls. “I was fortunate that things stood up. We prioritised the Commercial Court and I tried my best to get airtime.”

But it came down to the wire. Houseman had 10 judicial referees confirmed and would be appearing before another judge on the day his application was due to be sent. The choice was whether to go with just 10 or take the risk of securing an 11th that day.

It may not seem an important decision but for many would-be silks the fear of not appearing to have enough judicial support could mean the scales are tipped against them. Houseman took the risk and sent his application with 10, and it paid off.

As a general commercial disputes barrister Houseman has a broad practice. “I once represented Barclays and the Beach Boys on the same day – in separate matters – which kind of sums up the mixture,” he explains.

Recently, he has been involved in more jurisdictional disputes.

Houseman took a holiday the week before the letter arrived from the appointments committee. He says he was already considering what to do had it been a negative -response – “how I would reapply” – and then he was handed the letter by senior clerk David Grief.

“Your eyes go straight to words such as ‘pleased’ or ‘delighted’ and I was jet-lagged because I’d travelled through the night, but I was hugely relieved – I recall waves of excitement and euphoria,” he says of the moment he will remember forever.

The challenge now is to build a successful silks practice and Houseman knows that will not come overnight.

“It’s almost like starting again,” he says, adding that he is enthused about the challenge.

Jonathan Glasson

Jonathan Glasson, Matrix Chambers, Called: 1996, Practice: Civil and criminal

Like many of his peers Matrix Chambers’ Jonathan Glasson says his primary driver for applying for silk was that he felt it was time – and it would please his mum and dad.

For Glasson, whose practice focuses heavily on government work, making the decision to move from a junior practice to a silk’s practice was more difficult than some. He sits on the attorney-general’s A panel of counsel and will have to step down from it once he is Jonathan Glasson QC.

“I didn’t feel that I was losing work,” he says. “I’ve got a good practice – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If you’ve got something good it feels like you’re slightly taking a risk of starting over again, at the bottom of the pile as a baby silk.”

In reality, Glasson is confident this will not be a problem and is hopeful that the rest of his practice – including product liability, clinical negligence and human rights, in addition to government work – will provide a broad enough base to support him.

The hardest part of the application process for silk, says Glasson, was the length of time it took, from filling in the form to waiting for a response. He says the gap between the panel making a decision and the new silks being announced is too long.

“The panel make their decision in December so it seems odd you don’t know the result until the end of February,” he says, pointing out that the lag adds to the stress.

Glasson concludes by saying applicants should bear in mind the time referees need to complete their section of the form when looking at how long is required to apply.

Ed Pepperall

Ed Pepperall, St Philips Chambers, Called: 1989, Practice: Commercial, ADR and employment

“The biggest mistake you can make is to think you can do it quickly,” says St Philips Chambers’ Ed Pepperall of the silk application process.

Pepperall took a week off his court duties to complete the 70-page application form. He also believes successful applicants need luck on their side to get the judicial referees required.

“I didn’t apply in the round before because I didn’t have the referees,” he explains.

Like many of his contemporaries Pepperall found the application process challenging because it requires an advocate to boast about their abilities, a prerequisite many are uncomfortable with. So, having received a call for interview last September he approached it with trepidation.

Applicants who get through the first round face a half-hour grilling from a senior judge and a lay person. With little time to discuss the application many find the interview gruelling and almost impossible to prepare for.

Pepperall thought he had blown his chances after his interview.

“I was happy with the form but didn’t think I’d got in after the interview,” he says.

So convinced was he of this that when the letter arrived to say he had been successful his initial reaction was shock, followed by elation.

While one might expect a call of congratulation from one’s head of chambers or family members, Pepperall says his first call was about what car he wanted to take him to the silks ceremony in Westminster.

The date for this is set for Wednesday 27 March and all the newly appointed silks will converge in Westminster dressed in full court regalia to be officially inaugurated. Pepperall says it is a rite of passage.

“Even if you’ve been around the bar for a while you don’t realise the absurd details involved,” he says, although he admits to being excited about the day.

Then it will be straight back to work, as Pepperall has already picked up his first instruction as a leading silk in the Court of Appeal.

Kassie Smith

Kassie Smith, Monckton Chambers, Called: 1995, Practice: EU, competition and regulatory law

Monckton Chambers’ Kassie Smith joined the bar in 1995. She says she applied for silk because, “it was the next logical step”.

“I was already doing cases leading juniors and enjoying them,” she adds.

Several senior silks have helped shaped her career, including Christopher Vajda QC, who is now the UK judge to the European Court of Justice, John Swift QC and Jon Turner QC, who are all members of Monckton Chambers.

“I had a wonderful example in [Monckton’s] Melanie Hall QC,” she adds, “who showed me it’s possible to be a successful barrister and mother of three – although I’ve only managed two.”

Her practice crosses EU, competition and regulatory law. In the past year she has appeared in some of the most high profile cases in London, including as junior to Landmark Chambers’ Nathalie Lieven QC in the HS2 high-speed rail judicial reviews for Buckinghamshire County Council earlier this month.