Diversification

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Richard Atkins QC on why it’s never too late to diversify – particularly with a barrister’s skillset

In 2011, at the second time of asking, I took Silk. 


I am a criminal and regulatory practitioner and as a junior I had been fortunate enough to have been led in a number of cases by a variety of Queen’s Counsel, all at the top of their game. I had decided to throw my hat in the ring to see if I too could make it playing with ‘the big boys and girls’. I doubt that there is any applicant for Silk who does not worry about what success might mean for their practice. Whilst one might be at the top of one’s game as a junior, the question as to whether it will translate into success at the next level is never far from one’s mind. For me there was an added problem; as the result of a misunderstanding, thankfully now resolved, one of my major sources of work dried up just after I took Silk.

So there I was, a new Silk, 44 years of age, with two children, and a wife who likes expensive shoes, trying to establish myself. Silk certificates for publicly funded defence cases in 2011 seemed to be rarer than hens’ teeth, and my local CPS was at that time keeping a large proportion of work in-house. How was I going to survive? My two best mates at the Bar had both gone to the Bench and were telling me that there was really no future in Silk, and that I should be applying for the Bench. But I had taken Silk to be a practising Silk, not to go to the Bench. I am not for a moment knocking those who do go to the Bench (I thoroughly enjoy sitting as a Recorder) but I was not then and am still not now ready to seek an appointment.

It was one of my clerks who threw me a lifeline. Start reading the ‘appointments section’ in the newspaper, he advised. This was not something I had ever looked at. Indeed, the most use the appointments section in The Sunday Times had ever previously been was when I used it to help light the fire in my sitting room. Counsel's ‘Recruitment & Announcements’ section is another place to look, he told me. That was something I was aware of, but had always dismissed the idea of applying for the position of Senior Magistrate for the Falkland Islands as being too far away to get back to Birmingham for my Sunday lunch. What I had not appreciated was the range of posts available to those possessing the skills necessary to make a success of a career at the Bar, which can be undertaken alongside maintaining a career at the Bar.

Seeking out opportunities

Many disciplinary bodies seek members of the Bar either as legal advisers or as panel members, such as the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants Regulatory Board, the General Chiropractic Council, the General Dental Council, the General Medical Council, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority, Lloyds Enforcement Board, and the Financial Reporting Council. They do not always have vacancies so a sharp eye is needed to spot when they come around. Recently The Sunday Times carried an advertisement for an Audit Panel Chair (£13,500 fixed fee for 32 days annual commitment) and Members (£300 per day, 12 day annual commitment plus reasonable expenses) for the Mayor of London Office for Policing and Crime Audit Panel. These are just some of the possibilities.

Another option is to seek appointment as a non-Executive member of a Board. Again, these posts are often advertised and many are remunerated. Some of the advertisements make clear that the process is being controlled by an independent agency. They are often instructed by a variety of bodies, so if this sort of post interests you, then it may well be worthwhile making contact with the agency to indicate your interest in this sector.

The other option, of course, is to seek a part-time judicial appointment. The Judicial Appointments Commission website lists its current competitions. Recent competitions have included: Deputy District Judge (Magistrates’ Court); Authorisation to act as a Judge of the High Court (s 9(1)); Fee-paid Deputy Chairman of the Copyright Tribunal; Fee-paid Valuer Chairman of the First-tier Tribunal, Property Chamber, Residential Property; Fee-paid Valuer Member of the First-tier Tribunal, Property Chamber, Residential Property. Competition for these posts can be fierce, so if you are interested it is well worth planning now for any future competition.

Throwing hats in the ring

So, what did I do? I applied for a raft of posts having scoured the newspapers, websites and Counsel magazine. Rather like applying for Silk, you must be prepared for the knock-backs. However good you might think you are, that view may not be shared by those you are applying to. If you do fail to get appointed it is well worth while asking for feedback. Some will be good, some will be dreadful. I am still struggling to understand how I failed to get one appointment, the feedback being that I did not explain how I would handle the larger cases, when a large proportion of the interview had been about how I had prosecuted an 11 defendant case where the first trial lasted for three months and the second trial cracked. Sometimes it may simply be the case that your face does not fit.

It may also be worth your while seeking assistance from a career coach to give you assistance in drafting your application or in honing your interview technique. Members of the Bar are, on the whole, not very good at selling themselves. The last time you had an interview may have been when you were applying for pupillage, so being put through one’s paces is no bad thing. On this topic I am afraid I have a shameful admission to make: my wife is a career coach. I, of course, thought I knew better and did not initially seek her assistance. It was only after a number of rejections that I eventually swallowed my pride and sought her assistance; she had after all helped a number of my colleagues with Silk and judicial applications. Her advice and assistance was worth its weight in gold.

Rewarding strands

I already sat as a Recorder, but as a result of the various applications I made in and around 2012 I am now also: a tutor judge for the Judicial College, training Recorders and judges; I sit as a Restricted Patient’s Panel Fee-paid Judge of the First Tier Tribunal (Health Education and Social Care Chamber) in the Mental Health jurisdiction; and am also a Disciplinary Tribunal Chairman for the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), dealing with accountants and actuaries. Each of the roles is fascinating. As a Recorder I normally sit alone, although I occasionally sit with magistrates to hear appeals from the magistrates’ court. As a tutor judge I get to meet other Recorders and judges and pick up tips as to how they approach their roles, with the distinct advantage of always having the answers to the questions in my back pocket! As a fee-paid Mental Health Tribunal judge I sit with a psychiatrist and a specialist lay member; and as an FRC chair I sit with an accountant or an actuary and a lay member.

At the age of 45, therefore, I was forced to diversify to enable me to continue practising at the Bar. Each of the part-time roles is different and each is rewarding. Now, five years on I have a new problem to solve. I have (I hope) overcome the initial difficulties in establishing myself as a Silk (although others will ultimately make that judgment). My diary looks healthy with prosecution and defence trials booked well into next year. My unpaid role as Circuit Leader takes up a considerable amount of my time. The big question now is, how do I find the time to fulfil the obligations I have to my part-time roles? It is to be honest a nice position to be in, given where I started from. I must confess to thinking that I am one of the luckiest people alive. I am fortunate enough to be able to do a job I love. By diversifying I have been able to remain in practice at the Bar. I urge those of you not yet ready to jump ship to a full-time post, but who may find there are times when you may be struggling, to look outside the box. There are plenty of opportunities out there, don’t be afraid to go out and try to grab them. It worked for me.

Contributor Richard Atkins QC is Leader of the Midland Circuit (amongst a multitude of other posts)

Struggling but not ready to jump ship?

  • Start by scouring the newspapers’ appointment sections and Counsel’sRecruitment & Announcements’. There are a range of part-time posts available to those possessing a barrister’s skillset.
  • Look out for disciplinary bodies seeking members of the Bar either as part-time legal advisers or as panel members. Or apply to become a non-Executive member of a Board. The recruitment process for some of these roles might be controlled by an independent agency (which are often instructed by a variety of bodies). If a post intrigues you, make contact with the agency to indicate your interest in this sector.
  • Check the part-time judicial appointments on the Judicial Appointments Commission website.
  • Be prepared for knock-backs: if you fail to get appointed, ask for feedback.
  • Don’t hold back seeking help: consider seeking assistance from a career coach in drafting your application or in honing your interview technique. Being put through your paces and learning to sell yourself better is no bad thing.
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Richard Atkins QC

Richard Atkins QC, Chair of the Bar