With the Bar as inhospitable a place as ever for its more junior members, it is hardly surprising that some disillusioned young barristers turn to law firms to further their legal careers. Some of them, but by no means all, decide to re-qualify as solicitors. Others, perhaps hoping for a return to the Bar at some later date, remain in the no man's land of being a barrister employed in a law firm. Until such time as they re-qualify, they lose their advocacy rights and can only advise the firm and not its clients.
Recruitment consultant David Jeremy of Chambers and Partners says the numbers of barristers skipping the fence to work for firms is remaining fairly constant, although as life at the Bar gets tougher, more and more would like to do so. One firm he recruits for actually prefers to recruit barristers to solicitors – but it is the exception. That firm finds a barrister's training is better suited to the preparation of technical reports for clients.
Those who come with marketable skills – such as a specialisation in insurance, particularly professional indemnity, or shipping litigation – are more likely to succeed.
Not all the barristers David Jeremy speaks to want to re-qualify. "The firms themselves are often not too fussed, as long as they are getting on with their work. It tends to be fairly junior barristers recruited, so the question of partnership is some way down the line. But we recommend people do re-qualify; it can prove to be a selling point."
Some barristers admit deciding to go to Bar school because it meant they were a qualified lawyer a lot sooner than they would have been as a solicitor. This may be an especially attractive option if they intend to practice abroad in any case. Others fully intended to be barristers, but found work at a law firm as a stop gap before finding a tenancy, and liked it so much that they stayed. And others were not sure whether they wanted to be barristers or solicitors and decided to try both styles of working.
Dele Oguntimoju, in corporate tax at Lovell White Durrant, went to the Bar because he considered himself more suited to contentious rather than transactional work. But then he realised he did not want to end up as "just another criminal barrister". After four years practising "effectively as a solicitor," he decided it was time to make the switch more permanent and re-qualified. For him, the trigger was the granting of rights of advocacy in the higher courts – solicitors now have "the best of all possible worlds". But, he feels "you're a lawyer first and foremost. It is an artificial distinction. You do exactly the same work".
Also at Lovells, Neville Byford believes he received a better training in his pupillage, where you are forced to study law rather than the mundane tasks trainee solicitors are often asked to carry out. The big disadvantage of a barrister's training, he points out, is the lack of client contact. And he believes the work he does at Lovells is simply "better quality" than what he would be presented with if he were still at the Bar.
One barrister has decided to re-qualify as a solicitor simply to have a quieter life. He explains: "If I am going to do the work of a solicitor, I might as well become one. At present, I spend my life explaining to people what I am."
Timothy Dutton, now at 4 New Square, worked for a law firm for four years before deciding that life at the Bar was more to his liking. He says: "I was about to convert. I even had a certificate of good standing from my Inn of Court so that I could be disbarred. But that all rather concentrated the mind, and I decided to give being a barrister one last go and it has worked. It is easy to work on a day-to-day basis, but when I asked myself what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I decided to opt for the Bar."
As it becomes more common, being a barrister at a law firm is not the grey area it once was, but the slightly anomalous position does raise an interesting question of how they should be regulated. Employed barristers are still answerable to the Bar, but as employees of solicitors, they must also abide
by the Law Society's own rules.
Conflict of interest rules may be new to a barrister, but they will always be supervised by a solicitor who can guide them. Alison Crawley, of the Law Society's professional ethics department, says the most frequent questions asked are "tweaky things, like what can we call ourselves. We are very laid back about the whole thing. All we are concerned about is that barristers do not hold themselves out to be solicitors." Says one proto-solicitor: "I always err on the side of caution and make it clear that I am not an independent barrister."
What happens if a law firm-employed barrister misbehaves? Says Crawley: "We are not entirely powerless. We can either refer the matter to the Bar Council, or, under section 43 of the Solicitors Act, we can stop solicitors from employing a particular person again. The former would be the preferred route. It is a matter of respect between professional bodies."
Guy Fitzmaurice is a freelance journalist.