Friends, colleagues, competitors – one and the same

With all due respect: are we placing enough value on one other? Andrew Walker QC on why it’s time to reboot collegiality in robing rooms and courts

Individuality, and our independence of both mind and spirit, are among our greatest strengths. They lead us to do great things. At the same time, we have always been collegiate; and some of those great things can be done only by working together. But are we starting to see tensions between individuality and collegiality?

I want to start this column by paying tribute to you – the Bar. One of your greatest achievements is how much you give back, above and beyond the work for which you are paid (however well or poorly). You make a remarkable contribution. Together, we should recognise this, celebrate it, and take satisfaction from it.

Perhaps our most obvious contribution to society is the enormous amount and range of our pro bono work. As I write, I am part way through considering a pile of nominations for this year’s Bar Pro Bono Awards, for which I am one of the judges. It is a real privilege to see how much time and energy so many of us devote to our craft for no recompense, other than the knowledge that we are thereby doing the best we can to secure greater access to justice. The testimonies are humbling, uplifting, and reaffirming.

Less obvious are all of the contributions in other ways. So much comes through my inbox as Chair that I probably have a better view of this than most, and I have genuinely been overawed by how many barristers throw themselves into a myriad of wider activities for the benefit of others. Across our nation and far beyond, barristers take leading roles in essential work to support and protect the lives of others, wherever our knowledge or skills can make a difference. It would be impossible to identify and account for all of this. We devote hours, days, weeks, even months to it; and we manage to do so despite the increasing demands that our careers and lives now place on us.

But there is more to what we give back. Most of us are in competition with each other every day: not just with those in other organisations, but with our colleagues in chambers, with fellow members of our Circuits, Bar associations and Inns, and with those with whom we share robing rooms. We compete every day against our friends. But despite that competition, we devote time every day – thousands of hours every year – to helping each other. We educate and train, we support and guide, and we come together to learn, to share experiences, and to build our practices. We gather to wind down, to celebrate, and to enjoy being part of a profession. Our competitors remain our colleagues and friends.

This is still at the core of what it means to be a barrister. It is reflected in how we organise ourselves, and how we engage with each other every day. Some of it requires a huge commitment, and inevitable compromises in other parts of our lives. And we all give generously: some to a remarkable degree.

It is difficult to overestimate how important this is for the health, success and survival of the Bar. But do we place the value on it that it deserves? Do we recognise it as often as we should? Do we nurture it?

Several different perspectives on this have set me thinking. The first two derive from conversations only this week with members of the Bar.

One told me that she had just finished ‘the saddest care case I think I have ever done’, but that she had been sustained through it all by her colleagues acting for the other parties. In contrast, another told me that he felt that the criminal court robing rooms were no longer as supportive a place as they had been when he started in practice a decade or so ago.

Which is the truer picture? Many have told me that while the robing room is not as supportive an atmosphere as chambers, it is nevertheless helping to fill a gap for those who now rarely spend time in chambers. I hope and believe that my family barrister’s experience is still closer to the norm, but there is a warning for us in my criminal barrister’s disillusionment.

Other perspectives come from the judiciary and the Bar Standards Board. Judges frequently report a rise in rudeness or discourtesy in court. Perhaps judicial views have ever been thus, but are we sure that there is not more to this? Is this even an aspect of bullying and harassment? Similarly, the BSB’s annual report comments that it has again ‘taken successful disciplinary action and imposed administrative sanctions, where barristers’ communications on social media… diminish the trust and confidence which the public places in the profession’.

We should be asking ourselves questions about all this. Do we still see each other as colleagues? Are we still treating each other with the respect that we used to take for granted? Indeed, are we treating everyone with due respect? Can we avoid directing at ourselves (or anyone else) the sort of vitriol, personal attacks, and abuse that are found in some quarters on social media?

I would be deeply disturbed if there were any among us who wanted to answer, ‘No’, to any of those questions, but the evidence suggests that the honest answer may not be the resounding, ‘Yes’, that I think it should be. We know how vigilant we need to be if the rule of law is to thrive. We must exercise the same vigilance over ourselves if the Bar is to thrive. Strong disagreements are inevitable, but we of all people should be able to convey them and discuss them in a measured and civilised way, and to stay friends and respected colleagues all the same. The pressures on many of us continue to grow, but that only makes it even more important to stay true to our ethos. In this respect, what it means to be a barrister in the 21st century should be no different from what it meant in the 20th.

Contributor Andrew Walker QC, Chair of the Bar

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Andrew Walker QC

Chair of the Bar