One very real problem for the Bar continues to be the perception – or reality – of it being a closed shop; somewhere only those with relatives in the profession or the right school connections dare venture because attempting to do so without those necessary links will only result in disappointment. It is one potential reason why Black and Minority Ethnic practitioners are more likely to be sole practitioners than their White British colleagues.

At St John’s Buildings we recognised that the lack of publicly available information about chambers could be a major inhibitor of diversity. If those who are not from a professional or legal background – in particular, those who do not have family ‘in the business’ and therefore have nobody to talk to about it – cannot find out anything about a particular barrister’s chambers, how do they go about taking the first step to joining?

In an industry that is historically dominated by white, middle-class, professional males, breaking through can appear impossible for anyone who does not fit the mould. (I am generalising to make the point, but those who say times have changed only need look at the latest diversity statistics provided by the Bar Standards Board to know we still have more to do.)

While the Bar has very much improved its approach to recruitment and access, a quick look across the top sets in each city shows a lack of information about what each set actually provides by way of services to its members and what it charges in return for those services, both in entry fees to the set and in ongoing expenses (also known as ‘rent’). These are basic questions for anyone considering a new chambers. Where chambers do have information available, it tends to be opaque at best and reserved for pupillage brochures that necessarily focus on life at the Bar for a pupil and not an experienced professional.

The only real way to find out what a chambers charges, what its ethos is, what services are provided, what work is available and how to go about joining a set is to speak to one of the members of that set. If you don’t know a member of the set, you don’t have that insight. If you do, your view of the chambers is then shaped entirely by the view or experience of that individual, whether good, bad or indifferent.

Why isn’t anyone talking?

This lack of information was not driven by any deliberate determination to run a closed shop. It was instead driven by an inherent distrust of other sets. There is a genuine management concern that robing rooms would be full of chatter about what a barrister pays for his or her chambers and that creates a risk that you become the benchmark for expenses, below which all other chambers readily bid for your best barristers.

How can the profession encourage those conversations? While that risk is real, we decided to step back and reconsider. We were proud of the quality and variety of service we provide to our members for the fees they paid. We were proud of our reputation at the Bar, our quality of work and that we had grown to be the largest chambers in the North. We were confident Chambers represented real value for money. If we were not willing to take a lead on opening up the shop, then why would anyone else?

The first members’ prospectus

Therefore, we decided at board level that we would produce a chambers’ prospectus. Unlike a pupillage prospectus, this would set out clearly some of the key factors when choosing a chambers as an experienced professional:

  • How much does it cost to join and where does that money go?
  • What do you pay in chambers’ expenses?
  • What do you get for that money (a room, stationery, online library, IT support etc)?
  • What is chambers’ approach to diversity, inclusion and equality?
  • What is the ethos of the set and what are its values?
  • What is the management structure and who leads the chambers, both as barristers and staff?
  • What work does the chambers/its members do?
  • What are the facilities like, where are they and what can they provide to members?
  • How will my career ambitions be supported?
  • How do you apply?

While chambers may have information about some of these topics on their website, we could find no example of an established chambers talking openly about all of these subjects and, in particular, the issue of cost.

Not without controversy

Going public about what joining costs and ongoing chambers expenses means you can be undercut or dismissed before anyone even considers how they might fund the investment in the early days of membership or what they receive in return for that investment. However, we determined that it was right to publicise this to those who have no other way of finding it out, that it was right to encourage such conversations, not only with barristers in other sets in our geographic areas, but also those considering leaving London after the pandemic and solicitor and in-house advocates considering a move to the independent Bar.

Our first prospectus was launched in July, publicised widely on our Twitter feed to our 4,900+ followers and sits proudly on the Join Us page of our website.

We have been pleasantly surprised by the reaction. The anticipated negative robing room chatter has not materialised. Instead, we have received positive feedback and encouragement from others at the Bar, with several barristers from other sets confirming that they agree that this is the future of barrister recruitment and praising our open and inclusive approach.

Much like the early days of the pupillage prospectus, where only one or two sets openly courted the very best pupillage candidates, we anticipate chambers’ prospectuses being the norm in five years’ time, with potential new recruits able to research and compare chambers without the need to know someone in the sets in question.

For that to happen, and for it to have a positive impact on diversity at the Bar, chambers need to rethink how candidates get their information. If those with no historic attachment to the chambers cannot find out about the set, then perhaps a publicly available prospectus is the solution.

The next phase

We are by no means perfect and neither is our first prospectus. We know we still have much to do on diversity, recruitment and transparency. Our intention is to continue to expand the information available in our prospectus, to include key diversity statistics, recruitment and pupillage outcomes, further case studies, more staff profiles and even income and caseload statistics. We are delighted to see that the same conversation has now started in other sets.