Advocate for an engaged profession

Acutely aware of the economic realities facing the profession, Andrew Walker QC, Chair of the Bar for 2018, talks to Mary Cowe about his plans to lead and develop the Bar during his term of office

Drawn to the commercial Bar after a youthful flirtation with economics, Andrew Walker QC is a Chair who understands that to some extent you do have to look at life at the Bar through a business lens, whatever your practice area.

Whether your aspiration is to spend your days addressing juries on Circuit, or to be a highly esteemed Chancery Silk (like our new Chair), you cannot make that dream a reality without sufficient remuneration. Only in this way can you focus on being a professional, without the all-consuming worry about how to re-pay a mountain of debt.

Andrew believes that young people today are acutely aware of the economic realities of life. This is, after all, a Chair who was attracted to the Bar in part because at university there was a £35 non-refundable deposit if you wanted to be a solicitor. One of his main concerns about our professional future is attrition rates at the junior Bar. In the last 12 years, the number of barristers between six and ten years’ Call has shrunk by almost a quarter, and the number of those in practice under five years’ Call has shrunk by around a third. Andrew acknowledges that some would say the Bar had got too big, but he is wary about the losses being among the most junior and what that means for our profession in the coming years. Contraction should not signal decline. He is very clear that bright, able people should not be put off or be squeezed out of their chosen career for financial reasons.

He believes, too, that there are things that the Bar can do to make practice in these circumstances less difficult. He gives an example in relation to the now notorious court reform programme: if something could be done to improve the quality of listing decisions, he suggests, so that the fact your case was listed did actually indicate it would be heard, there would be more effective hearings and less working for free. Whilst he is clear that there are some court reform proposals that the Bar Council objects to as hopelessly ill thought-out, he does want the profession to engage with the roadshows and the consultations. He is very aware of the bad press which now surrounds the whole endeavour: ‘If someone had talked to us first, this might not have happened, but the money is being spent and we need to take the initiative.’ He is as concerned as his predecessor about the impact of flexible working on women and others with caring responsibilities, but believes that by engaging with the programme we might be able to engender a better mix of certainty and some genuine flexibility in our working lives. This may make practice more attractive to people who are currently leaving the profession.

As a trustee of the Industry and Parliament Trust, an educational, non-partisan, non-lobbying charity which tries to create dialogue between legislators and business, Andrew believes that continued engagement with parliamentarians is key. He was drawn to the work of the trust having observed his father, who was seconded from the commercial world to the Department of Transport during the Thatcher years. If you show MPs what a business really looks like and how it works, he says, it can only lead to better decision-making when they are next called on to make decisions with real world consequences. Similarly, he believes, the more we talk with those in Parliament about our aims and the reality of life at the Bar, the more understanding will grow: ‘The fat cat branding is going, things have moved on, particularly as MPs have had to deal with people coming to them with essentially legal problems who can’t get legal aid and have to be referred to pro bono organisations.’

Andrew has had the experience of doing several cases with the charity Shelter, and won the Bar Pro Bono Award for his work on one of them. He has fond memories of the case in which a couple of the charity’s clients were facing eviction, having fallen victim to a sale and rent back scheme: ‘It was quite a challenge, and we had to push the legal boundaries, but the outcome gave us all the satisfaction we could have asked for, as is so often the case.’

Pro bono work is clearly something which is important to Andrew, but he understands another economic reality: the more pressure on fees in certain practice areas and the greater the work burdens, the fewer people will have time to do this important work. ‘They need to work for their families, and keep a roof over their own heads… I think the government understands that pro bono is never going to make up for legal aid provision. It can’t and it shouldn’t, and people need to be paid properly for the work that they do.’

His concern is not only that we survive, but that we thrive and continue to regard ourselves as a group of highly skilled professionals, constantly working towards higher standards, rather than just legal functionaries. Whilst very conscious of the problems with legal aid and all that means for access to justice as well as access to the profession, Andrew was also troubled by any hint of de-skilling in his own area: ‘We don’t want juniors simply making a lot of money doing a three-month disclosure exercise, we want them to be in court, honing their advocacy.’

He reflects on his own early days in practice: ‘I started tromping around the county courts doing possession actions, hearings in the winding up court and the motions court. That was great training – what worries me now is that there aren’t now the same kind of opportunities for young barristers. In my day, when you did a possessions list you did plenty of them, one or two a week. You did them with everyone else in the list, watched everyone else doing it, what the judge’s bugbears or pet points were, watched what worked and didn’t work, so could think it through and prepare what to say – that was great training.’ Excellence in advocacy is clearly one of the touchstones of professional pride for many, and Andrew believes that the Bar Council, Inns and individual chambers must do all they can to invest in training and maintain high standards.

As someone with a longstanding involvement in the Bar Council Ethics Committee, standards clearly matter to Andrew. The Bar which he wants to lead and to develop is a place where integrity has real meaning. It’s important for people to understand what their role is and the standards they are required to meet, and he believes that ‘an old-fashioned chat over a cup of tea or glass of wine with a colleague is a good way to think through any sort of problem’. Although keen to harness those technological changes which will help us work better, he is wary of the risk of too much remote working leading to pockets of alienation in the profession. ‘There will always be times when you need to talk face to face with a colleague to work out what’s the best thing to do’ and for Andrew, it’s important to maintain spaces where new entrants can ‘tune in’ and share a ‘common understanding about what it is to be a barrister, a sense of cohesion’, whether in chambers or robing rooms.

The reason that all of this matters, maintaining high standards of ethics, high standards of advocacy, and good training, is because without this, people will lose trust in the legal profession and in the system of justice in this country more generally: ‘There’s no point having a justice system if people don’t have faith in it or don’t have trust in us as professionals.’ Hearteningly, he does not think we will ever see the rise of robot lawyers, because the things that really matter to a life in the law are about human communication and respect. A robot might be able to tell you some actuarial information about your chance of success in a particular area, but you need a highly skilled human being to make judgments about what to do with that information, he suggests. I volunteer that on a bad day, I try to think that if I cannot not make the difference I want to make, I reassure myself that treating people with respect matters in itself. He agrees wholeheartedly with this: ‘That is one of the things a robot could never do as well: the law is all about human frailties after all, and you need humans to understand that and to treat each other with dignity. That’s why standards matter.’

Andrew Walker QC is clearly determined to encourage us to be less robotic, more engaged, more cohesive, and ever more professional: that, he clearly feels, is how we will win the battles ahead.

Contributor Mary Cowe is a barrister at Guildhall Chambers and a member of the Counsel Editorial Board

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Mary Cowe

Mary is a criminal barrister at Guildhall Chambers, Bristol and a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.