I’ve spent a while attempting to work out what the tipping point was for making the transition from the self-employed to the employed Bar. I thought it must have been one of those ‘I never did get the cheque for that first appearance in Bodmin, a favour to a senior member of chambers, who forgot to reimburse for nine-hour round trip’ moments, but it wasn’t.
It turns out there wasn’t a tipping point at all. There didn’t need to be, because the Bar is like a revolving door. Unlike traditional employment, where revolving door analogies indicate brutal management or staff loyalty issues, the Bar’s revolving door is simply between two rather cosy rooms. It was difficult getting into the building, but now you’re there, moving between the two rooms is relatively plain sailing. The reason is that the Bar is not two, but one single profession. You can take a brief vacation (intended) to see what the view is like from the other side of the building and return as you please.
My first taste of the employed Bar was a secondment at Peters & Peters. I was a couple of years into practice and eager to gain more exposure to financial crime (and less exposure to mentions to fix). On my first day, the managing partner dropped some papers on my desk and asked for an advice on whether a director of a US-UK entity had committed bribery. It was an odd sensation using my mind in that way again. I was so used to formulating fact-based oral arguments that remembering how to perform a legal analysis caused a momentary panic attack.
I returned to crown court advocacy for a few years, after which I decided to take a permanent employed barrister position in the financial crime team at KPMG. It wasn’t an easy decision. I was worried I was leaving the self-employed Bar for good and that even if I managed to return, I would have lost the respect of fellow members of chambers and all the relationships with instructing solicitors. Those fears were warranted, but fortunately, none materialised. Chambers understood and directed me to the revolving door – suggesting I become a door tenant to allow a smooth return, should I ever be enticed back to self-employed Bar.
KPMG was the first time in long time I had experienced life at a behemoth corporation. The team sat within the litigation department, which was surprisingly large. That department was within the KPMG legal services division (now KPMG Law) which consisted of thousands of lawyers spread across some 80 countries.
The firm provided opportunities it wouldn’t have been possible to gain at the self-employed Bar. The team pushed me to spearhead the crypto-asset and blockchain legal offering, which resulted in presenting to boards of directors of international banks and FTSE listed companies. It provided the opportunity to travel to places like Qatar, which was a wonderful novelty considering how few opportunities there are for (expensed) travel at the junior end of the Bar. The stint also opened my eyes to how much of a halfwit I had been forgetting how important a pension is – although, in fairness, my contributions would likely have been negligible.
After a year at KPMG, I resigned to take up a scholarship in the States. Chambers were surprisingly forgiving of the abandonment and welcomed me back with open arms. It was fantastic to be back at the Bar. A little rusty on my feet but the work caused me to remember why I pursued a career at the Bar in the first place.
After settling back into chambers, I decided to take a position in litigation communications, at a firm called Montfort Communications on Chancery Lane. You might now be thinking that I’m really overusing this revolving door. You’re probably right but I do try to not abuse the trust Chambers has placed in me. I drop in frequently and have no hesitation in recommending the brilliant barristers there. If I do ever return, I hope to bring with me all that I have learned.
I’m now with a team of intimidatingly smart barristers, solicitors and communications experts, headed up by Stuart Leach. The team works on a side to litigation I had never quite appreciated. They shape and control the narrative to the extent that they facilitate a win, even when the judge rules in the other side’s favour – for example, the client’s share price is unaffected, their reputation remains intact, a merger or acquisition goes ahead despite the financial consequences of the ruling, or simply the press provide a fair and objective view of the facts.
I joined Montfort for the chance to study and advise on the broader legal issues. It provides the opportunity to continue practising law, albeit from an entirely different perspective, with lateral thought required for every case.
A quick mention of COVID-19. Before I joined Montfort, I assumed that all businesses were suffering equally due to virus restrictions, whether a hire freeze, furloughing or laying off staff, or reducing pay. This view needs to be revised; the situation is far more fluid. There are many businesses which have collapsed, and a plethora of businesses now at breaking point, but there are many businesses which are now thriving after acclimatising to the restrictions. Many sectors, including the public sector, are now recruiting legal staff.
So, what’s the point of this article? I reviewed the ‘Bar Survey 2020: Summary findings’ and it makes for some depressing reading. Only 20% of barristers think they will still be practising from their current chambers in a year. Criminal barristers have been hit hard, with an average 75% reduction in fee income due to the crisis. This, along with the fact that 33% of all barristers are primary carers for children aged under 18 (rising to 42% of women barristers and 43% of BAME barristers), leads to the conclusion that many at the self-employed Bar might not currently be capable of generating sufficient income to support their families.
The point, therefore, is to encourage barristers to consider the employed Bar and to not be put off due to a worry about the competition, a lack of experience in an area of law, or a fear that you will be saying goodbye to the self-employed Bar forever. It would be an incredible shame for barristers to exit the building, on to other professions, when there are a great many organisations just across the floor, so desperate for them.