Gone are the days when the Bar could rely on the fact that judicial office holders were solely drawn from its ranks. The Bar now actively competes with solicitors and other legal practitioners including Fellows of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, members of the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys and the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys and non-practising barristers working in academia or the court service, such as Justices’ clerks. On the Queen’s Counsel Applications (QCA) website, applications are particularly encouraged from solicitors to achieve greater balance. In the context of some tribunal appointments, the Bar faces further competition from non-legal professionals who are able to demonstrate relevant experience.

At a time when people are concerned that the publicly funded Bar may shrink in numbers, many barristers are considering judicial appointments at a much earlier stage of their careers. This has only served to increase further the level of competition.

Not that the Bar has anything to fear from competition. On the contrary, its unswerving emphasis on quality and independence in the pursuit of excellence means that barristers continue to be successful in the various competitions for judicial appointments, notwithstanding the ever widening field of competition. However, since the introduction of the present QC application process there remain certain sectors of the Bar where successful applications for Silk have declined, eg Chancery and Revenue Bar, and others, such as the employed Bar, where applicants still encounter difficulties.

How will mentoring help and why is it the right option for the Bar in 2013? The origins of the word lie in classical antiquity. In Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor, the trusted friend of Odysseus acted, during the latter’s absence at the Trojan War, as tutor and guide to his son Telemachus; it was Mentor’s form that the goddess Athene assumed at several points in the narrative to give advice, making his name synonymous with that of a faithful and wise adviser.

What possible relevance can this have to the Bar today? In modern times mentoring is sometimes derided as a by-product of faceless corporations which is of little relevance to the traditional professions. However, an examination of the purposes and strengths of modern business mentoring reveal a clear link to concepts which strike a real chord with the Bar.

For those that are interested, a quick trawl of the internet reveals that what makes modern mentoring work in business is that it relies on a personal relationship between two people at different stages on the same career path. It involves supporting and encouraging the less experienced person to maximise their potential and develop their skills. It gives the mentored person a more experienced ally who has already excelled in their mutual field of work.

This cannot help but sound familiar to the Bar particularly when considered in the context of pupillage, which is the means by which the Bar has traditionally imparted knowledge and supported new members of the profession. It might be said that the one obvious drawback of this relationship lies in its brevity, of no more than one year.

In business, mentoring is used to give support and help develop career progression for employees who may face barriers because of lifestyle and background. The obvious groups to have benefited from this tend to be women, who may be juggling work with parental and family responsibilities, and minority groups and others who may be the first member of their family to tread a particular career path.

Certain sections of the public still hold to the outdated view that the Bar is a bastion of privilege where people succeed on the basis of contacts made during their time at elite schools and universities. This outdated view persists in the public consciousness despite the fact that each year the Bar Council demonstrates how outdated this is by its vigorous commitment to equality and diversity through various projects which range from forging long term links with pupils at inner city state schools nationwide to its support of the new Bar nursery.

If mentoring is taken seriously by the Bar it is clear that the benefits can be twofold. It can replicate at a later stage of a barrister’s career the strong supportive relationships that pupillage creates; and it can provide support and guidance to encourage all barristers later in their careers, thus furthering the Bar’s commitment to increase diversity in the upper reaches of the profession.

In order to make this confidential service easily accessible throughout the country and to facilitate its evaluation and further development, the service will be run on the Bar Council website. It will be available irrespective of practice area and employed or self-employed status.

Mentors will be asked to provide a brief biography and outline the type of mentoring they can offer. The service will be located on the Bar Council’s website and it is anticipated that different types of mentoring activity will be provided as the service develops, although initially we will focus on those wishing to apply for Silk and judicial appointment. Mentoring for those members of the Bar who are considering entering employed practice will also be a part of the scheme.

Applicants will only have access through the scheme to one mentor for each competition. We expect mentoring will be targeted to particular Silk or judicial appointments competitions, during which time contact will increase.

Mentors and mentees will be aided by the Judicial Appointments Commission, QCA and the Equality and Diversity Committee information evenings which already provide a great deal of general preliminary information detailing when to apply and how to lay the groundwork for such applications. The Bar Council plans to use these information evenings as a means of generating interest in the mentoring scheme and encouraging participants.

It is proposed that a questionnaire will be sent out to participants by the Bar Council once a year to gauge opinion on the scheme and allow feedback on how the different practice areas are faring in the process. Those initially joining the scheme will be made aware that the scheme does not guarantee a successful outcome nor confer any preferential treatment in the application process.

Mentoring is something that most sectors of the Bar are keen to embrace and there are already examples of successful schemes in specialist practice areas, such as that run by the Chancery Bar Association. Its Vice-Chairman Penelope Reed QC observes that “the benefits of mentoring are clear both to the applicant who is able to benefit from the mentor’s many years’ experience, and to the mentor who acquires a greater understanding of the problems faced by different practice areas and experience which can be used to develop competency based examples of their own”.

The Bar Council is now looking for volunteers to act as mentors and as candidates for mentoring.

Any members of the Bar interested in becoming involved should contact Mentoring@BarCouncil.org.uk for further details.  An information evening will be held to encourage mentors to sign up to the scheme in October and further details will be posted on the Bar Council website.

Amanda-Jane Field, Co-Chair of the Employed Barristers’ Committee