Every January, a new Chair steps forward to lead the Bar Council’s Young Barristers’ Committee (YBC). This year I have the privilege of being in this position and I take the reins in full recognition of my responsibility to represent the junior members of our profession who are so important for its future. I am very conscious of the amount of work we must do to fulfil our commitment to them, and I am very pleased to be working with Mike Harwood as my Vice Chair on this mission.

The YBC has an ostensibly simple task: to represent and promote the interests of the young Bar (pupils and new practitioners within seven years’ post-pupillage). To do so effectively, it is critical that we properly identify the key interests and concerns of the Young Bar, and ensure they are reflected in wider Bar Council policy development and support. To this end we will need the help of young barristers; we need to hear their voices and views about what they need to succeed in this sometimes difficult, but wonderful profession. We will be asking the Young Bar to meet with us and to share their ideas as to how we can make things better.

The Young Bar is the future of the profession. We believe it is essential that the experience of new practitioners and pupils is properly understood, and that young barristers’ voices are heard and acted upon. The YBC has already started to take stock of the experiences and challenges for young barristers. The Life at the Young Bar report – commissioned by my predecessors, Katherine Duncan (2019 Chair) and Joanne Kane (2020 Chair) – has been published. I am grateful to them for this fantastic foundation on which we can focus the YBC’s work. This important research not only provides a helpful snapshot of the profile of the Young Bar – what a ‘young’ barrister looks like in terms of age and background – but it also reveals where and how we practise, our experience of the profession and our aspirations for our careers along with addressing the changing nature of life at the Bar and both the pressures and opportunities that this creates.

We are all aware that we need to modernise the ways that the Bar operates. Our culture, working practices, and wellbeing must be key themes of the Young Bar’s work over the coming year.

We know, too, that the last few years have been hugely challenging for all practitioners – but particularly new practitioners, and those working in crime. It is not overstating the situation to say that the young criminal Bar is in crisis. The recently published Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid acknowledged the challenges faced by the Young Bar; fees for Magistrates’ Court and Youth Court work have not kept pace with inflation and can no longer be justified for the amount of work such cases require. Fees for the publicly funded Crown Court work undertaken by junior members of the criminal Bar are similarly poor. If unchecked, this will continue to impact on retention at the junior end of the Bar and result in the haemorrhaging of talent to other professions.

Added to this, across all practice areas and for every young barrister who makes it through the arduous pupillage process, the lost opportunities due to COVID-19 to observe, learn, build professional networks, and secure the support necessary to flourish at the Bar must be addressed.

With all this front and centre, I could argue that the YBC’s agenda almost writes itself! If I may, I will set out my key pledges here.

My top priority is ensuring the unique experience of the Young Bar is heard within and alongside the voice of the wider Bar. This is particularly important when it comes to discussions with the government over barristers’ remuneration and access to justice, and the state of disrepair into which the court estate has fallen. The Young Bar must be considered when it comes to government decision-making; we are the future of the profession and a valuable national asset in promoting justice and the rule of law. This is a reason why business and individuals see the United Kingdom as a place to come to, somewhere they can prosper and where they will be treated fairly if any legal matter arises. The Young Bar should be celebrated and promoted by the government and the justice system protected, its immense value far outweighing the damage caused by general underfunding and measly cost-saving measures.

Secondly, I will campaign to modernise practice with a focus on fair and equitable distribution of work and income monitoring, encouraging effective practice reviews and mentoring, promoting healthy working practices, tackling bullying and harassment, as well as listing practices and the use of technology and online hearings where appropriate.

Thirdly, I will promote all areas of the Young Bar, both within this jurisdiction and internationally where new and exciting opportunities can be found.

To achieve these aims we need a strong, representative committee of young barristers. This leads me to my final agenda item for 2022 – I am committed to ensuring the Bar Council’s Young Barristers’ Committee looks after the interests of the whole community of new practitioners, including pupils. To do this we need good people in the first seven years of their practice, from all practice areas, and all areas of England and Wales to come forward and join us – so please look out for adverts from the Bar Council to join the committee!

The Life at the Young Bar report confirms what many of us knew – that diversity remains a challenge. While the Bar is becoming more diverse, it must recognise that it still must do more to convince those from ethnic minority backgrounds and state schools that a career at the Bar is for them. The Bar Council’s Snapshot Report, Race at the Bar, was a strong first step, but it must be seen as a launch pad for work in this area, not a reason to rest on our laurels. A higher proportion of the Young Bar declare a disability; this must be considered to ensure allowances are provided for those in practice. The Young Barristers’ Committee will be undertaking work and mentoring with young people who may not currently see the Bar as a profession to which they can aspire, in the hope of promoting a vibrant Young Bar, when we no longer fit the description.

Of course, the Young Barristers’ Committee and Bar Council cannot do all of this on our own. Improving the experience of young barristers also lies in the hands of those who are at the coalface, who are a part of the profession day in, day out. Chambers, employers, the Inns, the Specialist Bar Associations, Circuit representatives, the Regulator (Bar Standards Board) and individual practitioners all have their part to play. But responsibility also lies outside the profession – with judges and court staff in their treatment of junior counsel, and with solicitors and major clients. We commit this year to work closely with all those who have an interest in making sure we provide the best possible opportunity for new barristers to survive and thrive in our profession.

Finally, I invite you to contact us at ybc@barcouncil.org.uk to let us know how we can best achieve the above aims and if there are any specific factors that may be preventing you from achieving your potential at the Bar. By working together in our common interest, we can support and champion the Young Bar and build a stronger, fairer, and more dynamic Bar for the future.

I look forward to working with you all over the next 12 months to reach this goal. 

The Bar Council’s Young Barristers’ Committee represents the interests of barristers in their first seven years of practice. Life at the Young Bar, important research into our working lives, has recently been published. The Committee also produces the Insider Guide to Life at the Bar which aims to help new practitioners to get their careers on track as quickly as possible. To find out more about the Young Barristers’ Committee, get involved or comment on its campaigns and activity, please email: smcmillan@barcouncil.org.uk