Successful QC applicants are at a three-year high. Encouraging stuff for the next silk round?
For many litigators, taking silk is a career high – an official recognition of years of hard work and dedication. Of the 225 wannabe silks who embarked on the lengthy application process a year ago, just 100 were successful. It is 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.
But dig a little deeper and the proportion of those made up has not changed much in recent years.
Of the 225 advocates who started the application process last year, 44 per cent were successful. That compares with a 45 per cent success rate last year (84 out of 183 applicants) and a lower proportion of 39 per cent in 2011/12 (88 out of 214).
Many are surprised at the number of solicitor-advocates to have joined the ranks in the latest round, with five of the seven who applied being successful. This is the highest proportion and the largest number since 2008/09, when three out of the four applicants were successful.
Anecdotally, barristers and solicitors alike feel there has been an attitude shift towards the judicial referees supporting silk applications. Traditionally, these judges came from the bench and more often than not gave their support to those who had appeared before them in the previous 12 months. There is a feeling that tribunal judges, arbitrators and sports disputes arbitrators are becoming increasingly acceptable to the QC appointments committee. One newly appointed silk suggests this is a recognition that modern advocates move through the ranks in a variety of ways.
Here, The Lawyer speaks to five advocates about to embark on a new career in silk, asking why they chose to apply, what they learned from the process and where they go from here.
Jane Mulcahy, Blackstone Chambers
Jane Mulcahy was one of three Blackstone Chambers barristers to be awarded silk this year. She arrived at the bar following a stint in journalism which she began, as many do, on a local paper. The career switch came after Mulcahy met her husband while working for an in-house magazine at Microsoft. A friend took up an in-house legal job and the prospect sounded intriguing, she says.
She arrived at 2 Hare Court, now Blackstone Chambers, in 1995.
“I was incredibly lucky,” she comments, reflecting that in her opinion she was “less qualified” for life at the bar than some of her peers.
Nevertheless, that stint in the newsroom set her on the path to silk.
As with many of her fellow barristers, Mulcahy started out wanting to specialise in commercial law. She says the best way to break into the market was by practising in employment law and her career took a fresh turn when her first set of cases emerged from the world of sport.
With Ian Mill QC, a Blackstone stalwart with a strong following in the field of sports law, as her mentor, it turned out to be a shrewd move.
One of her regular clients is a leading Premiership football club manager she professionally refuses to name. The standout experience of her career took place in a closed sports tribunal where she had to cross-examine a top footballer at war with his former agent over a club move.
“I appeared for the agent,” she recalls. “My client was fabulously entertaining while we were together for the four-day tribunal. It was all a bit bonkers.”
The decision to apply for silk was prompted by Blackstone’s senior clerk Gary Oliver, who arrived at her door 12 months ago to tell her the time had come.
“In a female way I don’t think I spotted it,” she says. “It was Gary who said I should think about it. In my practice there were some interesting cases at a silk level.”
A few years earlier she had attended an event for women at the bar to listen to Brick Court Chambers’ Jemima Stratford QC talk about her experience of successfully applying for silk back in 2009/10.
Mulcahy felt her biggest challenge would be to find the right judicial referees. After appearing in front of employment tribunal judges and in top-level sports arbitrations, the concern was that she did not have enough exposure to High Court judges. It turned out to be a non-issue.
For Mulcahy, who sits on the chambers pupillage committee, there is now the prospect of being a mentor to upcoming barristers. It is a challenge she relishes.
Nic Fletcher, Berwin Leighton Paisner
Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) arbitration head Nic Fletcher was one of five solicitor-advocates to take silk this year. After the day of his official appointment next month (14 April) Fletcher will be one of three QCs practising at BLP alongside Stuart Isaacs, formerly of South Square Chambers, and charities and private client head Janet Turner QC.
He says the decision to apply was his own, although he was not discouraged by the firm.
“I was thinking about it for a couple of years,” he says, adding that partner Michael Goldmeier, who is responsible for risk and compliance at the firm, had also encouraged him to apply.
What confirmed the decision was that the appointments authority was showing a tendency to accept admissions outside the traditional route of the High Court. Last year Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom partner Karyl Nairn QC was the only solicitor-advocate to be appointed silk. Fletcher says she was an inspiration, alongside Paul Mitchard QC, who was awarded silk in 2008, and Julian Lew QC, who took silk in 2003 while he headed legacy Herbert Smith’s arbitration group (he has since rejoined the bar and is a leading arbitration specialist at 20 Essex Street).
Fletcher believes there has been a mind-shift in how the appointments committee sees solicitor-advocates in recent years.
“There’s a recognition on the part of the authority that there are some talented solicitors out there who are very qualified,” he says.
As BLP’s arbitration head, Fletcher is used to appearing in high-value disputes that are rarely in the public eye. He suggests there is a growing recognition of how solicitor-advocates can be good for London as a disputes resolution centre.
“It can only benefit London and encourage more solicitors to become QCs,” he adds.
That said, Fletcher argues that there are some clients who are simply uninterested in their lawyers having the QC moniker.
“The title will be great for me – and for the firm’s clients who find it important, it will reassure them,” he says. “For others, it just won’t matter.”
Around the globe international arbitration centres such as London, New York, Singapore and Dubai are seeing a surge in cases entering arbitration. Fletcher says that the BLP arbitration group has benefitted from this.
“The arbitration group has grown enormously in the past five years,” he says, adding, “Certain things about arbitration are attractive to clients – confidentiality, enforceability and neutrality.”
For Fletcher it will be business as usual following silk day. It may not be of importance to all clients, but having those initials after his name will be another weapon in the BLP arsenal when it comes to competing for instructions.
Graham Chapman, 4 New Square
Graham Chapman was shopping with his wife and daughter on holiday in Spain when the email arrived to tell him his silk application had been successful.
“It was all a little surreal,” he says.
Surreal and frustrating, no doubt. As he attempted to open the attached letter on his BlackBerry the dreaded spinning ‘wheel of doom’ appeared. It was a tense moment but eventually the technology kicked in and the letter appeared, informing him of his success.
For him, the bar was a logical choice. Chapman says he did not have the right foot to play for Tottenham Hotspur but was a “bit of a chatterbox and academic”, so he decided early in his teens that the law was for him.
He joined the Inner Temple during his second year at Oxford – a move that helped him kick off a career at the bar.
Becoming a silk was always an ambition.
“It was something I came to myself,” he says of his decision to apply. “You have to sit down and work through the evidence you have to put forward. One gets advice from clerks or silks in chambers, but for me it was a personal decision. It can be a pressurised process – it’s your career under the spotlight.”
Having taken the view that he had conducted cases that would demonstrate the necessary set of competencies, he took the plunge into the application process.
“It was just something I needed to know,” Chapman reflects.
Like many of his peers he found the process daunting. For many barristers the silk application process is an unfamiliar concept – many have not been interviewed since they applied for pupillage.
“It isn’t like anything else you do,” says Chapman. “It’s a formal self-assessment process that is alien to you.”
Having just one page to give evidence on how your recent case history fulfils that set of competency requirements was a challenge.
“The word limit is quite tough – you’re torn between putting everything down to meet the competencies while trying to cover your skills as a written advocate,” Chapman explains.
For any senior junior on the cusp of applying for silk the process must be unnerving, but it is not the first time they will have found themselves in a challenging situation. For Chapman – who, at the age of 38, is one of the youngest to be awarded silk this year – it was the right time. His broad commercial practice meant he had been leading cases against silks for some time. That included an outing in the Court of Appeal (CoA) against his former head of chambers, Justin Fenwick QC and current chambers head, Ben Hubble QC. He won.
Chapman says the QC moniker will continue to attract international clients because it is seen as a mark of quality.
Catherine Gibaud, 3 Verulam Buildings
With an outstanding CV like Catherine Gibaud’s, the question is why she did not apply for silk before.
Her standout cases include working as a junior in the JP Morgan v Springwell Navigation litigation led by Brick Court’s Mark Hapgood QC and Adrian Beltrami QC, also of 3 Verulam Buildings, who both became mentors to her. She was also involved in the BCCI/Bank of America fraudulent trading dispute, working alongside Ewan McQuater QC. That case settled in 2005.
A career at the bar began for Gibaud after she had spent some time in the corporate finance department at Ernst & Young (EY). She had started a maths degree at the age of 16 but her head was turned by advocacy after EY sent her to Sheffield to lead a team investigating pensions mis-selling. When she returned to London she resigned and in 1994 joined City University London.
In the past couple of years, Gibaud says some of her peers had begun to question why she was not yet a QC. But she says she needed to make the decision herself, so she “reviewed the material and decided to have a go”.
She booked a week out of her diary to fill in the 70-page application form – something she would recommend to others.
“I wanted to set aside a chunk of time,” she says. “I don’t think it took the whole week, but never underestimate the amount of time it does take.”
For Gibaud it is the art of advocacy, being able to cross-examine lead witnesses and having the opportunity to mentor juniors, that is the most attractive part of taking silk.
Like many of her peers, she says having prepped for a trial and studiously constructed a cross-examination, having the dispute settle on the court steps can be disappointing – “although it’s always good for the clients”, she hastens to add.
Gibaud’s financial skills are in demand. The wave of post-recession financial disputes demand the skills of a mathematician in court who is able to quiz top City minds.
The challenge now is to hone those skills and set herself up as a go-to silk in the banking and financial disputes market. Those cases may be in vogue at the moment, but longevity is the key to success.
Rachel Ansell, 4 Pump Court
For many barristers the time to apply for QC comes when the instructing solicitor is told to bring a silk on board for the knock-out case.
That is what happened to 4 Pump Court’s Rachel Ansell, who says she was increasingly facing silks as opposing counsel. Like many of her peers, she says that more often than not clients were looking for a QC to lead their cases.
She recalls: “I was doing big cases and it was getting to the last minute and the client would want a silk.”
It is a common theme. While Ansell found herself leading cases, when it came to the crunch it was a silk who would be selected to lead the cross-examination of key witnesses, particularly when the opposition had drafted in a top QC. She feels this was particularly important for international clients, many of whom are attracted to the UK’s legal system because of the silks.
She believes taking silk will make life easier when it comes to instructing solicitors, who will no longer feel the pressure to change counsel at the last minute on the instruction of clients.
As a construction specialist with a particular focus on oil and energy disputes, a significant chunk of Ansell’s work is international in nature. She spends a lot of time in the Middle East and is regularly instructed in arbitrations at home and abroad. Ansell says the QC appointments committee recognised that hers was the sort of practice that involves a lot of arbitration.
While she found it challenging to describe her practice on one piece of A4, she says the interview allowed her to articulate her approach to the law.
Others embarking on the process should prepare for a tough year, she warns.
“Give it time, it’s an exacting process – be aware you have five or six key competencies to deal with,” she says.
The competency she found toughest to enunciate was ‘working with others’, commenting that finding the right cases to evidence that skill and illustrating it to the appointments panel was a challenge.
Ansell also advises that upcoming silks should think carefully about the referees they nominate. While those on the bench will have the pick of those who have appeared before them, when it comes to solicitor or barrister referees she suggests candidates should “choose carefully and think about what they will be asked”.
Ansell believes she is in for another transformative year as she makes the transition from senior junior barrister to baby silk. She hopes her experience in dealing with big-money international cases will mean she will take the lead in disputes where previously a silk would have been drafted in as co-counsel.
“Hopefully the transition will be fairly smooth,” she concludes.
The full 2014 silks list
(practice area, set, year of call)
Civil, Allen & Overy,
Civil, Atkin, 1995
Criminal, 2 Bedford Row, 1985
Civil & Criminal, 2 Bedford Row, 1996
Criminal, 25 Bedford Row, 1994
Criminal, 36 Bedford Row, 1994
Criminal, 36 Bedford Row, 1989
Family, 36 Bedford Row, 1996
Civil & Criminal, 9-12 Bell Yard, 1986
Civil, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Solicitor-advocate
Civil, Blackstone, 1997
Civil, Blackstone, 1995
Civil, Blackstone, 1995
Criminal, 4 Breams Buildings, 1987
Civil, Brick Court, 1998
Civil, Byrom Street, 1995
Criminal, Carmelite, 1995
Civil, Cloisters, 1991
Criminal, CPS, 1987
Civil, Crown Office, 1993
Criminal, Crown Office, 1985
Civil, Crown Office, 1998
Criminal, Doughty Street, 1996
Criminal, Doughty Street, 1995
Civil, Doughty Street, 1981
Civil, Enterprise, 1992
Civil, Erskine, 1991
Civil, Essex Court, 1991
Civil, One Essex Court, 1997
Civil, One Essex Court, 2001
Civil, 20 Essex Street, 1999
Criminal, 23 Essex Street, 1992
Criminal, Exchange, 1994
Civil, Fountain Court, 1998
Civil, Fountain Court, 1994
Civil, Francis Taylor Building, 1996
Civil, Francis Taylor Building, 2000
Civil, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Solicitor-advocate
Criminal, Furnival, 1984
Criminal, Furnival, 1991
Criminal, Furnival, 1993
Civil, Garden Court, 1988
Civil, Garden Court, 1987
Civil, 9 Gough Square, 1986
Civil, Guildhall, 1999
Family, Harcourt, 1995
Criminal, 2 Hare Court, 1998
Civil & Criminal, 3 Hare Court, 1995
Civil & Criminal, 7 Harrington Street, 1988
Civil & Criminal, Henderson, 1992
Civil, Herbert Smith Freehills, Solicitor-advocate
Civil, Herbert Smith Freehills, Solicitor-advocate
Criminal, 1 High Pavement, 1988
Criminal, 6 KBW College Hill, 1996
Civil, 6 KBW College Hill, 1994
Criminal, 6 KBW College Hill, 1992
Criminal, 6 KBW College Hill, 1993
Civil, 11KBW, 1991
Civil, 11KBW, 1995
Civil, Keating, 1994
Civil, Landmark, 1993
Civil, Landmark, 1990
Civil, Littleton, 1984
Civil, Maitland, 1994
Criminal, Matrix, 1996
Civil, Monckton, 1995
Criminal, New Park Court, 1994
Criminal, New Park Court, 1990
Civil, 3 New Square, 1996
Civil, 4 New Square, 1998
Civil, 4 New Square, 1997
Civil, 8 New Square, 2004
Civil, 8 New Square, 1995
Criminal, No 5 Chambers, 1995
Civil, Outer Temple, 1989
Family, 4 Paper Buildings, 1992
Criminal, No 6 Park Square, 1994
Civil, 4 Pump Court, 1995
Civil, 4 Pump Court, 1997
Civil, Pump Court Tax, 1979
Civil, Quadrant, 1997
Civil, Quadrant, 1990
Civil, Quadrant, 1993
John de Bono
Civil, Serjeants’ Inn Chambers, 1995
Criminal, SFO, 1992
Civil, South Square, 1998
Civil, South Square, 1999
Civil, 3 Stone Buildings, 1996
Civil, 4 Stone Buildings, 1992
Civil, 4 Stone Buildings, 1994
Family, St John’s, 1993
Family, St Phillips, 1987
Civil, Temple Garden, 1993
Civil & Criminal, Temple Garden, 2000
Civil, 2 Temple Gardens, 1989
Civil, Temple Tax, 1982
Civil, 3VB, 1996
Civil, 3VB, 1994
Civil, Wilberforce, 1994
Civil, Wilberforce, 1996
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