2012 QC list shows silk road is not always paved with gold

As the downturn lingers, junior barristers are wary of outpricing their solicitor clients

Michael Payton
Michael Payton

Back in the dark days of December 2008, five junior barristers arrived at court to argue the first case to consider the FSA’s client money rules, Re Global Trader Europe Ltd (in Liquidation) (2009). Fast forward to 2012 and on the very day the Supreme Court considered the same issue at the highest level, Rebecca Stubbs of Maitland Chambers became the last of those five barristers to be awarded silk.

Whether to apply for the coveted title of QC is one of the most important career decisions facing senior juniors at the bar. The appointments process alone takes a year and the costs involved can be huge, despite the QC selection panel reducing the fee year-on-year, most recently by 11 per cent to £1,950 plus VAT.
Fees up, work down?

The applying barrister also has to consider the impact it might have on their practice. Moving up the career ladder could freeze out referral solicitors, who might think they can no longer afford the same barrister after they have the coveted letters after their name. Some believe it can take as much as four years to make the transition from senior junior to silk, and that transition is reflected in the hourly rate.

According to QC Appointments’ head of the secretariat David Watts, the economy is having an impact on the number of barristers applying for silk. The figure has dropped by 14.7 per cent since last year, from 251 to 214, representing an all-time low.

The number appointed has contracted as a result, with only 88 made up in the 2011-12 round, the lowest figure for five years.

“My impression is – and I have no evidence of this – that the economy in the legal world is quite difficult,” says Watts. “Potential applicants have to consider what impact it might have on their careers.”

Fountain Court barrister Paul Gott decided to apply for silk because, he says, he had reached the “right point” in his career.

“I’ve done a number of high-profile industrial relations cases,” he relates, with one example being his instruction to act for British Airways on its successful court action against trade union Unite to prevent Christmas strikes in December 2010. Old Square Chambers’ John Hendy QC, who ­appeared for Unite, was a referee for his sparring partner on the case.

“There comes a natural point in a barrister’s career where you want to apply,” Gott continues. “I’ve been a junior for 20 years and sat on the Treasury Panel for 12. It seemed to be the right time.”

But the business case must be compelling for the junior: as well as paying for the application process they have to pay for the parties that follow the momentous appointment. One silk told The Lawyer that the ­entire process had cost him £25,000 – more than his own wedding.

Honours list

For the honorary silks the process is wildly different. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for these appointments and in 2006 formed its own selection committee, although the identities of those who sit on the committee remains a tightly held secret.

Last year’s honorary silks list ­included Peters & Peters partner Monty Raphael, who has been a lawyer for more than 40 years, and former Clifford Chance senior ­partner Stuart Popham.

This year the accolade went to ­another stalwart of the profession, Clyde & Co senior partner Michael Payton, who has held the role since 1984. He has been the driving force behind the firm’s international expansion and growth strategy, including its £200m merger with Barlow Lyde & Gilbert last year. On behalf of Clydes he received the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2007.

Commenting on his QC appointment, Payton told The Lawyer he was “flattered and honoured”.

“It’s a recognition both of my work and of the firm itself. I’ve received emails from all over the world congratulating me,” he says. “It’s good for the solicitor’s profession that people can achieve this award and hugely important for the profession at large.”

Stephen Grosz, head of public law and human rights at Bindmans, was the other practising lawyer to be awarded. A public and administrative law and human rights specialist, he has advised and represented both the Law Society and the Bar Council in their campaign to prevent impending legal aid cuts. The award is the second for Bindmans, coming after the firm’s founder and senior consultant Sir Geoffrey Bindman was awarded honorary silk in 2011.

Outside private practice, Charles Dhanowa, a registrar of the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) and co-architect of the CAT’s procedural rules, is to receive the award alongside two legal academics, Professor Dawn Oliver and Professor Sandra Fredman.

The two systems could not be more different. While the QC appointments committee has taken strides towards being transparent, the ­honorary QC system is shrouded in secrecy – Payton does not even know who nominated him.

With the number of barristers ­applying apparently in decline, some might question the future of the silk system. The worries are unnecessary, though: the bar is fiercely proud of its silks and their commitment to ­excellence, and the appointments process is well-guarded.

Katy Dowell and Ruth Green