Gown and clout

Once you’ve been appointed how do you get your head around being a QC and living up to the tradition? Daniel Beard is looking forward to finding out

Daniel Beard
Daniel Beard

 You have been told a thousand times that it is important to read the whole of a document, but still you do not. Once you have read that it gives the Lord Chancellor “great pleasure to inform you…” you dispense with the rest of the ­letter. Instead there may be some ­indecorous jumping up and down. There will be wild grinning. There may also be some drink taken. Getting silk does funny things to a person.

The process of applying for the position of QC is a lengthy one. No longer nods and whispers, it is now all forms and interview. It takes a year. You need up to 24 referees and you are required to explain why you are competent on a variety of fronts, ranging from oral presentation to teamwork and diversity.

Three little words

One sage colleague explained a key to the process to me in three words: issue, action, result. Make it a mantra and it will be fine. You ­cannot presume that doing a few interesting cases and being able to stand on your hind legs and talk to a judge will be enough. Such things are only the ticket to entry to the silk application round. You need to give examples of why it is that what you have done equips you for a new role.

When you complete the long application form and have your interview you have to think: what is the issue I am highlighting, what action did I take and what was the result?

So if the process is lengthy and the form-filling a pain, why bother? Partly because it is there and partly because you get to ­channel your inner Grayson Perry, with the tights and the buckled shoes. But more importantly, because of the sense that the badge means something. It is a mark of recognition – there is the idea that with it comes a degree of responsibility and a ­quality of work.

Fee enterprise

But it would be wrong to be too high-­minded. There are fees to consider too. Back in 2003 the OFT expressed concern that those taking silk were able to raise fees immediately. Right now there are around 120 people hoping that this has not changed.

In addition, there is what might be called ’silk mercy’. That is the indulgence a court affords a silk running a dubious line when a junior doing the same thing would be abruptly and brutally halted.
“The great thing about the elevation,” as someone once put it with elegant deprecation, “is that your submissions are greeted only with disappointment, not dismay.”

The airs of your chinny chin chin

And if you are lucky enough to be appointed, what happens then? Well, here I am struggling a bit. I certainly do not know the answer yet. It all seems like a matter of guesswork at the moment. But after the initial elation there is a realisation that somehow you are going to have to try to live up to the badge.

The first problem is the incongruity. ’QC’ still seem to be letters that other people have. How do you make like a QC?

It is pretty clear what you do not do.

You do not start making ’extra chins’ ­submissions, whereby a barrister mistakes pomposity for gravitas, pulls back their chin and puffs out their chest in order to be sonorous and appear grand. It seems to me that modern silks need to be ready to muck in and be good rather than grand.

New school fears

There is also the fear of the new school, even though the new school is much like the old one. It is still courts and cases and law and advice, but it is all those things from the front row.

There is the perennial fear that you were fine as a junior but will never quite cut it as a silk. And it is the barrister’s fear of the empty diary. Like the loneliness of the long distance runner, it appears to be a part of every barrister – even the most successful. For a new silk that fear is more poignant: if there is a step up in the quality of work I am expected to do, will there still be a demand for my services?

Of course, the sensible thing to do is ignore the beguiling eccentricities of the tradition and remember you are in ­business. What is needed is planning with your clerks how you want to develop your practice, who you need to see and where you need to be seen, or more precisely heard.

That planning will involve what might now be termed maintenance and development of client relationships (more commonly known as ’lunch’), and it will also look at broader marketing and promotion, just as any business would.

So how will we know whether the new appointees are successes? Well, when the OFT looked at the old silk system it ­concluded that it distorted competition and did not serve the best interests of ­consumers. Perhaps the goal of the cadre of 2011 is to prove emphatically that this ­assertion is wrong.

Daniel Beard is a barrister at Monckton Chambers. He was awarded silk in the 2011 appointments round