Celebrating the freedom of the Bar

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David Wurtzel interviews the incoming Chairman of the Bar, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC

The 2016 Chairman of the Bar, Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, came to the profession slightly by accident. 


While at Cambridge, where she read history and became President of the Union, she went to meet a friend at a party which happened to have been organised by Middle Temple. There the future Lord Justice of Appeal Rupert Jackson ‘enthusiastically told me about the Bar and that I should consider it’. What attracted her then and now was ‘the independence, the freedom the job offers, the advocacy and the intellectual challenge’. ‘Freedom’ is a word she often uses and the opportunity to do advocacy is to her crucial. ‘I really enjoy the freedom of the Bar and the flexibility and the freedom to speak my mind.’ The Bench has never tempted her. After doing the conversion course and the BVC with the help of a Middle Temple scholarship she went for a pupillage interview, ‘liked the chambers and never really looked back’.

What lay in the future for her was to become a leading practitioner in the field of construction, engineering and infrastructure projects, particularly those with an international aspect. She took Silk at 39 in 2008. Suitably she has been Chairman of TECBAR and of the Bar Council International Committee. The latter was especially appropriate: she grew up in England, Germany and the United States; she attended the University of Pennsylvania for a year before Cambridge; she is half-American; and her first names are a reflection of her parents’ Francophilia.

We met in November in her chambers in Atkin Building, which has recently expanded their premises. At a time when the minimum award for pupillage is £12,000 and not always affordable by some chambers, Atkin Chambers pays their pupils the highest stipend at the Bar, £72,500 per year. This puts the pupil towards the top of any UK earnings chart. All 13 of the members under 10 years’ Call have degrees from Oxford or Cambridge. This mirrors the overall picture of the very junior Bar where 45% went to Oxford or Cambridge and 41% have Firsts.

Whatever the financial contrasts, there is no doubting Chantal’s commitment to ‘one Bar’; ‘what binds us together as a profession is still there’. She has taken part in and enthusiastically supports outreach programmes to school children from ‘more challenging backgrounds’ and to those who attend other universities. I suggested that since chambers are sovereign in whom and how many they recruit, the Bar perhaps is exactly where it has chosen to be. She admits that it is difficult to make large changes when recruitment is by individual chambers who might only take on one or two pupils. She noted the practice of some big law firms who take different ways of assessing the application in the crucial first sift. ‘I am always open to ideas about what we can do to improve access.’

As it happened, the weeks preceding our meeting were full of news items about women at the Bar. Chantal took part in one of the focus groups which fed into the recent and anecdotal Snapshot: The experience of self-employed women at the Bar. ‘The only way to change our profession is if all of us understand the issue and choose to make the changes which are necessary,’ Chantal told me. I pointed out that the discussion following Snapshot had not included the Bar Council’s own (and more statistically significant) Barristers’ Working Lives which had asked respondents whether in the previous two years (2011-13) they had experienced or witnessed bullying, harassment or discrimination. Nine percent replied that they had so experienced it – 28% of those with main childcare responsibilities – and 11% had observed it, the figures being twice as high for BME than for white barristers. Re-reading the Foreword of Snapshot one sees the reassurance that when, say, the recent participants spoke of past inappropriate behaviour or of certain briefs going to male tenants they had not been motivated by criticism of their colleagues or the profession as a whole. Crucially, ‘they loved their jobs and the profession’ and ‘wanted to highlight what has been achieved’. And so we move on.

Chantal insisted that the Bar has come along by ‘leaps and bounds’. The concerns now were about career progression and retention ‘rather than stories of 40 or 50 years ago’. The Bar Council wants ‘to open a conversation’ about it. But, I asked, in a profession where people are discouraged to complain about another barrister (and Snapshot noted that younger women found it intimidating to challenge chambers decisions on policy matters), would people come forward? Chantal said she certainly hoped that they would. She recognises that this is more difficult when you are more junior and suggested that one method would be to have a senior person from other chambers as a mentor and who could act as a spokesman say for child care issues on their behalf. She herself is a keen mentor and strongly favours mentoring throughout one’s career, not just at the key points of entry and applying for Silk. Her own chambers has a generous parental leave policy for the principal carer (up to two years and six months per child without rent and tenants have taken advantage of it) and there is a policy for non-principal carers for a shorter period which male tenants have used. She did not know how many other chambers are so generous. The Equality and Diversity Committee wants them to be, and she backs them up. ‘We need to do more’ to attract women and to keep them, Chantal said. Since there is so much concern about the effect of fee cuts on retention, I noted that one had not yet seen a full-scale exit survey dealing with who, how many and most important, why someone has left the Bar. Chantal conceded that obtaining data on ‘why’ was the most problematic.

Chantal is a great supporter of the traditional chambers system as ‘an incredibly modern structure’ which allows for centres of excellence. ‘It allows people to develop in a particular field in a cost effective manner and offer their services in cases where those services are required. Chambers structure will survive. The Bar has survived because of the excellence of what it provides and because it was flexible.’ But barristers are also allowed now to form alternative business structures (ABSs) and entities, due to rules changes by the Bar Standards Board and endorsed by the report of Sir Bill Jeffrey. Was the leadership of the Bar neutral on this subject or did they have a view?

When speaking at the Australian Bar Conference in Boston in July, 2015’s Chairman, Alistair MacDonald QC spoke out, questioning ABSs, calling them part of the Government’s ‘insatiable appetite to tinker with institutions without fully appreciating the effects of their actions’. The Rivlin Report similarly argued the case against ABSs for criminal sets. So was the Bar now opposed to ABSs as such? Chantal declined to comment on what others have said, but the Bar Council does have two full-time employed Relationship Managers who talk to chambers about a host of matters including ABSs. She thinks a ‘relatively small number’ will be interested in doing business differently.

Nevertheless the criminal Bar faces an uncertain future following fee cuts and the influx of solicitor advocates into the higher courts. Since many now concede that there are under-performing advocates in the crown courts, I asked about the prospects of a criteria-based ‘weeding out mechanism’. That of course had been the purpose of QASA when proposed by Chantal’s predecessor Nick Green as a means of benefiting the Bar. The criminal Bar rejected that and last year the Supreme Court (as had the Divisional Court and Court of Appeal) declared that the scheme was lawful. Chantal accepts the decision of the Supreme Court but says, ‘We’ll have to see what the profession’s approach is going forward’ when QASA as planned is rolled out. She leaves it to each individual practitioner to abide by their code of ethics.

That leads on to the other ongoing project, of training advocates to deal with vulnerable witnesses and defendants. The criminal Bar had opposed ‘ticketing’, that is, accrediting only those who are found competent to do this work. That was endorsed more recently by the Rivlin Report which insisted that anyone who takes such a training course must be deemed to pass by attending it. Where did that leave us in terms of easing out the under-performers? Chantal expressed her confidence in the Rook Working Party (set up at the initiative of the Advocacy Training Council) which is reaching the end of its work of devising such a course. ‘That will be a successful scheme for ensuring consistency.’

Having dealt with specific issues I asked more generally what Chantal wants to do as Chairman. ‘I want to increase the profile of the profession beyond its own borders, greater awareness of what the profession does in the justice system.’ She wants to collate information about the many good things that barristers do, such as Pro Bono and charitable activities. ‘It’s about engagement.’ She would like there to be a representative in each chambers who is the link with Bar Council. Such a person would quickly discover how much the Bar Council does, and can get that message out and find out what the profession wants the Bar Council to do.

Many of these aims have been sought by her predecessors. Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC sets about her task with just the sort of determination and optimism which the job requires.

Contributor David Wurtzel is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.