Farewell to life of Riley

It is not a happy time for the Irish Bar. As more and more move from the traditional library system set up in 1916 to swish new offices in the vicinity, it is conducting a review of its future. “We are seeing what provisions we are going to make for the future,” says Bar secretary-general John Dowling.

Part of this exercise involves setting up annexes where the Bar library can live on – one was opened last October and accommodates 90 barristers, giving them their own rooms and secretarial support.

The threat from solicitors, many of whom do research and opinion work in-house, prompted the Bar to update its less than modern facilities.

The lack of work has profoundly hit the younger Bar. Younger barristers who specialise in intellectual property work, such as ex-head of the of the Law Society of England and Wales' Brussels office Colm Mac-Eochaidh, say they never turn down a brief whatever the area. MacEochaidh has just taken on a part-time appointment advising the Minister of Justice Nora Owen on legal matters which, he says, will pay the bills.

The Bar is also carrying out its own economic survey to compare current earnings with those five years ago, when it

undertook the first survey of this kind.

Although the issue may be clouded for the public, which reads about massive legal fees paid by the State to lawyers in the Beef Tribunal (around IR£30 million with a negotiated daily rate of IR£1,850 for leading senior counsel appearing at the tribunal), the truth is that only a fraction can command such fees. More often, if the results of the last survey are any indication, the annual income hardly makes four figures.

Of the 760 members of the Bar in 1990, half earned less than IR£17,900 gross, a take-home pay of IR£14,400 each, while half of these earned less than IR£4,400 gross.

“This is the situation for that category of people in their first five years,” Dowling says, pointing out that there are now 930 members of the Bar and that “the percentage of members of the Bar with very low earnings is now much higher”.

Further, there are fewer leaving the Bar than in 1990, he adds. Then, there were eight or nine barristers who moved to London chambers and another four to private employment. “No one recently has moved to chambers in London,” Dowling says, adding that “the market situation for legal services has gone down the tubes”.

Anecdotal evidence shows a drop in the level of personal injury work from 1990, which has “shrunk in absolute and relative terms”. The congestion in the courts is slowing down the number of cases. Insurers will settle a slightly higher proportion of cases and will only fight where they judge it necessary. Senior barristers are also

suffering from fewer High Court actions following a change of jurisdiction.

The solution for the Bar is not immediately apparent as the major law firms continue to improve their in-house information facilities and as more law students look for legal careers despite all the pitfalls.

Even the wigs and gowns question is being cited as a “work-related” argument. Dowling says that younger members of the Bar are in favour of keeping wigs and gowns as they “find, in a profession where it is difficult to get established, that wearing a wig and gown leads to a levelling on the perception of the client on seniority”.

The position of women at the Bar has not improved much

either and although there are now 240 women barristers compared with 690 men, only eight of the 110 senior counsel are women.