The barrister’s progress

From a jobbing criminal hack to a silk, Recorder and Bencher in four years – Kama Melly QC reflects on how it happened and the measurement of career success at the Bar


Counsel asked me to write an article at the end of 2019 on ‘making it happen: career development’. As you will understand if you read the rest of this article, I of course readily agreed. But having agreed, I struggled to write it; expressing how we develop our careers at the Bar was harder to articulate than I thought… hence the fact that this article is coming out some months into 2020. Submitted just days before my family and I entered Covid-19 lockdown, by the current state of events it seems as though this article will reach you before we are all released. It may be that between home schooling and tending to the sourdough starter there is little time for career considerations; yet for some, your current incomeless state means that you finally have time for some reflection on career advancement.

I have never assessed career success by how much I have earnt; just as well seeing as I specialise in legal aid crime and family. But unlike other professions, the Bar has no internal structure save for the QC system and without a proper career development ladder, it can feel hard to assess how your career is progressing.

Apart from the CPS and Treasury Counsel panels it feels as though for the first 15 or so years there is little you can apply for, and that success is about a full diary with decent work. When you reach the 15-year stage there is a need to reflect on whether or not you will continue as a senior junior, or look at applications for silk or for some sort of sitting. So: in 2014 I was an ordinary jobbing criminal hack in the North East; in 2018 I was a silk, Recorder and Bencher. Writing this article is the first time I have ever stepped back and tried to assess how that progress was realised.

Say yes

Each engagement I have had in a project has led to being invited to be involved in another. Saying yes to opportunities has opened successive doors for me.

There is something the reader should know: my name is Kama and I have a condition, a condition a friend of mine coined ‘chronic participation syndrome’. I like to be involved in things and I also don’t approve of moaning about things without trying to change them. The combination means that I get involved in projects, pilots and committees. I appreciate that this isn’t for everyone, but it has definitely played a part in my success. I have found that once you have demonstrated that you actually get on with things rather than just chat about them, then people want you to be involved in more and more things.

I was asked by Alistair MacDonald QC to be part of the initial pilot scheme at Leeds for s 28 (pre-recorded cross examination of vulnerable witnesses) in 2012. I worked hard at this and ended up speaking on the subject at Bar Conference and CBA and FLBA conferences on the subject. From this I was asked to be on the MOJ working group and project board.

As a result of being involved in s 28 at this level, I was asked to be part of the advocacy & the vulnerable training set up by ICCA – which led to my increasing involvement with the incredible work ICCA does nationally and internationally in respect of vulnerable witnesses. I am finishing this article on my way back from Barbados having been vulnerable witness training in Guyana. None of these opportunities would have come my way if I hadn’t said yes to that initial request, nor would I have had some of the examples I needed for my application forms for silk or Recorder without this involvement.

But it’s okay to say no

I reached a bit of a crisis when my kids were very little. I was travelling to far flung courts, trying to build my practice, had too many commitments (said yes to too many things) and was miserable. I realised that I was just a missed nativity away from giving it all up, so I sat down with my wonderful clerks and told them that it just wasn’t working. Together we realised that if I only worked out of my local court centre and booked off all school holidays, things could be very different. We also moved to a new house – to the closest suburb to my court. This reduced my commute dramatically and meant that I could take the kids to school without them having to go to breakfast club and could still be at court by 9am. (I know for those of you in London this is unachievable.) I didn’t renew my committee habit until the kids were teenagers and more than happy for me to disappear at weekends.

It’s okay to admit that you have ambition

You don’t have to be like those people at university who pretend they haven’t revised when you know they have been studying like mad. I always wanted to be in silk. I know this is desperately sad, but I would have died unfulfilled if I hadn’t achieved it. A few years before I knew I would apply I read through the form. That was all I did at that stage but knowing the criteria helped me recognise the examples that are required when they happened. What I should tell you to do is to make a note of them – I confess I never actually managed this – but just registering when they happened made it much easier to recall them when I needed to.

In the couple of years running up to my application I told my clerks that I needed to ensure that I was only doing quality work. When there is a downturn in work it is easy to make the mortgage payment the priority, but it is hard to present yourself as a leader in your profession if you are still doing ABH trials or appeal convictions. I know of people for whom earning will always take priority over taking silk – and taking silk is a financial gamble so you have to be clear about what it is success means to you.

Take the application process seriously

It took me more than one attempt to get Recordership and I have always been open about this. I know that admitting my failures has both helped others feel better about their rejections and encouraged many to think it might be worth having another go.

As many of you know, the process is arduous and I did not give the application the time and the effort that the lengthy process requires. In previous applications work and family circumstances meant that I was forced to take the exams at 7pm having cross examined three defendants, then had a conference, made the kids dinner etc and I was not at my best.

When I was finally successful it was no doubt because I had decided to give the process the dedication it required – I booked off the day of my exams and the day before my interview – this at least allowed me to feel that I was giving it my best shot which made a massive difference to my confidence and no doubt my performance.

Every day at court is an advert

This is the message that my pupil master drilled into me and how right he was. In what other business do you essentially get to show your ability so publicly and pick up instructions from people who just happen to be present.

We are both professionals and self-employed business owners and it is important to remember that each one of us is a business. Whatever side people are on, I remain polite and helpful to everyone at court; some of my most loyal firms are ones that started instructing me having met me working for other solicitors at court.

Nothing I have written here is revolutionary. Telling you to never forget to prepare and to make sure you do a good job when you are at court, I am afraid, is all I’ve got.

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Kama Melly QC

Kama Melly QC is Deputy Head of Park Square Barristers, Leeds. She is a practitioner in crime and family and took silk in 2016. Kama is a Bencher of Middle Temple and a Recorder in Crime and Family.