Across the bar
29 May 2012 | Updated: 29 May 2012 4:02 pm
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Becoming a QC is a major milestone in any barrister’s career, but they all started out at the bottom. Lawyer 2B asks three of 2012’s new QCs what it takes to make it at the bar
For many barristers, following the hunt for pupillage and the securing of tenancy, applying to the ranks of Queen’s Counsel (QC) is the first time since their early years that they are put under such close personal scrutiny. Lawyer 2B asked three of the new crop to share insights into their routes to the bar and the skills they see as essential for success.
Anneliese Day QC, 4 New Square
Day wanted to be an actress when she was young, but was persuaded that it was not the most stable of careers. So after studying law and completing a series of vacation placements and mini-pupillages, including one at 2 Crown Office Row (now 4 New Square), she headed for the bar.
Day highlights the importance of getting experience. “Do as many mini-pupillages as you can so you can see whether you would enjoy different types of work and different approaches taken in chambers,” she says. “I started off wanting to do family law and I did a mini-pupillage at 1 Garden Court, which is a family set. It was very interesting but I found that what I enjoyed as a subject at university wasn’t very enjoyable in practice and was very different from what I thought I’d be doing. It’s very important to look at law in practice before deciding what area to practise in.”
Day was called to the bar in 1996 and completed a pupillage at 2 Crown Office Row because it specialised in professional negligence, “which I liked as it combines intellectual challenge and interaction with people. I liked the balance of law and people. I also liked the atmosphere in chambers, where people helped each other.”
She believes the bar compares well against other careers. “The work is always evolving, there are always new challenges, you’re never bored and it’s exhilarating going to court. But you need to be the right person with the right temperament,” she warns. “I see some people with unreasonable expectations of success. To succeed you need a very good academic record combined with commercial awareness.”
Day’s performance in cases like the ‘addicted gambler’ case of Graham Calvert
v William Hill Credit (2008) show the qualities needed for the bar.
“You have to be hardworking as there are no short cuts,” she says. “Ninety per cent of being a good advocate is preparation. There’s no easy way to get to the right answer. You have to be prepared to put in the time and thought.
“You also need to be pretty tough to put up with grilling from judges and clients. Things don’t always go as planned and cases don’t always run as you think they’re going to run. You need to be flexible enough to react to that. You also need to enjoy public speaking: it’s surprising the number of people who don’t enjoy that part of the work. You need an appetite for that.”
So what is looked for in a barrister? “Someone able to communicate with clients
as well as lawyers – someone with commercial nous as well as being very clever,” she says. “Also, a barrister works as part of a team and you need to show you can work with solicitors and clients for the good of everybody.”
Does Day have any advice for pupillage applicants? “When filling in the forms you have to spend time doing it properly. Think about each chambers you’re applying to.
Why are you applying to our chambers? You need to have good reasons as to why you want to do the work we do, as opposed to someone taking a superficial approach.
“Some candidates are very able but don’t take the process seriously enough. They’ve done very well before and think they can breeze through it.”
Day received lots of useful tips from previous QC applicants and advises bar hopefuls to do the same. For the past five years Day herself has been mentoring via email, and says it is good for those who do not have contacts at the bar.
Are any of those she mentored pursuing a career in law? “One of them is – she wasn’t sure what she was going to do before, but the email contact has definitely helped her.
It’s given her more confidence,” says Day.
“The statistics for getting pupillage and tenancy are formidable and are off-putting
to many. But she’s now studying law at university.”
Rebecca Sabben-Clare QC, 7KBW
Sabben-Clare always wanted to be an advocate and took the straightforward route of reading law at university and then going to bar school straight after graduation.
“I wanted to give it a try and see how it went, but I was always open-minded about doing something else,” she says. “At the commercial bar the trajectory is quite slow and it can take a while to build up a practice and get on your feet. You need to be patient in the early years.”
And if the bar had not worked out?
“I was thinking about doing something more directly commercial. A good thing about the commercial bar is that it’s a good stepping stone into business or becoming a solicitor if you want to. You obtain more marketable skills, unlike other areas such as the criminal bar, where the subject matter isn’t as relevant to as many positions in the job market.”
Asked why there are not so many women at the senior end of the commercial bar, Sabben-Clare says: “My feeling is that it’s because of under-recruitment in the past.
I’m 18 years’ call and when I came to the bar there were no female practitioners at my chambers.
“When I was looking for pupillage I looked at the board outside chambers and asked, ‘do I want to do pupillage here?’. That was a serious concern, whether it was going to be a problem. In practice, however, that was quite untrue. It looked bad from the outside but in reality chambers was very supportive and it was an exciting environment to be in.”
However, she adds: “The recruitment picture has changed drastically. When I started it felt unusual to be on my feet in commercial courts, whereas now there’s a queue for the ladies’ loo. I often find myself in court against a female barrister with both of us being instructed by female solicitors.
“The issue now isn’t so much recruitment but retaining good women. But the commercial bar is a relatively flexible place where you can pursue your career successfully while also being able to have children, as well as get to see them. It isn’t a difficult place for women and it’s a very exciting place to be. Because you’re self-employed and there’s a high proportion of paper work, you can organise your own time to a high degree.”
For Sabben-Clare the choice of chambers was not difficult. “I wanted to do commercial work and there weren’t many chambers that did that – maybe half a dozen – and I applied to them all,” she recalls. “I chose 7KBW because of its commercial practice and I liked the atmosphere. I didn’t do a mini-pupillage but at the interviews I knew they were people I wanted to work with; I felt at home.”
So what are chambers looking for in pupils?
“Sparky people. We don’t insist they’ve done mini-pupillages here, but we do expect them to have done a mini-pupillage at a commercial set as it shows they’re serious and know what we do. It’s difficult to form a view of what chambers are like simply by doing research over the internet or studying the directories.”
The commercial bar appealed to Sabben-Clare because of its combination of difficult legal issues and complex factual issues.
“If you have the sort of mind that likes understanding someone else’s technical speciality, and you’re a bit of a magpie, then the commercial bar will be for you.”
Any advice for aspiring barristers? “We find many people that are good on paper but haven’t got the it-factor in person,” says Sabben-Clare. “You need the it-factor. You need to not just be a good technical lawyer but also tough enough to withstand questions from the court and pressure from clients along with a lot of work put on your plate. Intelligence is a given but there needs to be a bit more about you – a bit of savvy.”
David Wolfe QC, Matrix Chambers
Wolfe, who trained as an engineer, says his experience as a county councillor in Cambridgeshire sitting on the education, social services and environmental committees was formative in his route to the bar.
“It got me interested in the law of public bodies,” he explains. “I was interested in the interface between the state and the individual, and I became a barrister rather than a solicitor because at that time it was more appropriate to my skill set. I was concerned with equality and welfare benefits rights and then found a way of pursuing that, rather than someone who wants to be a barrister and then decides what area of law they’d like to focus on. I’m passionate about the state treating people fairly, providing due process and dealing with people transparently. That’s what motivates me as a barrister.”
So why not a solicitor?
“If I was starting now it would be less clear cut. The difference now between being a solicitor and barrister is essentially one of who regulates you. It’s no longer to do with specialism, advocacy or independence.
Perhaps I’d have become an advocate in a firm rather than a barrister in chambers.”
Wolfe completed his pupillage at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, where he was a tenant from 1992 until 2000, when he left to set up Matrix. He says he chose the chambers because it was the best place to do public law and judicial review.
“It also seemed temperamentally my kind of place,” says Wolfe. “Of its time it was relatively progressive and modern, but by the standards of the rest of the world it wasn’t modern. So we set up Matrix to be more modern. We wanted to make a change. It disappoints me that more people aren’t doing that now. Why isn’t there a group of 35-year-olds breaking out and setting up new business structures?”
He says that if they were making the same decision now, the Matrix founders would have had a much wider range of structures available to them. “Chambers aren’t the only model for advocates to practice in groups,” he says.
Asked about recent moves by alternative business structure LawVest towards the bar, Wolfe says: “I see that as existing chambers repositioning themselves, but that’s not the same as innovative new start-ups.”
He advises aspiring barristers to look at Matrix’s published points scoring system for training places and to get involved in the Free Representation Unit or Citizens Advice Bureau to show commitment.
“Don’t rush through your A-levels getting As, firsts at university and excellent bar final results as it may not be enough,” he warns. “We appreciate that’s harder to do if you’re from a disadvantaged background, as it’s harder to spend six months working in a law centre.”
In terms of changes to a barrister’s skill set, Wolfe says there is a greater recognition of interpersonal and client care skills – “not just knowing the law but how to deal with clients, treating them as individuals”.
The other aspect, according to Wolfe, is that barristers need to be much more willing to go out and promote themselves in the market.
“You need to be prepared to get involved in things such as seminars and training events.
If you want to be acting in the cutting-edge cases, you need to be out there. You aren’t going to go anywhere if you’re just reactive.”