It’s always important to take opportunities to bring young barristers together and expand their communities and networks,’ says Michael Harwood, Chair of the Young Barristers’ Committee of England and Wales. ‘Particularly when it comes to the four jurisdictions – I think it’s really useful to understand the commonality between our legal systems, how they differ, and what works and what doesn’t.’

Michael is absolutely right,’ says Declan Harmon, Chair of Ireland’s Young Bar Committee. ‘We’ve so much in common.’

The Chairs are discussing the annual Four Jurisdictions Conference, held in Belfast this year, which has become something of a meeting point for their respective junior Bars.

Antonia Welsh, Chair of Scotland’s Young Bar Association, highlights how formative the 2022 conference was in the creation of their own junior association: ‘[It was] very much from looking at the other jurisdictions that I came up with the idea and thought: why does Scotland not have this already?’

‘It is a really good way to meet people from other jurisdictions and broaden horizons within your own,’ adds Sarah Minford, immediate past Chair of Northern Ireland’s Young Bar Association.

Between them, they make up the leadership of the young Bars of the four jurisdictions. It’s easy to assume they were always destined for the Bar yet their routes to this point are all different and, in some cases, the result of a chance encounter or decision.

Declan began his career in the business world and made the switch in his late 20s. ‘That experience has been very useful because [you understand] what clients want and expect from their lawyers,’ he says.

Sarah and Michael made the decision to study law at university while Antonia was inspired by working in a law clinic. ‘I was given a four-day employment tribunal against quite a big restaurant chain,’ Antonia says. ‘I was only in my second year of university – I really enjoyed it despite being completely terrified the whole time. That’s the part of the law that I really wanted to do – I wanted to be looking at the legal problem or in the courtroom.’

Now that they are leading their respective junior Bars, what are their key priorities and what they are doing to support their members?

‘Our main priority is to offer support,’ Antonia says, citing bullying as a key issue in this regard – with which all four agree. ‘It can be intimidating for someone at a very junior level to approach that issue without someone there to say: “Right, I’ll happily raise this on your behalf”,’ she adds.

Supporting professional development is another important focus as well as resolving issues caused by COVID. ‘A lot of those in the years below me had a ‘pandemic’ pupillage or university course and didn’t have the same networking opportunities as people in the years above me,’ Sarah says. ‘So, we tried to hold as many social events as we could to give them an opportunity to meet more senior barristers.’

The four leaders go on to discuss the issues of isolation and the lack of a support network driven by the move to working from home heavily.

‘Our [law] library is empty on many days,’ Antonia says. ‘A lot of people are preferring to work at home – how do we get people to come back in? It’s an incredibly difficult question.’ Sarah concurs, noting that the Bar Library in Northern Ireland was ‘a real hive of activity’ but ‘unfortunately COVID wiped out the practice of people coming in to work’.

Michael raises the impact on pupillage: ‘The great strength traditionally of our profession was that you watch this other person do their job: you sit with them, you listen to them, you learn from them, and then we send you off to go and do it yourself. And that seemed to work well, but it’s been turned into quite a fundamental weakness because we are now not putting everybody under one roof.’

But all are keen to emphasise the benefits such a shift has had for diversity and inclusion at the Bar. ‘It’s about being able to reap the benefits that we have but also being very mindful [of the challenges],’ Michael says.

On further scope for collaboration between the four junior Bars, the response is positive and unequivocal. But all four stress that it only works if junior members get stuck in and want to be involved in their respective associations’ business.

Declan says: ‘If you want to effect change within the profession... then you need to get involved. If you care about it, don’t just sit and talk about it – get involved in being that change that you want to see.’

‘One of the main reasons I would encourage anyone to join their Young Bar [association] is from a welfare perspective. If you even know that one person is in the same boat as you, never mind 100 people in the same boat... that can be a very heartening feeling,’ Sarah adds.

Antonia and Michael agree. ‘We need young barristers speaking for young barristers, and that’s really the answer,’ Michael adds.

As our time together draws to a close, I ask how hopeful they are about the future of the profession.

‘I am optimistic, but only if we’re open to change and if we recognise the reality that the change of pace in wider society is so great that it is impossible to think that the Bar will not change,’ Declan says.

Michael concurs: ‘I think you’ve got to be [optimistic], really. You can rail against the inevitable or look further into the future and say, “how can we turn this into an opportunity?”’

Antonia, who is part of a working group set up by the Scottish government to consider the future of the legal profession, says: ‘I’m trying to be part of that change and encourage the ministers to consider these issues. One thing that made me particularly optimistic this year is that half of our Devils [pupils in England and Wales] are female and I think that’s a really positive change.’

Sarah adds: ‘The more we strive to be a more equal and diverse profession, the more hope that comes with that. We represent people from all social, racial and economic backgrounds, and it’s so important that [barristers] are equally as diverse and can represent what society looks like.’

I am struck by how much passion these leaders have for their work and culture of the Bar, and leave our interview with a strong sense that, whatever the future holds, they will stand side by side with their colleagues and friends at the Bar, ready and willing to face it head on. 

An elected member of Bar Council since 2020, Michael Harwood specialises in public and regulatory law, local government and public inquiries and is currently Second Junior Counsel to a major public inquiry.

Antonia Welsh has been involved in a wide variety of litigious work, including financial provision on divorce, and child abduction claims. Antonia founded the Scottish Junior Bar Association in 2021.

Declan Harmon BL practises across various civil matters, specialising in employment law, where he acts regularly for employers and employees. He is also a member of disciplinary panels for sporting bodies.

Sarah Minford enjoys a varied practice with a particular focus on cases in the criminal, civil and commercial litigation. Sarah is the Young Bar Representative of the Criminal Bar Association 2022-24.