Reflections on the future of the Young Bar

Daniel Sternberg reports back from this year’s Young Bar Conference

Over 150 employed and self-employed barristers and law students gathered on 17 October 2015 for the 11th Young Bar Conference. 


For the first time, this year’s conference was held in conjunction with the Annual Bar Conference. This enabled delegates to engage in a wider range of activities and to make sure the voice of the junior Bar is heard by the leaders of the profession. At the same time, the Young Bar Conference ran a full programme of activities and had a distinct identity.

I used my opening address to ask: are we still one Bar? In my view, the answer is undoubtedly yes. What unites young barristers is greater than what divides us. While we do not all earn the same amount for the work that we do, we all seek to excel in the advice and representation we provide our clients, whether employed or self-employed. Young barristers are the future of the Bar. We seek to maintain its reputation for integrity and excellence, for which it is renowned not just in England and Wales but across the world.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the challenges facing the publicly funded junior Bar in particular. Rates of pay and debt remain crippling issues in the first years of practice for those who have worked so hard to make it to the Bar. One criminal barrister, Helen Easterbrook, calculated her rate of pay for a magistrates’ court case at £2.37 per hour. In my view, it is a tragedy that able and capable barristers are leaving publicly funded areas of work, or leaving the Bar entirely, because they cannot afford to practice or because they see no future there. It is about time that barristers were paid a living wage.

The keynote speaker at the Young Bar Conference was Sir Terrence Etherton, Chancellor of the High Court. Sir Terence has been Chancellor since 2013, having been appointed to the Court of Appeal in 2008 and as a High Court Judge in the Chancery Division in 2001. He chaired the Law Commission from 2006 to 2009 and was in practice at the bar for 25 years before his elevation to the bench. He began by assuring delegates that judges recognise that the Bar is a vital partner in the delivery of justice. The Bar is more than a profession; it’s a vocation. He praised the quality of advocacy training for the Young Bar as the best in the world. His pithy advice on advocacy was that good advocacy wins cases, while bad advocacy loses them. The Chancellor delivered some hard truths to young barristers: in his view, ongoing market forces may lead to a contraction in sections of the Bar, with those of three or four years call and the publicly funded bar being hardest hit. This poses a threat to the diversity of the Young Bar.

Sir Terence made it clear that there is no checklist of solutions. In his view, the Young Bar’s future work will not be in smaller cases. He called on young barristers to explore alternative dispute resolution, to use technology, and to market themselves. Alternative business structures offer a new way to work and can be combined with direct access. The junior Bar must make the case for change. At the same time, Sir Terence appreciated the stresses of the junior Bar in changing times and expressed the view that it was important that juniors should have a mentor for advice in chambers or via the Inns. In concluding, the Chancellor identified a loss of diversity at the Bar as a threat to the future diversity of the judiciary and he welcomed increased diversity in the judiciary. His parting message was one of reassurance: the junior Bar will flourish because excellence is always in demand.

Later, at a joint session of the Young Bar and Annual Bar Conferences for the criminal Bar, Mark Fenhalls QC of the Criminal Bar Association welcomed the junior Bar, echoing some of the topics covered by the Chancellor including the costs of training and utility of the BPTC. Fenhalls asked how the Bar can hope to attract students bearing debt of over £50,000 to do publicly funded work. This view is not just held by those at the top of the profession; Hannah Evans, a young barrister at 23 Essex Street, described the costs of the BPTC as exorbitant and that this was worsened by the course not being particularly useful. A straw poll of delegates at the session revealed that less than half found the BVC or BPTC useful in practice. Those who did tended to be more recent graduates.

A session focusing on wellbeing summarised the results of the Bar Wellbeing survey and the plans for implementing the results. The most useful element were practical tips for maintaining wellbeing while working at the Bar, given by James Pereira QC. He encouraged young barristers to book out preparation time in their diary and to actively manage their diaries with their clerks, including letting them know when time is needed for paperwork. One important piece of advice is to write less in written work; the perfect is the enemy of the good. Pereira encouraged young barristers to combat the time spent ruminating on past cases by writing down concerns and reviewing them later. Finally, he emphasised the importance of remembering that the Bar is a job. He encouraged young barristers to pay attention to matters outside of their practice and to take responsibility for things that make them unhappy (professionally).

The Chancery Bar Association and the Bar Council Education and Training Committee gave a useful session on dealing with litigants in person and McKenzie friends. Guidance was given, through the use of role plays and the advice of HHJ Karen Walden-Smith, on handling litigants in person; the circumstances in which McKenzie friends may act; and representing litigants through the Chancery Bar Association’s pro bono CLIPS scheme. The second part of the session took the form of a panel discussion, chaired by Guy Fetherstonhaugh QC, joined by HHJ Karen Walden-Smith, Simon O’Toole and others taking questions from the audience and giving their views and guidance on remunerated McKenzie friends.

The Commercial Bar Association and Alternative Dispute Resolution Panel hosted a session on re-equipping advocates for mediation: different forum, different skills. By the use of a role play mediation, some of the potential pitfalls in practice were identified and discussed, with questions and comments invited from the audience. Useful guidance was given in relation to the specific roles of a mediator and a barrister during each stage of the mediation.

The day concluded with the traditional Open Forum session for the Young Bar, featuring a panel of Silks from the family and Chancery Bars, as well as younger civil and criminal practitioners. Questions and comments sought assistance on topics including dealing with unqualified representatives and how to diversify in practice. For those before pupillage, the panel recommended in-house pupillage, including in industry, while for those establishing themselves the benefits of marketing yourself were again commended. The day ended with the Young Bar Conference and Annual Bar Conference joining together for Dominic Grieve’s concluding address.

The Conference was a perfect opportunity to launch the Young Barristers Committee’s new website at www.youngbarhub.com. The website hosts the Young Bar Toolkits which were launched at the conference. The toolkits are designed to address issues that aren’t taught in law school or during pupillage, such as how you build a practice; what you need to know about tax and managing your finances; how best to deal with stress; and how to achieve the elusive goal of a work-life balance. I hope readers of Counsel will have a look at them, learn something from them and let the YBC know where you would like more information. I welcome feedback from those who attended this year’s conference, either on our website or via twitter @YoungBarristers.

Compiled with the help of members of the Young Barristers’ Committee.

Contributor Daniel Sternberg, 9-12 Bell Yard, was the 2015 Chairman of the Young Barristers’ Committee

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Daniel Sternberg

Daniel was the 2015 Chairman of the Young Barristers’ Committee of the Bar Council. He is a specialist extradition and public law practitioner at 9-12 Bell Yard in London.