New Bar Council chairman speaks out

Incoming Bar Council chairman Stephen Irwin QC has called for an end to the “turf war” between clerks and practice managers in his first speech concerning his new role.

The Doughty Street barrister, who will replace incumbent Matthias Kelly QC at the end of the year, is set for a busy 12 months. Speaking at a meeting hosted by the Legal Practice Management Association last Wednesday (10 December), Irwin highlighted a broad range of issues that he intends to tackle: he prioritised the need for clerks to pursue further education and gain business qualifications; he reiterated the need for the bar to retain its independence and not to enter partnerships; and he pointed out the need to improve the lot of the publicly-funded bar.

“It’s not enough for clerks to cut the mustard in the old way,” he stated. At present, he argued, there is a threat that clerks could “de-skill and be replaced by practice managers”. He also complained that practice managers focus too much on “maximising profits”.

Irwin is vehemently opposed to chambers entering into partnerships with law firms, mainly because he predicts that it will lead to a rapid rise in overheads and that such a move represents a threat to the continued independence of the bar.

“Senior barristers cannot tell junior barristers not to represent the Government, the Government Legal Service or the Legal Services Commission,” he said. If partnerships were ever established, Irwin said he would join the “independent Bar Council”, as “no one can make us practise like law firms”.

He wants to drive out the culture of barristers and staff overworking and reverse the trend of female barristers leaving the bar “between their first baby and toddlerdom of their second”. He also wants to improve the bar’s convoluted equality code.

Irwin encouraged the bar to make greater use of conditional fee arrangements and, controversially, advocates the introduction of contingency fees, where lawyers take a percentage of the winning party’s award.