Though it may not always seem it from within our own ‘practice bubbles’, the Bar has today spread its tendrils far and wide. This makes opportunities for recognition – such as the Bar Council’s annual Employed Bar Awards – important occasions to shine a light on the stories, experiences and achievements of members of the profession whose paths we may otherwise not have crossed. So it was with keen interest that a few weeks ago I sat down (remotely) and got to know Adrian Berrill-Cox, lawyer at the Financial Conduct Authority and winner of ‘Outstanding Employed Barrister in Commerce & Finance’ at the Employed Bar Awards 2020. Our conversation explored – among other things – his career journey, working in the City, the growth and importance of the employed Bar, and blazing a trail as a disabled barrister.

Adrian’s keenness for the law, and the Bar, started early, recalling watching Crown Court on television as a five year old and announcing that he wished to be a judge. Having been informed that he was first required to practise at the Bar, Adrian set his sights there, which ended up being convenient for someone who describes himself as ‘more of a talker than a writer’. In those days, being in a wheelchair meant career choices felt limited, but Adrian persisted and was duly called in 1986 and set about cutting his teeth as a knockabout criminal barrister. Adrian’s disability nonetheless continued to present challenges, and he recalls the difficulty of getting access to (then, and still) very old court buildings: ‘Even to get into the High Court, I remember having to pile up a whole load of pallets for a forklift to make a makeshift ramp.’ By the end of his pupillage it was made plain to Adrian that his clerks did not fancy the problems of having to ‘edit’ a young barrister’s career navigating dodgy courts, and so he looked elsewhere, though had no regrets: ‘I was I think the first barrister called in my physical state actually able to practise. Most went straight to the employed Bar in those days. I don’t regret having tried it for a moment.’

The City was where everything was happening in the 80s, and Adrian’s first stop was at the Bank of England, a move which initially proved a bit of a shock to the system: ‘When you qualify as a young barrister you are a Master of the Universe… you’re going to be the next Marshall Hall. And when someone starts correcting your drafting, you think, “you don’t correct my drafting”.’ The Financial Conduct Authority (then the Financial Services Authority) was next, and was very much a continuation of Adrian’s role at the Bank, but ‘still on the side of the angels’. Having spent his career to date in the enforcement arm of the FCA, Adrian believes that its increasing appetite to be more robust, take risks, and improve its own legal capability has made his role more exciting and rewarding, even allowing him to scratch his advocacy itch on occasion by appearing at the High Court, Upper Tribunal and Crown Court.

As fellow members of the employed Bar, our conversation inevitably turned there next, in particular the benefits, perceptions and comparisons with our self-employed colleagues. A frequently trotted-out point of comparison concerns autonomy, one Adrian is keen to debunk: ‘As a self-employed barrister you think you have a great deal of independence and freedom and you are effectively answerable to no-one. The fact of the matter is you’re answerable to firms, judges, clerks, people further up the legal chain. In-house you’re more obviously answerable to people, but once you’ve learnt the ropes you have the same freedom to manoeuvre.’ Adrian has found himself in the position of being able to manage others, to give legal advice and to be an advocate, and if you are extoling the merits of the employed Bar, it is this kind of variety – without compromising the things that barristers are good at and enjoy – that ought to be appealing.

Reflecting on the employed Bar as it was 30 years ago, with its not-too-disguised attempts by the self-employed Bar to stop employed barristers appearing in court by placing wholly unrealistic training requirements on them, Adrian is pleased to see its advancement in the profession today. Employed barristers taking silk and judicial appointments removes, in his view, the remaining impediments to attracting very high quality people: ‘I think what you’re probably seeing now is people choosing the employed Bar… because they have different priorities. That helps improve the quality of the employed Bar.’ Another perk for the modern employed barrister is the relative ease with which they can sidestep into top levels of the commercial, financial and industrial world should they wish, and getting in at the ground floor Adrian considers to be an important advantage: ‘Employed barristers in commerce will find themselves on boards and running companies… you really understand your subject matter because you are exposed to the practicalities… [unlike external counsel] you don’t just make ‘guest appearances’ … I’m as much a regulator as I am a barrister.’

The position for disabled barristers now is undoubtedly better than when Adrian first came to practise. The combination of court buildings becoming more accessible, of increasing use of technology, and of attitudes changing towards disabled people all contribute to this. Adrian is wary of sounding like the Four Yorkshiremen (‘in my day it weren’t possible but thee young’uns have had it easy’) when he compares the position then and now: ‘They’re high quality individuals who struggle in an intensely competitive environment with just one more disadvantage than everybody else. Those disadvantages are less now than they were in my day.’ As for residual challenges for those with disabilities, Adrian notes that while there is now nothing but goodwill towards anybody from previously disadvantaged groups among the Bar in general, the real problems for disabled barristers are stamina, the ability to move quickly and to sustain themselves on a low income, particularly when disabled people generally have more expenses. ‘People will always have disadvantages to overcome; the key thing is there are no artificial barriers. But if it takes you three quarters of an hour to get dressed in the morning when it takes anybody else ten minutes… that’s a disadvantage.’

To wrap up our conversation, I asked Adrian what advice he had for those coming to the profession today: ‘It is no criticism of the ambition or capability of any potential barrister to tell them it can be cold out there. It’s a good idea to understand your own nature and ambitions when deciding how you wish to cast your career. I’ve been lucky that circumstances took me in the right direction… other people should think hard about it.’ And what about Adrian’s own future ambitions? Like us all, he wants to continue getting better at what he is doing now, but admits he also ‘flirts’ with seeking a judicial appointment. I observed that this would neatly complete the circle back to the aspirations of five year old Adrian watching Crown Court on TV. Given that, like with most junior barristers, mastery of the universe was achieved upon qualification, this seems like sensible progression to me.