The silk route, 2014

Another year, another weighty round of silk appointees. Katy Dowell looks at the trends behind the numbers.

The news today that 100 advocates have been awarded the coveted Queen’s Counsel moniker appears to have reversed a trend in falling QC appointments. It’s the highest number of appointees in three years, up 19 per cent on last year’s 84 and an increase of 13.6 per cent on the 88 barristers who were awarded silk in 2011/12.

Yet, dig a little deeper and the proportion of those made up has not altered radically.

Of the 225 advocates who kick-started the application process back in the autumn, 44 per cent were successful this year. That compares with a 45 per cent success rate last year (84 of a total 183 applicants) and a lower proportion of 39 per cent in 2011/12 (88 out of a total 214 applicants).

In fact the lowest proportion of appointees after the 2003-06 break was back in 2007/08, when 333 advocates embarked upon the process and just 98 succeeded – 29 per cent.

Until 2002 an average 14 per cent of applicants were successful annually, but in 2002 that figure rocketed to 26.3 per cent.

Some at the bar suggest that last year’s fall in applicants was an anomaly, the knock-on effect of the significant drop in new silks in the previous year (down 26.7 per cent from 120 in 2010/11 to 88 a year later).

There are also economic factors to be considered. The cost of applying in 2012/13 stood at £2,340 (£1,950 plus VAT), and successful applicants have to stump up a little more – £4,200 (£3,500 plus VAT). That is only part of the picture, however.

Applicants are required to source 12 judicial referees to help support their 70-page application. If they are successful it’s customary to thank those referees. Gifts are usually sent. Sellers of champagne and cufflinks apparently do very well around this time of year.

Then there is the party, paid for by successful applicants who will usually stump up the money for the drinks. In recent years, there have been shindigs at the Savoy where litigators are plied with champagne to encourage their loyalty.

And let’s not forget the cost of the silk day itself. On that prestigious day, when the 100 successful applicants converge on Westminster it is typical for them to arrive chauffeur-driven cars. They will have to be wearing the correct garb – black tights and the ceremonial silk robe included. This all dates back to 1604 when King James 1 first created the legal ranking.

For many it is the wig itself that comes at the highest price. Change from £3,000 would be small, but most are happy to make the investment even if wearing it in court is a rare occasion these days.

All in all, one successful applicant put the cost of the entire process at above £20,000. Or has he put it, “more than how much it cost me to get married”.

It is a huge investment. It’s little wonder then that the number of applicants is in decline. Also little wonder that the number of successful criminal silks has fallen dramatically, from a high of 51 from a total 129 applicants in 2010 to just 26 this year.

Many believe the criminal bar to be under attack from the Ministry of Justice, and those that once practised exclusively in criminal law are turning away from the job in favour of regulatory and white-collar crime work.

Herbert Smith Freehills, Berwin Leighton Paisner and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer all boasted new silks this year. Freshfields London arbitration head Constantine Partasides, whose departure from the firm was revealed by The Lawyer earlier this week (17 February 2014), was among them.

It will be interesting to see whether any US firms in London will put forward their arbitration stars for the next round of contenders. The QC title is seen as being a major attraction for getting instructions on mega-money cases from overseas. The Russians, in particular, are fond of stacking their litigation teams with heavyweight silks.

Despite the cost, pomp and ceremony, as well as the critics, the silks application process is here to stay. As long as litigants continue to stack their teams with silks that they are willing to pay big for, advocates will continue to apply.