Positive Transformation

Nichola Higgins, Chairman of the Young Barristers’ Committee, looks at the challenges facing the younger members of the Bar and how they will need to adapt to survive.

You are not alone in feeling some despair as the Ministry of Justice continues its drive to reduce the need for lawyers, to divert cases towards alternative forms of dispute resolution and reduce lawyers’ remuneration.


It is, therefore, a challenging time to be a young barrister.  Nowhere is this more acute than at the publicly funded bar. First there was the consultation on legal aid reform.  And now the Norgrove Report and the consultation paper “Solving disputes in the county court” aim wholly to reform the family justice and county courts systems.  The latter in particular aims to concentrate more on dispute resolution than on “the loftier ideals of ‘justice’”.  The criminal Bar is poised to face similar landscape altering proposals later this year.

Nevertheless, there are still opportunities available for young barristers who are prepared to be flexible and innovative.  There is also much that the Bar can do to prepare for the brave new world when it arrives.  

Diversify, diversify, diversify

Everyone has to consider diversifying their practice areas.  We are, after all, businesses; if one area of law is unstable or uneconomic then we should adapt.  Training in mediation skills or qualifying as a trainer are a logical steps for the commercial and family Bar.  The YBC held a successful seminar on commercial mediation earlier this year and preparation for a family mediation seminar is underway (check the Bar Council website for further information).  With small claims cases encouraged to consider alternative dispute resolution, there is no reason why a young barrister should not be well qualified to mediate appropriate cases.

Regulatory work, professional disciplinary tribunals and advising on compliance procedures are areas which lend themselves to the skills of the criminal Bar.  There are also increasing opportunities for criminal practitioners in the international arena.  The Bar Council is hosting a seminar on developing an international criminal practice on 11th July (all enquiries to srichardson@barcouncil.org.uk).  The Bar Council also runs an ‘International Professional and Legal Development Grant Programme’ to offer financial assistance to barristers under 7 years call wishing to attend international legal events.  This is an essential first step for those with an interest in building an international practice.

Further information and workshops will be available at the Young Bar Conference on 8th October 2011.

New Working Practices

Amendments to the Code of Conduct now permit a barrister to practice in both a self-employed and employed capacity.  This means a barrister can work from chambers Monday to Wednesday and be employed by the government or be a manager in a Legal Disciplinary Practice on Thursday and Friday.  This can provide a degree of stability of income for those embarking upon a career at the self-employed bar.

Direct access, which was recently extended to family, crime and immigration, is enjoying significant success as more and more barristers are instructed directly by the lay client or by in-house legal teams. Currently, barristers must be in practice for three years following completion of pupillage before undertaking direct access work.  However, with the scheme in place since 2004, the time has come to review this requirement.  As the profession becomes more familiar with direct access and as training improves, the justification for the requirement diminishes. Direct access courses are provided by the Bar Council (6.5 CPD points available) and further details can be found on the website.

New Business Structures

As increasing numbers investigate more sophisticated means of obtaining work either through ‘Procurecos’ or similar arrangements, the time is ripe to review whether chambers’ business procedures are fit for purpose.  Bar Mark is a scheme designed to recognise good practice management within chambers.  The award of Bar Mark is a sign of quality and can give chambers an advantage when competing for contracts, particularly with government departments.

One important area of practice management is the fair allocation of work within chambers. The development of a successful practice is frequently affected by the range and quality of work available during the early years of practice. All chambers should be alive to paragraph 404(2) of the Code of Conduct which requires that chambers take all reasonable steps to ensure that their affairs are conducted in a manner which is fair and equitable for all barristers.  The Equality and Diversity Code extends this responsibility to the fair distribution of work amongst pupils and members of chambers and developing effective procedures for the monitoring of work allocation.

Conclusion

The Bar is undergoing a metamorphosis.  It will not be an easy process.  However, with enterprise and flexibility there are good reasons to be positive about the future.  The profession is changing shape; the caterpillar may be no more, but the butterfly will flourish.

Nichola Higgins, Chairman of the young barristers' Committee, 15 New Bridge Street

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