QC pen portraits

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Six silks (2018) with application insights to inspire those eyeing up a future competition

Interviews by Peter Purvis


Narita Bahra QC

2 Hare Court Chambers, London

Application insights

Called to the Bar in 1997, Narita was one of 30 women taking silk in the 2018 competition. Narita is a criminal law defence practitioner focusing on business crime, fraud, murder, organised crime and serious sexual offences. She also regularly appears on national TV and radio as a legal correspondent.

Narita made the financially difficult decision to target instructions in specific criminal areas in order to have the necessary cases for an eventual QC application. She found it important not to confuse large-scale and fascinating cases with ‘substantial’ ones in terms of the silk competition. When she was undertaking the same high level of cases on numerous occasions, often running several highly complex multi-handed cases simultaneously, Narita felt that the time had come to apply.

Her advice to applicants is to prioritise the QC competition in your working life. For Narita, written and oral advocacy were the most challenging competences to demonstrate because advocacy was so integral to her everyday working practice. Identifying examples fitting the competency criteria retrospectively was difficult. She strongly advises future applicants to keep a note of examples of their best advocacy contemporaneously. Narita has always made time for activities to promote diversity within and outside the profession, with the spin-off benefit of providing examples to demonstrate her credentials for the QC competition.

Route to the Bar and early days as silk

Narita – whose Sikh parents emigrated from East Africa – funded her studies at King’s College London through founding a BAME modelling agency and other work.

Awarded scholarships, Narita commenced her pupillage at 1 Harcourt Buildings, followed by 4 King’s Bench Walk, securing tenancies, respectively, at 2 Paper Buildings, 9 -12 Bell Yard and then 2 Hare Court. She soon had an established criminal practice, having initially trained in chancery law. However, Narita felt hampered by having no familial links with the profession. She studied part-time and obtained an acting degree, to keep her career options open.

Her appointment had an auspicious start when she was asked to carry a pair of white silk gloves to the ceremony, to mark the centenary of women being allowed to enter the legal profession (known as the ‘Lethbridge Gloves’ after the barrister Nemone Lethbridge, now in her 80s who was not able to take silk). Narita was quoted in The Times as saying it was ‘an absolute honour [to carry the gloves]. I never thought that I – an Asian woman from a state school – would be taking silk.’ The gloves will be handed over to a new female criminal silk each year. 

In April 2019, Narita undertook her first case in silk, which resulted in exposure of significant disclosure failings and disqualification of an expert witness, and attracted substantial media coverage. Post this case, the CPS Guidance Booklet for Experts was updated. In 2019 Narita was also interviewed on the voices of successful women; shortlisted for the Women in Law Award – 100 years; awarded Criminal Lawyer of the Year at the Asian Legal Awards 2019; and co-wrote the book, Tackling Disclosure in the Criminal Courts – A Practitioner’s Guide.

Since taking silk she has participated in even more diversity initiatives in the profession and broader national events. Narita considers it incumbent upon those at senior levels at the Bar to champion diversity. She is proud to be a role model for barristers from diverse backgrounds who have chosen this career.

Narita now mentors more junior colleagues, feeling that she would have benefited greatly from such support. One of the key positives of becoming a silk is greater control over workload, she says, which enables her (as a mother of two) to create a better work/life balance. As a senior junior her work case load was voluminous. Narita recalls that when she received her appointment letter it was the first time for years that she had sat down to plan for the future.

Nigel R Edwards QC

33 Bedford Row London

Application insights

It was Nigel’s wife – a solicitor from a similar background to his own – who persuaded him to apply for QC. Having considered his cases, Nigel felt that he probably met the requirements. As an ‘on his feet’ criminal barrister there was no shortage of evidence for oral advocacy. Fortunately, two recent cases had involved a lot of written advocacy, otherwise he might have struggled with that aspect. He was also involved in a high-profile and important modern slavery case, where the judge had encouraged him to apply for silk.

Nigel felt that he had a pretty good story to tell on diversity (Competency D). He says that it is not enough to come from a diverse background; what matters to the QC Selection Panel is the depth of your understanding of diversity and how you put your beliefs into action. Nigel cites his continuing outreach work to encourage bright young people, including those from non-privileged backgrounds, to consider a career at the Bar. He also belongs to a network of solicitors in the North which has given him great opportunities to work with diverse clients.

Nigel believes that the QC process tends to favour men over women and that greater allowance should be made for the fact that many women barristers take time away from their careers for maternity leave/childcare. This often impacts their ability to travel, thus affecting the range and quality of cases when it comes to making a silk application.

The most stressful part of the QC selection process for Nigel was ensuring that he had a sufficient number of judicial assessors who would be able to talk to his written competencies. He also found it hard to fit all the necessary information about his cases in the available space on the form. He had to highlight central aspects of the case in terms of the competencies. His wife provided invaluable input on the application form. The interview was ‘challenging but comfortable’, although he found himself carrying out a mental post-mortem of his answers afterwards. ‘It was overall a good process for me,’ he says.

Route to the Bar and early days as silk

Nigel says that he owes his mother (who sadly died just a few days before the QC Ceremony) an enormous debt of gratitude for all he had achieved in his life and career. She raised him single-handedly from infancy on a Darlington Council Estate and held three jobs down to pay the bills.

Having initially trained as an economist, Nigel transferred to law at Sheffield University. His lecturers were extremely supportive of his ambition to become a barrister. Nigel chose to specialise in crime following his experience of pro bono and outreach work while at university.

His former head of chambers described taking silk as becoming part of a special club, but one with immense responsibilities and duties. Nigel feels, most importantly, that being a QC benefits your clients as it gives you that extra respect with the court, in the profession and beyond. However, he warns that your earnings can ‘fall off a cliff’ as you build up your silk practice, with cases you’ve done as a senior junior no longer available. Fewer silk tickets are being issued, and silks instructed without a junior. Furthermore, more firms are keeping advocacy work in-house. In other words, Nigel concludes, he had ‘to keep the faith!’ as he found his feet as a new silk.

Katherine Goddard QC

Bank House Chambers, Sheffield

Application insights

Katherine Goddard QC – joint head of Chambers (alongside Gul Nawaz Hussain QC), at Bank House Chambers – is a specialist criminal law barrister who has acted in the most serious of cases. As a senior junior, Katherine found herself increasingly up against and working alongside silks, which gave her the confidence to apply. However, due to personal circumstances she had to postpone her application for some years. Katherine considers the competition to be a highly introspective process and somewhat alien for people more used to advocating for others. You also, she says, have to be psychologically prepared not to succeed at the end of a long and arduous process, as was the case for her with her first two applications.

Route to the Bar and early days as silk

Her mother began a part-time law degree ‘as a new challenge’ while working full-time as a surgeon (and the household’s main breadwinner), inspiring Katherine to do the same. They graduated in the same week – although Katherine says her mother received the better class of degree.

At university, Katherine volunteered in the legal advice centre, which she found ‘challenging, satisfying and enjoyable’. She was immediately ‘hooked’ on advocacy. After graduation, Katherine took a year to secure a place at Bar School (in London) and meanwhile volunteered at a Citizens Advice Bureau (‘a real eye-opener’). She found herself advocating for often extremely vulnerable people and learned a good deal about empathy, humility and ‘looking beyond one’s own complacency’.

Describing herself as ‘Sheffield through and through’, she did not enjoy living in London but learned the practical skills of advocacy and liked the traditions of dining in Hall. She obtained a pupillage at ‘unstuffy’ Bank House Chambers (before her final results were out), where women barrister role-models were doing exclusively criminal cases. Here Katherine was able to make progress on her own merits. She has developed an impressive expertise in sexual crime cases including those with complex medical issues.

Katherine received her first silk brief before the official announcement – ‘nine weeks of a proper cut-throat murder trial’. She experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ at first but soon came to feel at home. Katherine moved straight onto her second case as a silk and found herself booked up for months ahead. There is an initial, rather big financial ‘hit’ for those taking silk at the Criminal Bar, so you need a robust financial plan in place, she advises.

The Silk Ceremony was a somewhat bitter-sweet experience for Katherine as her mother was no longer with them. She would have been immensely proud to see her daughter made one of ‘Her Majesty’s Counsel learned in the law’.

Her advice to those seeking a career at the Bar is to be sure that they are strongly attracted by their chosen field. Crime is a particularly tough specialism, so a strong sense of vocation is essential, along with ‘self-determination, flair and stickability’. She worries about how the Bar can attract and retain the very brightest but poorer applicants, when students leaving university with £50,000 debts can earn far more in the City, and the serious implications of this for achieving a Bar that reflects society in all its diversity.

Siân Mirchandani QC

4 New Square, Lincoln’s Inn, London

Application insights

Called in 1997 and silk in 2019, Siân has a broad practice which encompasses commercial disputes, construction/engineering, professional liability claims, insurance and disciplinary. As a divorced mother of two and principal wage earner it was a difficult decision to apply for silk, with the risk of a drop in instructions and earnings. Siân benefitted greatly from the encouragement of colleagues, clerks, judges and senior lawyers in overcoming her ‘self-imposed barriers’. Her old pupil supervisor, Roger Stewart QC, provided a ‘strong nudge’ to make her application in 2018.

Siân created a ‘12 case grid’ to collate the information on her cases for her application with dates, names etc of potential assessors. She wrote to potential assessors and offered to supply them with material such as skeletons to jog their memories, which many took up. She still found engagement with potential assessors difficult and time-consuming, aware too that only a small proportion of them would be asked to provide assessments.

The QC interview was ‘testing but excellent’; she felt she had been given the opportunity to give of her best. Siân knew that one of the judges had been critical on a legal point that she had taken. It was a substantive case that appeared to tick most of the competency boxes, so she had had to include it. As it happened, the judge’s criticism formed a useful talking point at interview. Siân considers that the evidence gained from the interview should be given greater weight in relation to the other evidence

In Siân’s opinion, the requirement to list up to 12 cases in a three-year period deters many women from making applications earlier. There is a big time-lag on a woman’s practice following maternity leave which, she thinks, is not taken full account of in the application process. In her own case, despite less than seven months total maternity leave over a three-year period, it took five years to get earnings back to pre-maternity leave level. On top of being a mother of two very young children and her own recovery from pregnancies, Siân had to earn enough to maintain her family – with a large proportion going on childcare costs.

She believes that many gifted young women need encouragement to overcome diffidence and a misplaced presumption that they are ‘too young’ to apply for silk. Sian mentors young women lawyers and wishes there had been more such support available when she was coming through.

Route to the Bar

Siân’s Indian father was an immigrant doctor and her Welsh mother was a nurse, then medical secretary. Siân and her brother were raised in Swansea by their mother after her father died when she was 12 years old. The Silk Ceremony was very sadly in the same week as her mother’s funeral.

Siân attended a large comprehensive school before entry to Cambridge University where she studied veterinary medicine – as this was the ‘most challenging option available’. After a brief, but highly successful and enjoyable career as a veterinary surgeon, Siân hankered after a new challenge. Embarking on a PhD in cardiac pharmacology, she soon realised she did not want to pursue a career in that field. Careers advice pointed to the law, so it was off to Bar School and then pupillage at 2 Crown Office Row, London. Siân was subsequently taken on as a tenant and has remained at (now) 4 New Square ever since.

After a brief spell doing clinical negligence cases, Siân has developed a commercial practice around technical and construction claims. Her expertise in veterinary medicine has also brought her unusual cases such as claims involving regulatory drug testing errors.

Aparna Nathan QC

Devereux Chambers, London

Application insights

Aparna was strongly encouraged by her colleagues to apply for silk, particularly by Alison Foster QC who had been her leader in several major tax cases. For women who aspire to the highest levels in the profession, Aparna believes that mentoring is vital.

Aparna now thinks that she might, in fact, have been ready to apply earlier than she did. She had wanted to make sure she was able to meet all the criteria before making an application, to get as much litigation experience as possible and to have a ‘silk-like’ practice before she applied. She felt her appointment to the Attorney General’s Panel in 2010 provided her with extensive opportunities to deal with challenging tax issues and gain experience of working with large teams of people. She also learned how to complete demanding evidence-based application forms, which stood her in good stead for the QC application form.

Aparna recommends that would-be applicants download the QC application form roughly three years before they intend to apply for silk in order to become thoroughly acquainted with it. They should start to populate the form with potential cases/assessors and update it periodically.

In meeting the competition’s diversity competency, she says, it is not enough to be a member of your chambers’ E&D Committee. Real change requires proactivity. (She is clear that there is still a long way to go before the Bar stops being widely seen as a preserve of those from more privileged backgrounds.) Aparna has been personally active in outreach at professional and educational events to capable but less advantaged young people.

‘You cannot wing the QC interview!’ Aparna says. She found the biographical notes of the previous QC appointees extremely helpful. She benefited from tuition from interview trainers who, for example, emphasised the need for her to say ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ when talking about achievements. She found the interview a ‘comfortable experience’ and ‘immersive rather than intrusive’.

Overall, Aparna thinks the application process as transparent and as merits-based as it could be. She had attended an excellent talk which Panel member, Wanda Goldwag, had given to female QC applicants at Middle Temple, which had greatly demystified the application process for her.

She acknowledges the support she received from her husband and family had been vital on her path to applying for QC. Her two children understood the need for Aparna to work long hours over sustained periods and, despite his own demanding full-time employment, her husband would often take up the slack on the domestic front.

Route to the Bar

Aparna was educated in India, London and Singapore. Her mother was a specialist doctor (now retired), her late father an engineer and her sister is a specialist doctor. Several members of her extended family worked in the legal profession, mainly in India. While studying ‘A’ levels Aparna set her sights on becoming a barrister and she undertook undergraduate and postgraduate studies in law at the London School of Economics.

After Bar School, Aparna applied successfully for pupillage at a specialist tax set and practised there until 2014, when she moved to Devereux Chambers. Aparna’s passion for her chosen field shines through – she feels this is a very exciting time in the area, with no shortage of important cases going to the highest level.

Brian Nicholson QC

11 South Square Chambers, London

Application insights

Brian specialises in all areas of intellectual property, but particularly cases involving substantial and complex electronic or computing content. He has spent almost his entire career in the High Court and above, instructed in very large, significant cases. In such cases, silks are almost always instructed for trial, which meant that to progress further it was essential to become a QC. Brian’s application coincided with the end of a five-year term as Standing Counsel to the Comptroller-General of Patents, Designs and Trade Marks which provided un-led experience in significant cases.

Brian says that you need to be thinking about your application for silk at least two to three years before you apply. It will be likely that you have relatively weaker areas to work on, and gaps in experience you need to fill well before applying.Realistically appraising what you lack helps identify opportunities to collect evidence. In Brian’s case, this resulted in his accepting a pro bono brief that covered exactly what he needed.

Initially, Brian found Competency D (Diversity) difficult to complete. His reluctance to give unsubstantiated evidence led Brian to limit his self-evaluation to objectively verifiable facts, eg positions held. By appreciating that the process requires you to give evidence that a barrister would normally avoid, it became easy to demonstrate his very clear understanding of diversity and long-standing commitment to the issues in working with clients, within chambers and outside the profession. This is something that is open to every barrister.

Brian found the actual interview relatively straightforward, having had some preparatory help from an outside consultant, which he considers to be essential. Brian felt he was able to determine what the question was intended to elicit and provide appropriate examples, structured to meet the interviewers’ expectations.

Brian says that informal mentoring from silks has been critical in his development on the road to QC, as most self-employed advocates did not have anything by way of formal assessment or development advice. It was difficult to overstate the opportunities that existing silks have to help ensure that today’s juniors perform to the best of their ability and are assisted to develop into tomorrow’s QCs.

Route to the Bar and early days as silk

Brian grew up in the South West and along with two of his siblings was the first generation of the family to attend university. Brian originally trained as an electrical and electronic engineer, also serving as an Officer in the Royal Naval Reserve while studying for his first degree and PhD at Bath University. The Armed Forces’ (then) policy on sexual orientation meant he could not pursue his original ambition of becoming an Engineering Officer in the Royal Navy.

Brian became interested in the law during his doctoral studies, as a consequence of seeing companies suffer due to misunderstanding their legal rights. While investigating a short postgraduate course in law, he discovered the role of barrister, and a new career path opened up for him.

He believes that having the QC ‘badge’ (‘albeit precisely the same advocate as I was without the badge’ he says) is virtually an essential requirement for many of his lay and professional clients. Overall, the QC selection process required a great deal of hard work over an extended period of time and Brian’s overwhelming feeling on hearing of his appointment was one of relief that he did not have to go through it all again.

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Peter Purvis

Peter is policy adviser to the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel in the QCA Secretariat. This is his tenth silk competition. He was previously a senior civil servant in DEFRA, freelance consultant on EU issues and a counsellor.