Over the last two years, practice development at the junior Bar has been a growing priority for the Young Barristers’ Committee (YBC) of the Bar Council. As Chair, I addressed a Bar Council meeting in January where I highlighted a number of findings in this area, drawing in particular on the statistical and anecdotal evidence provided by the Life at the Young Bar report, published in 2022. The data collected concerning practice development was revealing.

Fewer young barristers than at the Bar overall reported that their workload was manageable or felt that they had significant control over the content and pace of their work. Many reported feeling that they were allocated too much work, which meant that they had to work exceptional hours to prepare and deliver it, inevitably including late evening and weekend working hours. While some of the more experienced juniors had found ways to ameliorate the situation, many of the less-experienced participants had not, seemingly because:

  1. they were fearful of the consequences of saying ‘no’ as that could potentially impact adversely on future work allocation and hence their earnings, and perhaps their subsequent progression;
  2. they did not have sufficiently strong relationships with clerks and others in chambers to be able to assert their needs for preparation time or personal time (including annual leave); and/or
  3. they believed that this was the prevailing culture, promulgated (in part) by senior barristers who had themselves endured this type of overwork when they were younger.

Only half of the young barristers surveyed reported that they had a formal practice review with a senior colleague or manager once a year or more, with 29% suggesting that they had one less frequently. Most concerning was that 21% had never had a practice review at all. Overall, many of those surveyed sought more senior role models with good work-life balance and better working relationships with their clerks. Some hoped the Bar Council would play a role by showcasing examples of good work-life balance and providing more developmental support to help young barristers assert their desire for more balance in their working lives.

I was pleased therefore that the YBC was given the opportunity earlier this year to work with the Bar Council on the development of its Practice Review Guide for Barristers and Clerks, published in June. The guide, which was also developed with the input of the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks (IBC) and the Legal Practice Management Association (LPMA), has been sent to all chambers. It sets out the core principles and benefits of practice management and suggests practical ways to get the most out of a review process, and also includes a useful template for discussions between barristers and their clerks, which can be adapted to suit individual needs. The guidance it provides – or indeed the requirement to hold a practice review at all – is by no means mandatory, but it is hoped that it will provide a prompt for those looking to take more control over the direction of their practice.

The ‘what, when and how’

In that spirit, here follows a brief overview of the ‘what, when, and how’ of practice reviews.

It is never too early to start thinking about holding a practice review. The early months and years of practice can seem like a busy time for barristers and their clerks, into which finding time to prepare for and hold a practice review might be seen as an avoidable luxury. But this time and effort should be seen as much an investment in barristers’ practice as doing the work itself. The guide recommends that newly qualified barristers initially hold reviews quarterly, and twice a year thereafter. For established practitioners, a single review meeting per year may suffice. These timings should not be treated prescriptively, however, and the frequency and/or duration of the review period should be covered right at the start of the process, to best reflect the needs and aspirations of the barrister, the nature of their practice and the working dynamic with their clerks.

Preparation is key to getting the most out of the review. This will include generating a record of work done over the review period, and the guide suggests including a list of the top five or ten most frequently instructing clients, along with any feedback received from those or any other clients. Financial information including a breakdown of payments received versus aged debt is essential as this will quickly identify any areas of concern, as well as a CPD and business development record. The guide further suggests creating what it calls an ‘opportunity report’ detailing allocated work, unallocated work where the barrister was listed, work offered, work accepted or declined and the reason given, and any led work.

Crucially, given the concerns raised across the profession regarding the disparity of work allocation, a cohort comparator should be prepared to see where the barrister is against their peers. This is particularly important for those in their early years or returning to the profession after a period away. To help with this, the Bar Council’s Monitoring Work Distribution toolkits focusing on sex and race have now been combined into a new edition, called the Earnings Monitoring Toolkit.

The substance of the review should be equal parts forward- and backward-facing. Allocation, financial information and feedback will help both barrister and clerk assess how the practice is developing and identify any gaps. The conversation should pivot to short- and medium-term goals, and how they can be achieved by reference to maximising existing and new work opportunities, and business development – the guide recommends setting one or two goals that can be achieved within the review period (i.e., the next six months).

Discussions around wellbeing are also a must, including reference to support for work-life balance, any planned periods of leave, and ways of working. Ultimately this and all other aspects of the review can be improved immeasurably by cultivating a secure and open forum in which barrister and clerk can share their views, aspirations or concerns – making relationship-building a key priority for both throughout.

The guide also provides more specific help to those looking at reviews to support barristers who are returning from a break, and to those applying for silk. The Bar Council’s data consistently shows that, where these milestones occur, any parity in diversity metrics can become very skewed, particularly in relation to gender and race. This emphasises the importance of thorough reviews at these stages. The guide also identifies questions and considerations that should be incorporated into the reviews of barristers with disabilities; they represent another group that has regrettably found opportunities for progression less forthcoming than their peers.

For my part, working on the creation of the guidance and undertaking wider work with the YBC on practice development has allowed me to reflect on my own experiences. While I am by no means a ‘fresh out the box’ junior barrister, my recent move from employed practice into chambers means I am tackling many of these questions anew and, one year in, I am for the first time taking a proper step back and thinking about the direction I would like my practice to go over the coming years. I have a good working relationship with my clerks (and I hope they would agree!), involving regular less formal ‘check-ins’. But the time for a more formal review is fast approaching, for which I will be looking to this new guidance to set a framework.

Ultimately, the ‘what, when and how’ of practice reviews will be for chambers, barristers and clerks to determine – and rightly so, as no two practices in our diverse and varied profession are (or mean to be) the same. Nonetheless, I have found the Practice Review Guide to be a welcome resource for answering the many important questions barristers and clerks may feel they have too little capacity to consider. What I hope the majority of the profession can agree on when it comes to practice management is the ‘why’, and as working practices change and develop at a startling rate, ensuring we are helping each other get the very most out of what is out there – and achieving our own aspirations for the future – is as important now than it has ever been. 

Life at the Young Bar 

Practice Review Guide for Barristers and Clerks

Earnings Monitoring Toolkit