As I wrote in my last piece for Counsel – ‘Master of the Universe’, an interview with the Financial Conduct Authority’s Adrian Berrill-Cox:

‘... though it may not always seem it from within our own “practice bubbles”, the Bar has today spread its tendrils far and wide .’

This is no more true than at the Employed Bar, which – while representing as much as 20% of the entire profession – is still probably less well understood by those within and outside the profession than the travails of the bewigged and begowned poster-child practitioner in chambers.

To me this remains a greatly missed opportunity, given the huge array of roles and responsibilities undertaken by employed barristers across the commercial, financial, industrial and public sectors.

That being said, things seem to be going in the right direction: over the last two years, there has been a concerted effort from the Bar as a whole to engage in some much-needed trumpeting/info-dumping/myth-busting about what The Twenty Percent actually get up to. I have sat on at least three or four panels at events on this topic, targeted at both aspiring and existing members of the profession, and I note that each of the four Inns have now caught up with the Bar Council by establishing their own representative bodies for employed barrister members. (I currently serve as co-chair of Middle Temple’s version.)

So, in the spirit of continuing this important trend, I am pleased that Counsel commissioned me to write this short piece consolidating some of my learnings on the things that aspiring members of the Employed Bar might like to know.

First, a note on terminology. Many of my colleagues bristle when self-employed barristers are referred to as ‘the independent Bar’. I sympathise, and though I recognise that often the use of ‘independent’ is intended to refer to the fact that self-employed barristers are rarely directly answerable to anyone and have freedom to chart their own practices (though many of my self-employed colleagues would describe that as a fairly illusory distinction), it is in my view an unhelpful term that belies a misunderstanding of the fact that independence is as crucial a pillar of the duties of employed barristers as it is of our colleagues in chambers, and should in fact be celebrated as a uniting factor. But more on that later. In short, the simpler and more accurate distinction should simply be made between employed and self-employed barristers.

Some of the roles that employed barristers undertake are fairly well known. If you’re one of the many members of the profession whose work takes you into the criminal justice system, then you’re probably very familiar with your employed barrister comrades at the Crown Prosecution Service. You also therefore appreciate from your many sparring matches in the criminal courts that on a fundamental level yours and their jobs are not all that different.

Another big employer of barristers is the Government Legal Department (GLD), which includes yours truly in its ranks. While I have found most understand what a government lawyer does in general terms – conducts all of the government’s litigation and provides legal advice across every government department – few appreciate what that looks like.

In my five years in the GLD, I’ve worked across three Whitehall departments, and as a litigator, and currently advise a major public inquiry. The advice I’ve given spans all number of subject areas, I’ve drafted legislation, and even appeared on behalf of the government in judicial review proceedings, giving lie to the myth that employed barristers don’t advocate (more on that below).

Added to the circle of barristers in the public sector whose jobs you may know exist but don’t know much about, are colleagues at the Bank of England, the SFO, HMRC and the regulators such as the CMA, Ofgem and the FCA (and if you want a snapshot of what they do, have a look at my interview with Adrian Berrill-Cox in the March 2021 issue).

Less well known again, but arguably most interestingly of all, are colleagues employed by law firms and in-house in private industry. Employed barristers in law firms present a growing trend because, aside from their talent at providing first-rate advice and drafting, the more enterprising among them have started in-sourcing advocacy services to the firms themselves, setting up bespoke units within firms to perform the tasks otherwise sent to external counsel. Staffed by a healthy contingent of barristers, these firms can provide the advice and advocacy expertise for which the Bar is vaunted, but in an efficient and more cost-effective way to the client. A disruptor to the established order perhaps? We will have to wait and see.

Then there are your colleagues providing in-house services to the private sector and at NGOs. At this point, you are very much opening the doors to any and all private and non-government entities that require legal services, but a quick Google of ‘in-house counsel jobs’ will give you a peek at where employed barristers can end up. It’s an exciting picture, and in recent times I have met counsel at major banks, startups, environmental organisations, charities and football clubs, yet still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.

With a picture of the profession as broad as this, it is often easy to forget that there are more things that unite us than separate us, the principal one being the reason why seemingly every sector of society is so keen to have barristers on their payroll: our skills. Advocacy, the cornerstone of the profession, is practised and honed across the Employed Bar, and though much of it is in the courtroom (examples of which I have referred to above), advocacy in its broadest sense is being utilised all over; I still maintain that the sternest test of my advocacy skills was defending some legal advice being interrogated in a briefing to a junior minister. Rigorous legal analysis, reasoned and impartial advice, clear and precise drafting and meticulous negotiating are as equally frequently deployed weapons in the employed barrister’s arsenal.

Beyond having a shared skillset, all members of the profession have subscribed – by virtue of our vocation – to a shared set of values: honesty, uncompromised integrity, an unwavering duty to the courts and the administration of justice, upholding the rule of law and the vindication of legal rights. These values burn equally bright for those at the Employed Bar, which neatly circles back to my earlier point of why ‘independence’ matters to us all: the independence to give tough advice, and to not be made to modify it, the independence to call out illegality and misconduct when we see it, the independence to stand shoulder to shoulder with colleagues across the profession when the rule of law is under attack.

I hope the above has fulfilled my brief of shining a little light on what the Employed Bar gets up to. While it is a veritable chocolate box of opportunity, it still feels like it is one missing the little menu card. But that is starting to change, which makes building connections with aspiring barristers and our self-employed colleagues (whether they also aspire to being employed or not) all the easier. We are one Bar after all, let’s keep it that way.