Concerns about the future stability of the bar are having a knock-on effect on the number of barristers applying to become QCs, leading barristers have warned.
In total 275 barristers have applied to the QC appointments committee this year. That translates to 11 per cent more applications than last year, when 247 people applied, but 17.4 per cent lower than 2008’s level, when the number of applications stood at 333.
“It’s a worryingly low figure,” one barrister commented. “I thought it would be much higher, especially when you consider it’s open not just to commercial barristers.”
Outer Temple Chambers head of strategic development Richard Lissack QC added: “What it shows is that people are very nervous about what’s going to happen to the bar.
“It’s indicative of a wider trend at the bar, which will only become deeper as constraints tighten with the implementation of the Legal Services Act [LSA].”
The Bar Council and Bar Standards Board (BSB) are currently in talks over exactly how the LSA can be implemented to the bar’s best advantage. Ongoing discussions are to be held over whether barristers can enter into partnership or set up procurement vehicles that would allow them to work on a more cost-effective basis.
“We just don’t know what the rules will mean for us, and consequently there’s a lot of uncertainty about how the bar’s going to compete in the brave new world,” another clerk said. “It won’t affect everybody, but those doing public sector work or personal injury could be squeezed out.”
The LSA is expected to be implemented within the next two years. The BSB, meanwhile, will launch a series of consultations on how alternative business structures (ABSs) will operate post-2012.
In 2004 the Law Society and Bar Council overhauled how QCs were selected by putting in place an independent body made up of four non-lawyers, two solicitors, two barristers and a retired judge. This came after the process was criticised for being too lengthy, costly and shrouded in secrecy.
One practice director said the newly installed system had added weight to the QC kitemark.
“The nicest thing about the QC process is that it’s users of the bar who have a say on who’s appointed,” he said. “The barristers need to have decent referees.”
Others, however, said the process remained expensive and unwieldy: barristers applying for QC status must provide references and submit a 63-page form, and the application fee stands at £2,702, and if successful a further fee of £3,500 must be paid by the applicant.
“One of our barristers spent his entire summer working on the application only to be turned down,” one Inner Temple clerk said. “He tried again the next year, but was again turned down. In the end he decided he’d earn more as a junior.”
Another clerk agreed. “Many people are worried they’ll lose clients when they’re made QC,” he said. “It may be a great status symbol, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get more instructions.”