I am late for my meeting with the incoming Chair of the Bar. It has been a long day in court. I arrive, out of breath, at his chambers at 23 Essex Street. The locked door and scaffolding tell me I have made a terrible mistake. I check the website. They have moved premises. This is the modern, streamlined Bar in 2021 and none of us are where we started. Expansive buildings have been rendered redundant by the advent of digital working and successive lockdowns. 23ES chambers are now located in Gray’s Inn. I impart this to my taxi driver, explaining why the meeting is important, hoping he will (lawfully) put his foot down. ‘So, this fella you’re meeting, he’s the King of the Barristers, is he?’ I stare at the Holborn traffic, willing it to move. The driver continues, ‘Shame you’re going to be so late.’

Mark Fenhalls QC is too polite to mention my tardiness. Or the fact that my heel gets caught in the quaint wooden flooring of the charming building they now call home. He does not mention my gurgling stomach – I skipped lunch due to my hectic day in court – but does throw me a sideward glance when we talk about wellbeing.

‘Please, just call me Mark’ is an old-school gent with modern ideas. He is taking the reins after a year no one will forget. I ask for his one ambition for his tenure ahead. Without pausing, he quips ‘a quiet year that no one will remember’. I sense he is only half joking.

The profession feels restless. The job feels relentless. We are all missing more than lunch. The rank and file are increasingly turning to their leadership for direction, encouragement, representation and more. This is not a time for beginners. Fortunately for us, Mark is no amateur at Bar leadership. I remind him he is about to ‘do the triple’ and immediately regret it. I have just made the Chair of the Bar sound like a cheeseburger. Or a football manager. Fortunately, Mark laughs along. First, he led a specialist practice area (Criminal Bar Association, 2015-6), then a Circuit (South Eastern, 2019-20), and now the entire Bar (he starts in January 2022). He did it all while building a heavyweight criminal practice – taking silk by the age of 45. I pluck up the courage to remind Mark that, for the uncharitable robing room sceptics, there is often a lurking feeling that our leaders do not wish to rock the boat for fear of disrupting their own quest for a judicial dressing gown. Mark grins: ‘I failed the Recorder exam!’ I detect no immediate judicial ambition; only self-effacing humour. I, for one, am just relieved he failed at something.

So, what then, motivates a barrister to take on successive leadership positions? The answer came slowly but strongly throughout our interview. Mark speaks of the profession with genuine warmth, pride and affection. He loves this job. To him, the Bar is ‘truly precious, a national asset’. He notes it has taken decades to reach where we are but – he adds cautiously – it could very quickly be torn back down. Mark is particularly proud of how the profession rallied and made it through the lockdowns. He is worried about welfare, concerned about attrition and determined that the profession build back with resilience and realism in the new landscape we face. I ask what he would have been if he had not been a barrister. This is a question I thought we all asked ourselves from time to time, particularly during the last year. Not Mark. He is stumped. I ignore the only awkward silence in our interview and wonder, perhaps, if some of us are simply meant to do this job after all.

Mark is frank about the changing culture of chambers post-lockdown and in the digital age. He acknowledges there are issues around supporting juniors who have suddenly found themselves performing advocacy in their living rooms. He remembers his time at the junior Bar for its community and camaraderie. His chambers has a dedicated social ‘hub’ room – no doubt an effort to recreate the ‘variety and wisdom’ of passing colleagues that Mark identifies as being crucial to a junior with a problem to share. But he knows we need more. Mark moots more formal structures of support: vertical mentorship groups that traverse call bands in chambers and provide breadth of experience. Someone a junior can always call upon. Mark notes that the collegiate Bar of the future will be less spontaneous and will need ‘thought and effort and planning’ to support new recruits in a digital, post-lockdown age while retaining the finest traditions of the past.

I ask Mark about the discrimination, harassment and bullying that still persist in the chambers, courtrooms and corridors of our profession. He surprises me by candidly acknowledging his limitations as a ‘well-meaning white bloke’ who does not have direct experience of many of these issues. He understands he is often in the majority, shielded by his own characteristics from first-hand discrimination at the Bar. He genuinely wants to know the problems, understand the issues and learn from the experiences others face daily – but, crucially, I do not sense he wishes to burden those in the minority with figuring out the solutions. He discusses thoughtfully the attrition rate of women at the Bar. He notes, frankly, the underrepresentation of those joining and remaining in the profession from minority backgrounds. I find it a refreshing, self-aware approach and am heartened by it. On these points, his actions speak louder than his words. Mark has been a Trustee with Kalisher since 2016 – an organisation leading the way in diversity, social mobility and sustainability at entry level to the Criminal Bar. His core aim is to attract ‘the widest possible range of talent into the profession’.

Mark is acutely aware of the ‘difficult early years’ of publicly funded work and the brutal earnings curve that juniors need to traverse to succeed. His ambition is for an ‘earnings path’ that creates ‘a sustainable and diverse profession’ for all – without the steep early climb and the various ceilings that practitioners hit along the way. But, for Mark, it is not all about the money. ‘What is fundamentally undermining the Bar right now, and hollowing us out from underneath, is that the trade off – the reward for the grief – has been eroded’. What I think he means is that the chaos of the job is often simply not worth it. He singles out ‘corrosive’ listing arrangements which can make an advocate feel like they do not have control or autonomy over their work. He highlights changes required to ‘culture’ and a return to ‘the pleasure of doing the job’. He, unashamedly, sees real importance in barristers enjoying – and thriving – in their work.

I have long believed you can divide the good and the bad eggs of the Bar by asking one question – ‘what was your most embarrassing moment in court?’ Too many barristers have an ‘embarrassing’ tale where, in fact, they emerge as the hero. Mark, however, understands the assignment. He tells me of when he was a junior barrister and mobile telephones had first become widespread. He gestures in a way that suggests to me that his first mobile phone was roughly the size of a house brick. He kept it, he tells me proudly, in his inside suit pocket. It seems a younger Mark Fenhalls did not quite know how to silence his new toy because, while on his feet in an echoey open court, it began to ring. ‘It was just so loud,’ he is re-living the moment now, shaking his head, ‘so loud’. I picture a crusty old courtroom silenced by the shrill ringing of a comedy-sized phone. I am not sure if you have ever seen a barrister try to tear a mobile phone in half using only his bare hands – but this is what I am imagining. ‘I reached into my interior pocket to quickly turn it off but ended up ripping the entire pocket and suit lining out.’ This struck me as a spectacular way to answer the phone. ‘The judge said, “That’ll teach you.” And it did’. I note that Mark’s 2021 phone has not so much as beeped since I arrived.

I ask Mark what he would like his legacy to be when he looks back on his time as Chair. He repeats, serious now, that he would like the profession to have a quiet year. ‘I am really, really worried about all our staff and the resilience and welfare of individuals,’ he notes. ‘We need some peace and some space.’ He wants us to draw breath, for us to remember why we joined the profession and to somehow find room for the ‘fun of the job’ to return again. I ask him if he thinks he will succeed: ‘I am a ludicrous optimist,’ he tells me as we finish our interview.

I know the profession will join me in extending a very warm welcome to Mark Fenhalls QC who becomes Chair of the Bar in 2022.