Silks: Part 2

In the second part of Counsel’s look at the Silk application process, Peter Purvis interviews four QCs who have recently taken Silk to hear their views on the competition.

 


Stuart Alford QC

Serious Fraud Office, London

Stuart Alford QC was one of two employed advocates – of the six who had applied – appointed to Silk in 2014. Called to the Bar in 1992, Stuart joined the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in July 2012 having previously spent 20 years in private practice working on national and international crime – with the emphasis on fraud. Stuart is now one of three in-house QCs at the SFO, where he heads a team of 75 investigating the manipulation of LIBOR and on other projects. Between 2008 and 2013 Stuart was Chair of the War Crimes Committee of the International Bar Association, having been a prosecutor for the UN between 2001 and 2003.

Stuart says that while he was at a comprehensive school, the idea of working in the legal profession had never crossed his mind, nor indeed that of his teachers or parents. It was only at university that he started thinking about becoming a barrister, having got a “taster” of law from one of his degree’s minor modules. Stuart felt that it was necessary to raise young peoples’ (and schools’ and parents’) sights and aspirations as to what was achievable for bright kids - and this included a career at the Bar. However, he feared that the costs of training and increasing uncertainty around income from public funding would still be a deterrent to a bright young person’s opting for a career at the Bar.

In his two previous unsuccessful applications for QC, Stuart had been in private practice. His first application had included a large amount of international criminal work, which, although important and high-level, had involved few litigious cases. After this first attempt, Stuart focused on “substantial and memorable” work in the UK, appearing more frequently before senior judges. Having joined the SFO in 2012, his next application for Silk provided strong evidence on the “working with others”, “written advocacy” and “diversity” competencies, together with the evidence of oral advocacy from his time in private practice.

Stuart did not think that applicants for QC should feel too constrained by the requirements, much less “pigeon-hole” themselves and practices simply to satisfy the appointments process as they perceived it; although clearly advocacy was “at the heart of the process”, there was a good deal of flexibility to take account of the very different types of practices and amount of written and oral work undertaken. Stuart said that applicants should not assume that the “badge” of Silk was “not for people like them” in terms of any characteristic such as age, socio-economic background or gender.

Stuart said that as an employed barrister working in an independent government department/law enforcement office, the transition to Silk had not been particularly marked. But he did feel that the accolade was a real boost, not only for himself but also for his colleagues and for the SFO. He expected that the “difference” of being a QC will be more marked for him personally if, in the future, he moved back into practice in chambers or at a law firm.

 

Wayne Jordash QC

Doughty Street Chambers, London

Wayne Jordash – who is of mixed Caribbean and English heritage – attended a comprehensive school in the North East of England where he had planned to become a social worker. Wayne therefore chose to study psychology at university. However, following seven months spent working in Japan after graduation, Wayne decided that his career aim would be to work with the UN. The Bar seemed to be a route to that ambition, and Wayne undertook a conversion course in law and the Bar course. During this time, he worked in a newsagents in Peckham, a bookmakers and a factory. However, he did not have the money to complete payment of the fees for Bar School and his results were withheld. He therefore took a year out and worked as a legal assistant at Clifford Chance for one year. Following that experience, Wayne obtained his pupillage.

Called to the Bar in 1995, Wayne began working in criminal defence, later branching out to domestic human rights, as he was keen to contribute to the rights of young black men. After five years, Wayne opted to move into international criminal law, and later into international human rights work. Wayne says that in his experience “you rarely end up where you originally thought you wanted to be.” Rather than working directly for the UN, he ended being sub-contracted by them and defending a number of clients charged with serious violations of international law.

His cases include defending Milosevic’s ex-Chief of State Security and acting for the Libyan government at the ICC and for Serbia at the International Court of Justice. Wayne also advises organisations such as UNDP, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists on public international and international human rights law. And he is a key expert in the Council of Europe’s Business and Human Rights program for legal professionals.

Wayne had not particularly aspired to becoming a QC, somehow doubting that it was for “people like me” with his working class, mixed heritage background. But, after several colleagues had suggested that he should apply, Wayne had studied the QC process and was in the end pleasantly surprised at how the QC Panel was willing to “look outside the norm – or, rather, at what was generally perceived as the norm”.

Given the serious diversity deficits at the Bar, he was also impressed that diversity figured equally alongside the other competencies.

As far as the diversity competency was concerned, Wayne drew on his international pro-bono work and steps he had taken to create opportunities for bright black, female and working class students to enter the profession, and in taking time with junior staff whose backgrounds meant that the Bar was an alien or discomforting environment.

One of the best things about being made a Silk, Wayne says, was the opportunity to compete more easily in the international market and enjoy a greater sense of security. It was a real privilege to be awarded Silk, he says.

 

Kathryn Skellorn QC

St John’s Chambers, Bristol

Kathryn Skellorn was one of 18 women (and 82 men) appointed to Queen’s Counsel in 2014. Born in a deprived area of Cardiff to young parents, Kathryn’s family moved house around the country frequently with her father’s job, with Kathryn’s mother having to repeatedly create a new home life – usually in very testing circumstances.

But despite attending no fewer than ten schools, Kathryn gained a place at Oxford University and described the encouragement she received from two particular female teachers to look beyond her self-assessment and to set her sights on Oxbridge. Kathryn went on to win a scholarship to attend Bar School, where she was given the “wonderful opportunity” one summer to do work for another inspirational woman in her life, Susan Jacklin (now QC and FLBA Chair).

 Kathryn chose family law over other specialisms such as insolvency or shipping because, as she says, “ships don’t get hurt, kicked or shaken”. Medico-legal issues are at the heart of Kathryn’s Children Act practice. This entails complex trials centred on inflicted fatalities and injuries and child sex abuse cases. The work is extremely challenging. Kathryn has to assimilate the details of injuries and find “the key piece of information, for example, buried away in the handwritten scrawl of a medical note”. She watched her pupil master (now HHJ) Mark A Horton do this time and time again in criminal trials.

 Her style in court is to “defuse whilst still being robust”. She says that it is important to know when to engage with the client and when to disengage and serve the client’s best interests by being elsewhere in furtherance of her case.

 Kathryn says that she reached a stage in her career when people she respected began to suggest that she should apply for Silk. The actual spur for her applying was being led in two cases by experienced QCs whose inclusivity she found “fantastically reassuring”. In the five years leading up to her Silk application, Kathryn had taken a much greater interest in law-making: “It is not a matter of reading the case law and simply accepting it as a ‘given’, but to question it and, if necessary, challenge it or participate in enlarging or changing it,” she says. Solicitors now tended to come to her if their challenging cases needed fast analysis, flexible thought and stalwart advocacy. Sometimes that meant starting as a lone voice and then “turning a case round witness by witness, submission by submission, day by day”.

In a profession that is sometimes seen as London-centric, Kathryn says that being a “Western Circuiteer” is central to her identity as an advocate. She manages to balance life and work though a great deal of “plate spinning” and through “the fantastic support and understanding” she receives from her family. As for relaxation, Kathryn runs whenever she can often before facing a very long evening of work. This she finds an excellent way to “clear my head. I plan some of my best closing submissions in muddy trainers.”

 

Marc Willers QC

Garden Court Chambers, London

Marc Willers, who was called to the Bar in 1987, only started to give serious thought to applying for QC a couple of years ago. At that stage he had found himself increasingly up against Silks (and often alone himself), and he was also getting encouragement from his peers and senior judges to think about making an application for QC. Nonetheless, he had some lingering doubts that his practice might not fi t the Silk “template” as he perceived it. But having given the selection process a closer inspection, he was surprised by its rigour, thoroughness, and transparency, and in particular by the way in which diversity was core to the process.

 Despite his success at his first attempt, Marc retained a little bit of wonder that “someone like me, with my type of practice” could be awarded the QC “badge”. Marc is well known for acting for members of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities in planning, human rights and administrative law matters. As a pupil, Marc had worked on a number of cases for Gypsies and Travellers and had immediately felt attracted to working to improve access to justice for members of their communities. In recent years, Marc has appeared in many of the leading cases, the most high-profile being in 2011 for the Irish Travellers living on Dale Farm in their judicial review challenge of the decision by Basildon Borough Council to evict them from their homes. Amongst much other Traveller and Gypsy rights’ activity, Marc is a trustee of Friends, Families and Travellers, a charity promoting Gypsies and Travellers’ rights, and he is the editor, author or co-author of numerous books and articles and contributes to a regular blog on the “Travellers’ Times” website. Marc is also often called on as the legal expert on Gypsy, Traveller and Roma issues by the Council of Europe, the EU and their member states.

 Marc applauded the QC process for requiring the demonstration of real commitment and pro-activity to diversity, not just an understanding of the issues. He recognised that some practices such as his own provided more scope for demonstrating excellence in diversity. However, he considered that it was possible for any practitioner to satisfy the Panel of their commitment to diversity – for example, by looking at how you operated as a senior member of your chambers and its various committees, and by citing work with voluntary organisations.

Marc’s passion and respect for the Gypsy and Traveller communities is palpable: he says he finds the people to be down to earth, genuine and the “most appreciative clients” he had ever encountered. His main wish was that the QC “badge” would help promote his clients’ interests in court. Marc said that he thought it was what you did professionally and personally with the Silk “marque” that mattered.

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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.