Becoming a QC is a major step in a barrister’s career. Eight of the new crop share their application nightmares and their plans for the future
The recent announcement that 88 advocates had been elevated to the ranks of Queen’s Counsel (QC) prompted the usual rowdy calls for celebration and jubilation at the bar.
For the traditionalists QC means excellence and a professional standard above the rest. Yet there are rumblings within the ranks that a new system is needed to ensure that standards are maintained.
Matrix Chambers’ David Wolfe is leading the charge. Having declared he would never stand for silk back in 2003 he has now been bestowed the honour – but he will not be attending the ceremony.
Wolfe intends to drive change from within the silk circle and is on a mission to persuade the bar that a re-accreditation system would benefit both clients and the young silks joining a bar in evolutionary mode.
“There’s a sense that the bar institutions are largely defending the status quo rather than asking what’s in the best interests for consumers,” says Wolfe, who sits on the Legal Services Board. “There’s a very strong sense of there being a ’chambers’ system as opposed to a bar system.”
But Wolfe will have a fight on his hands if he is to convince his contemporaries and peers that greater change is necessary.
The other new silks who spoke to The Lawyer were all in favour of the QC system, saying it provides them with a career path and gives the bar a kite mark. One went so far as to call it “impractical”, questioning how a tiered QC system would work.
For the past year these silks have been going through the interview from hell, the type that would put Lord Sugar to shame.
First they were required to source 12 judicial referees to help support their 70-page application.
Each applicant then had to choose a small number of cases that reflect standards of excellence across six areas of competency: understanding and using the law; written advocacy; oral advocacy; working with others; diversity; and integrity.
This self-assessment does not come easily to most barristers, who are more comfortable with assessing the merits of others.
“It’s not something we’re used to,” admits Patrick Green at Henderson Chambers. “Some people use consultancies – I didn’t for the application form, although later I did for interview training.”
Whether or not to use that expensive consultancy is very much an individual choice. Serle Court’s John Machell said he found the service ”invaluable”, while 7KBW’s Rebecca Sabben-Clare employed consultants to help her prepare for the interview but says she would not do so if she had her time again.
The interview lasts around half an hour, with the candidate quizzed by a senior member of the profession and a lay member of the public – in one case the patron of a cricket club – about their experience and how it fits with those key competencies.
Once the interview is complete, all the candidate can do is wait. For some it is a huge emotional investment and possibly the most stressful period of their careers.
“The applications process is stressful and can take a long time,” says Suzanne McKie at Devereux Chambers. “Members of the bar don’t talk about it a lot. I’ve set up a session internally to help other members.”
Wolfe says it is the gruelling process that causes many barristers to keep silent about any flaws in the application process.
“It’s very time-consuming and very protracted so it becomes stressful because it’s such a big deal and so critical to your career,” he says. “And because it’s such a big deal, when you finally get through it you’re so relieved you don’t speak out.”
There is no doubt that the QC title is safe for the time being, guarded as it is by some very powerful silks and clerks. Nevertheless, a debate is emerging about the merits of the system and if the overarching regulator begins to talk about consumer interest, it could just be a matter of time before a quality assurance scheme is introduced.
Anneliese Day, 4 New Square
If working on the Sabbath is no longer seen as sacrilegious, it should still be regarded as the mark of a dedicated lawyer. For newly made-up silk Anneliese Day, being on duty for last Sunday’s administration ruling for betting company WorldSpreads was just part of the 24/7 demand of being an ambitious QC. Day says she now has “a lot to prove” to show her promotion is merited.
The 4 New Square member was called to the bar in 1996 and was not intending to apply for QC this year. But while reading the “daunting” forms, Day realised she had the casework to back up her application – in particular an intriguing clash with her chambers head Justin Fenwick QC on the high-profile Graham Calvert v William Hill Credit (2008) ’addicted gambler’ case. “I’ve had the opportunity to go up on my own against QCs, and being able to perform against established silks helped me provide cases of substance and complexity,” she says. “It’s a long process and you have to prepare. You have to dedicate time and thought to it and back up your points with examples.
“Blowing your own trumpet is a process we’re not used to doing and I’d say women are generally worse than men at that. But talking to people who had been through the process really helped. I got lots of useful tips and attended a seminar that was invaluable.
“Now that it’s a more transparent process, it adds more weight to the title, and not just in the legal profession. It’s a mark of excellence and you just hope people recognise it. There are risks in taking silk. I’ve been successful as a junior, but this is going up to the next level and competing with silks who have been doing this for a long time. I’ve got to re-establish that reputation.
“In the current economic climate, people want value for money. It’s now a more gradual transition process and I have to be realistic. I still feel the pressure to perform at the highest level – and that’s a good thing because it’s huge motivation.”
Day speaks with relish of the demands of her calling.
“There’s nothing like being in the heat of the courtroom, the challenges it throws up and the interaction with people,” she says. “Being a silk in the modern era means you have to be computer literate, approachable, flexible and more commercially minded.
“It’s not just legal but practical advice that’s required,” she adds. “You must be able to communicate with clients in a down-to-earth, effective way, rather than being
Tom de la Mare, Blackstone Chambers
Tom de la Mare is one of three Blackstone Chambers barristers who have been awarded silk this year, along with Kieron Beal and Andrew Hunter.
For those familiar with the bar it was only a matter of time before de la Mare was elevated. In recent years de la Mare has made the step from anonymous junior to prominent senior junior. He has been involved in some of the highest-profile public sector cases: instructed in the Binyam Mohammed case as a special advocate; drafted in as junior to the London Borough of Newham in the judicial review bid brought by Tottenham Hotspur FC against the decision to hand the Olympic stadium to West Ham United FC; and representing the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills on its intervention in Steve Coogan’s case against News Group Newspapers.
De la Mare was prompted to apply for silk when it became apparent that some of his regular clients were not instructing him because he did not have that all-important QC title.
“It’s a real classic,” he says, almost exasperated. “You do the prep on the case and you’re gearing up to do the advocacy – something that I really enjoy – then the [lay] client wants a silk. Almost all solicitors are really sophisticated legal users. If it were left to them they wouldn’t mind using the junior.”
For de la Mare the application form was a monumental challenge, trying to narrow his case list to make sure he had the right matters to fit with the QC appointment committee’s six competency tests. He recognises that for public law advocates at least it is easier to become involved in headline-making cases and therefore move up the career ladder. That said, de la Mare cautions against rushing to apply.
“I think it’s harder if you try to take silk quickly,” he warns. “Most barristers would be well advised to bide their time.”
In fact, de la Mare says he found the entire process “quite sobering”.
“You have to sit back and analyse your workload: why you did this or that, what quality it adds to your practice.”
The reality of being lumped into the same category as his peers in chambers – David Pannick QC, Monica Carss-Frisk QC and Dinah Rose QC, to name a few – appears
to be quite daunting for the new silk. Although when he opened that all-important letter, he admits: “I felt relief, then a gradual gentle elation.”
Patrick Green, Henderson Chambers
Henderson Chambers’ Patrick Green cracked open the champagne for an “impromptu celebration” on the day he received confirmation of his silk appointment. Like his contemporaries, Green agrees that the QC application process can be “frustrating”. Nevertheless, he adds, it is also a massive learning curve.
“Going through the application process you do learn something about yourself,” Green reflects.
“It forces you to think about what you’ve been doing in a more structured way. The application forms are dependent on you giving a good description of your cases.”
The success of an application is also dependent on submitting 12 judicial referees, four of which will be contacted by the QC appointments committee for further details.
“I wrote to two judges in the Court of Appeal and told them I’d put them forward as referees,” Green explains. “I attached copies of the case with the relevant information I felt they needed.
It’s a bit of an awkward request because they’re very busy and they get quite a number of requests.”
That may not have come easy for a barrister who claims not to have set out with a “burning ambition” to apply for silk.
“Some people are quite organised about how they plan their practices, more than I’ve been,” says Green, who explains that his focus has instead been on building up a broad based practice, while indulging his fondness for the appellate courts.
“I do enjoy a really good appellate hearing where everyone’s trying to identify what the law is and what it should be,” he says. “It’s incredibly stimulating.”
For Green, being a silk at the modern bar is a sign of excellence, while also adding a career ladder rung for the elite advocate which is otherwise lacking at the bar.
Seán Jones, 11KBW
For Seán Jones of 11KBW it was second time lucky in the silk application process.
“Having not got it two years ago I didn’t apply the next year and then received a lot of [consolatory] letters. I thought I’d have a go again,” he explains. There was, he adds, a “market expectation”.
There was also a chambers expectation. “I became known as the asterisk man,” he says. “When we appointed a new chambers director [David Stead], I was introduced as ’Sean Jones, who should be a silk’.”
For employment barristers used to advising on pre-litigation matters and keeping controversial cases out of the courts and the public eye, finding the right cases to submit to the appointments committee can be tough. “If I were to draw up a list of the top cases I appeared on it wouldn’t necessarily be the list I put forward,” Jones says.
He admits he did not set enough time aside to fill in the application form the first time around, and this time was better prepared for the process. Jones says that while it was a stressful process applying for silk, it was one he also enjoyed.
“The weird aspect is how lovely it is. There’s some stress, but your clients say nice things about you and the judges whose time you’ve wasted say nice things. It’s a tremendous testament,” he comments.
Jones says he hopes to continue developing his practice and sees the move to silk as being gradual. That said, his ambition is to contribute to the law as a silk.
“The one thing you get as a silk is 30 seconds more grace of being listened to by the judges and non-judges you appear before,” he says. “It gives you space to be more innovative than you may have been allowed in the past.”
Suzanne McKie, Devereux Chambers
Devereux Chambers’ Suzanne McKie says she has long harboured an ambition to apply for silk.
“I was too ambitious to think that I’d just stay a barrister,” she says.
As an employment advocate, however, the quality threshold is set high. To even have a chance of passing the interview process barristers must have appeared in
a case that affects 50 employees or more. Nevertheless, McKie says having those all-important letters after your name will instantly attract a different style
“It will attract more interesting and complex cases,” she explains. “Clients like to see you’ve progressed. There’s a fear in some clients that when you reach a certain stage of your career and you haven’t taken silk, they would begin to question why you don’t have it.”
Like her peers she found the application process “stressful” and says the business of organising solicitor referees seemed pointless when not everyone was contacted by the appointments committee.
“There wasn’t much logic in it. The people they contacted hadn’t seen me do much advocacy, but those they didn’t contact had,” she explains.
Traditionally the switch from senior junior to junior silk has been laborious. However, many say the transition has smoothed in recent years because juniors are taking more time to build a silk practice before they embark on the application process: McKie is no exception. “I’m prepared for it [silk practice] because I’ve been doing the work of a silk for the past few years,” she says. “I’m not terribly fearful – you have to have done a good job in the first place otherwise you wouldn’t be at this stage.”
Rebecca Sabben-Clare, 7KBW
”There are two reasons to take silk,” asserts 7KBW’s Rebecca Sabben-Clare. “The first is that it’s the gateway to the biggest cases and the second is that practice at the commercial bar is increasingly international, especially in arbitration.” It is ultimately a “badge of quality”, she adds, an assurance for clients who are paying top dollar for their counsel.
Sabben-Clare says she had been thinking of applying for some time, prompted by solicitors asking when she intended to take the plunge.
“I was back in practice after two spells of maternity leave and this was an opportunity to say to the world that I’m back,” she explains.
The barrister says the bar is well-suited to mothers wanting a career. This particular round is the first time a “posse of mothers have been so successful”. That posse includes Sabben-Clare; 5 Essex Court’s Samantha Leek; 20 Essex Street’s Sara Masters and One Essex Court’s Emma Himsworth.
“We were all the same year of call and we’ve all taken silk. It sends a good message to women at university thinking about the bar,” says Sabben-Clare.
“The commercial bar is a very good environment for a woman with children who wants to have a successful career,” she adds, explaining that flexible working hours and the ability to work from home are both bonuses.
Like her contemporaries, Sabben-Clare found the application process a challenge. The wait for the interview notice was painful.
“That was the least satisfactory part – the practical part,” she recalls. “People find out about their interviews at different times and a colleague in chambers found out whether they had an interview before me.”
Sabben-Clare paid a QC consultancy firm to coach her on how to survive the interview, but says that following the half-hour interview, she would not fork out the same money again.
She believes there will be a gradual change to a QC practice, a challenge she is relishing.
“It’s quite exciting to start developing a practice. You put yourself forward for different types of work,” she says enthusiastically. “I enjoy stepping up to the mark and picking up cases quickly.”
David Wolfe, Matrix Chambers
The appointment of Matrix Chambers’ David Wolfe as silk sent rumbles through the bar because of his past criticisms of the system. Back in 2003 Wolfe joined with 10 other Matrix members to openly criticise the regime, stating: “The QC system cannot be justified as being in the public interest or promoting competition.”
He even went so far as to say he would never apply for silk, but nine years later he is joining the bar’s elite – although he will not be attending the silk ceremony.
Wolfe maintains that his views have not changed.
“I remain of the view that the silk system is fundamentally flawed,” he says resolutely. The biggest flaw? A lack of re-accreditation once the title is awarded.
“Any quality assurance scheme has to involve the maintenance of a standard,” he argues, adding that the QC title is not sector-specific. “So you could have been made a family silk 30 years ago and now be doing something completely different, but you still have QC.”
Wolfe admits there have been strides forward since the system was shaken up in 2003-04, but for the QC system to work in the public interest a quality re-accreditation scheme should be established.
The decision to apply for silk this year, Wolfe continues, was motivated by a desire to change the system from within.
“In terms of pushing for change I felt I was better able to do that as an insider,” he says.
Like his peers Wolfe recognises that QC is a status title and one that garners some serious support, particularly from the commercial bar. Nevertheless, his ambition is
to spark a debate about whether re-accreditation is needed.
“We have a lot of people who, for them, QC is their life,” he says. “Some are brilliant and there are some who haven’t maintained standards, but it’s definitely in their interest to maintain the title.”
It is because of this pivotal career change that the application process is so intense, Wolfe believes.
“It’s very time-consuming and protracted, so it becomes stressful because it’s such a big deal, so critical to your career,” he explains.
Wolfe says he will not be investing in new silks – a cost of around £5,000 – for the House of Commons ceremony, nor will he be holding a silk party. He insists that his hourly rate will not increase and his high level of pro bono work will continue.
His is a lone voice in the call for reform and the very title he is criticising has provided him with a platform from which to voice his opinions. Yet Wolfe is a keen advocate for reform and, as a Legal Services Board member and a non-executive director of the Legal Services Commission, he is going to shout until he is heard.
John Machell, Serle Court
Serle Court’s John Machell says some barristers believe the QC appointments process is weighted against chancery specialists because their cases are more likely to settle, preventing appearances before important judicial referees.
As a partnership disputes specialist Machell is used to his cases settling but says he did not let that put him off applying for silk.
“I hardly ever appear in court,” he says. “You have to put down 12 judicial referees – only four of mine had really seen me do advocacy.”
Nevertheless, he believes his practice has come into vogue since LLPs were introduced in 2000.
“Probably about 60 or 70 percent of my time has been spent on partnership disputes over the past four or five years,” he says. “At the bar there are only a handful of people who spend more than half their time doing those disputes.”
Machell says he wanted to carve out a niche silk practice. The timing was right because he had recently appeared in a number of hearings in the High Court.
“There’s an enormous effort involved,” Machell says of the application process. “Everyone says it takes a long time but you never believe them.”
He used a consultancy to
help him through the process, something he found “invaluable”. The agency provided a sounding board and taught him how to approach the process, he explains.
Machell regards the QC title as a mark of excellence. “It’s nice to have an accolade awarded by the bar,” he says.
For a specialist barrister the transition to silk is seen by some to be a calculated risk.
“It’s a leap of faith,” says Machell. “I hope that as a silk I can continue doing the specialist work.”
Class of 2012
Hundreds of advocates apply for silk every year, but the demanding process means not everyone makes it. Some of the 88 successful applicants this year share their experience of the process and their hopes and fears for the future.