Although I qualified as a solicitor in 2011, I initially studied to be a barrister. I completed my training and was ‘called to the Bar’ in 2008. Nowadays it is very difficult for young, newly qualified barristers to make their mark on the profession.
When I studied the Bar Vocational Course (as it was called then) in 2008, only four students out of a class of approximately 50 had vocational traineeships, or ‘pupillages’ as they are known, to go to by the end of the course. I know a handful of my classroom colleagues went on to find themselves pupillages within a couple of years but the vast majority did not and never have. Some, like me, decided to cross-qualify and became solicitors. Some abandoned the legal profession altogether. Sadly, many of my classmates, whichever way they ventured, were left burdened by debt.
The Bar is frequently seen as a very traditional institution, one that is sometimes slow to move with the times. And with its future now under something of a cloud, the idea of barristers teaming up with solicitors’ firms seems entirely sensible and may give many young students more hope regarding their future prospects.
More in-house roles would hopefully provide more jobs for those qualifying as barristers. There is a limited number of chambers in the country and an even more limited numbers of pupillages available. Barristers working in Chambers are, in many ways, in direct competition with each other. As self-employed individuals, they each want to ensure they have their own work coming in. This means there will never be that many jobs available.
Barristers who make it all the way through law school and the selection process of pupillage go on to face further challenges as they build up their own practices: they must ensure they have work coming in and are able to pay the bills and fund ongoing marketing. Barristers in chambers are self-employed and therefore responsible for all of their own taxes and costs, including their clerks’ fees. They pay “rent” to chambers along with many other outgoings. This is something all self-employed people face of course, but life as a self-employed barrister is certainly more of a risk than working in house, when you take into account the recession and the recent significant cuts to legal aid. Working together with a firm of solicitors means barristers are more likely to have a guaranteed wage every month as well as guaranteed briefs.
I can see many positives in the potential there for barristers to gain a broader experience than they may in Chambers. Whilst on my own quest for pupillage, I obtained work experience with a law firm, initially to benefit my CV rather than because it was what I really wanted to do. However, a couple of months into the role, I soon began to realise how helpful it was to see every aspect of the case, from the initial point of contact with the client through to preparing their case, as well as attending court hearings. It was actually undertaking all of this work that helped me decide that I was better suited to a career as a solicitor. However, had I continued to pursue my career at the Bar, I can only imagine my experiences at the solicitors firm would have made me a more well-rounded practitioner! Indeed, some pupillages now offer time spent in a law firm to ensure young barristers have this opportunity. They recognise its value.
Barristers often only meet a client for the first time at court on the day of the hearing. Whilst they will have had time to digest their brief and read the papers, this is often a very diluted version of the case as a whole and this can barristers with no more than a shallow understanding of the issues. Whilst barristers are used to this process, it can be very limiting for them when preparing and presenting the case. It can also be very unnerving for the client, leaving them wondering why their solicitor, who knows their case inside out, is not doing the talking on their behalf before the judge. Whilst this may make perfect sense to lawyers who understand the benefits associated with the different roles in a courtroom, the lay client may feel anxious about how it will all pan out in reality. But if things do change and barristers and solicitors team up, the former could, in theory, have access at any point to the client’s full file, allowing them to fully explore the case, thus providing more reassurance for the client that their representative knows everything they ought to.
Similarly, this means barristers would be more readily available to support solicitors in their preparation of cases, giving them guidance on the best approach to take from early on in the process to ensure it is moulded in the way they think best for the final hearing.
Of course, there are risks in the proposal that solicitors and barristers team up. Long-standing chambers who may not wish to get on board with the idea and merge with solicitors may lose out in the long run as solicitors are far more likely to ask in-house counsel to deal with cases rather than instructing “an outsider”. There is also the potential for the two specialisms to start blurring into one another, depriving practitioners of a more clearly defined expertise.
I have been lucky enough to observe both careers first hand, although I ultimately decided that I preferred life as an employed solicitor. And in my view, closer ties are all for the good and would certainly bring a lot to the practice of law. It will be fascinating to see how things develop.
Photo of barristers’ wigs by ASC Shakespeare Camp 2013 via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence