21st century silk

No longer an old boys’ club, PJ Kirby QC asks what it means to be a 21st century silk

With the news of 100 new silks made up in the latest round of QC appointments, apparently reversing the downward trend in numbers of silk awards, it is timely to think about what the coveted moniker means in the modern legal age.

The award of Queen’s Counsel has always been about rewarding advocacy excellence in the higher courts. This is certainly a standard worth measuring in the current day.

However its roots lie in peer review; it was a prestige mark, a sign of the regard that colleagues, legal opponents, and the Bar at large had for an individual. In the past the selection process was sometimes seen as more anecdotal than rigorous and the lack of well-defined or consistent criteria opened the Bar up to criticisms of an old boys club and appointments being made on a nod and a wink.

But times have changed – and have been changing for a long time. Since the Office of Fair Trading first looked at the QC system as a ‘quality mark’ (in its very wide-reaching 2001 report into restrictive practices across the professions, the pre-cursor to the Clementi Review and the Legal Services Act) the selection process has been going through a steady process of review.

The principal aim is to bring in aspects of quality marking from other sectors, but assimilating only what’s relevant to the legal profession – and taking care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The nod and the wink have gone – the judges now have to be approached for their views. It’s a difficult balance, given the profession is only in part a “marketplace”. Its commercial function is dwarfed by its responsibilities for delivering justice.

Space is too short here to go into an analysis of the reforms to the silk system to date and what’s next on that particular agenda. But what is clear, whether we are describing the commercial, civil or criminal parts of the bar, is that the entire profession is now more outward looking that it has been at any time in its history, with a diminishing number of barristers choosing to remain holed up in their ivory towers, and far more keen to learn how to engage better with clients, work in teams, be responsive to what clients really need from them, and so on.

In this context, far more barristers are keen for the evolution of our silks’ system to continue apace and become a more objective mark of quality that means something in and to the outside world, rather than the bar’s inward-looking view of its own good and great.

Discussions about how to effect this in practice will not reach a fast or easy conclusion given the unique characteristics of the bar, but what is arguably far more important is that this year’s 100 new silks have a different, more outward-looking mindset than their historic counterparts. And that’s got to be good news. And I should know because I was in their position 12 months ago.

PJ Kirby QC is a barrister at Hardwicke Chambers