At age 16, Michael broke his neck playing rugby. After a long recuperation, he entered articles as an accountant. He hated it and so went back to school to take his A levels. He got a place at Keele to do German and Economics but changed to Law and Economics. A barrister came to Keele to talk; what he said sounded interesting. Through his tutor he went down to London to meet Leolin Price QC, who thoroughly encouraged him. He became a pupil in his present chambers where he was talent spotted by the late Robin Potts who “thought I had something about me”, a “hunger about me”, that “I always wanted to get things done. I always wanted to achieve something”. He has spent the last 34 years proving chambers right. “The hunger to succeed, the hunger to achieve, comes from taking nothing for granted and just making the most of the opportunities I have got, with a lot of help from other people.” Robin Potts mentored him and provided the example of “a businessman’s lawyer, who was always looking for solutions for the client”.

The Profession

Erskine Chambers, a specialist company law set of which he is head, deals with mergers, acquisitions, derivatives and the like. Looking at the chambers website one sees a profile which mirrors the commercial, Chancery and European Bars. There are 21 other tenants, all white. Of the 17 Britons who declare their university education, all went to Oxbridge. Those who declare their degrees got Firsts. There are three women, the most junior of whom was Called in 1989. This leads us into a discussion about diversity at the Bar. There is no doubting Michael’s own commitment in terms of recruitment and retention. Under his chairmanship, the Chancery Bar Association introduced a mentoring scheme for women. Michael believes in widening the net, through exhorting, encouraging and in providing good equality and diversity training: “it gets you thinking about it; in the past people haven’t thought about it. They said, We don’t need anyone else, we have the best”. One imagines though that there is also the issue of what chambers in his area look for in applicants. Is an Oxbridge First enough, or should chambers look, in addition to academic excellence, for the other qualities which will make a successful barrister?

Michael himself has been very active in speaking to schools where the pupils have what is referred to as a “non traditional background”. He wants them to know that the Bar is an option for them, and they should not necessarily make choices which would preclude them from going into the law. He tells them, “if you work hard, if you have the ability, this is something you could achieve”. He is also completely honest with them about the economic situation. Does he pass on the belief of many at the criminal Bar, that no one without private means could afford to do publicly funded work? “Yes, you have to tell them that” but he also tells them that there are other areas of the law as well, which are better paid. He adds that “it is difficult to get in and competition is fierce, probably never fiercer”. 

Part of the motivation for what he is doing comes from his belief that training for the law equips people “with readily transferable skills. We take a huge collection of facts, analyse them, apply to those facts a set of legal principles, then decide what the answer is and we make a presentation. You can apply that to most other jobs, so even if you don’t make a barrister or solicitor, there may still be a career where you can use those skills. All is not wasted.” This insight, which has been evidenced for years by the exit survey of BVC students, is nevertheless a departure from the usual Bar assumption that if you don’t get a pupillage you have wasted your time and will be thrown on the scrap heap. “I don’t think that’s right,” Michael says. He himself sees the Bar as “an interesting way to spend your life”, solving problems and using those transferable skills.

The tasks ahead at home and abroad

Although he is especially well qualified to sell the Bar abroad, (“we need to ensure that we get value for money in doing these trips”), he expects to spend most of his time in England and Wales on “a massive domestic agenda”. This will be dominated by the changes in legal aid which are currently going through Parliament. Something like 75 or 80% of his time will be spent dealing with issues relating to the publicly funded Bar. He fears that the cuts could even impact on the role of London as a global legal centre. He believes that those who come here because of the integrity of our system and rule of law will be reading the predictions that the changes in legal aid will deny access to justice.

The role of the Bar Council

In the same way that the Bar “has to show society that we are relevant to it and its needs”, so the Bar Council has to show its relevance to the Bar. Is it doing the things the Bar expects it to do? “A concern I have is a lot of the work the Bar Council does is a continuation of something it has been doing for years in the past, and sometimes you need to stop and sit back and think, Why are we doing it?” “I will ask the committees what they are doing and then ask them to report back to the Bar on what they have achieved. There is such a lot of good work going on, not recognised. I wonder if it is sufficiently focused on the needs of the Bar. I want to be able to demonstrate that what we do is relevant to them”. He says about the Bar Council, “it needs to become lean; it needs to become cost effective”.

Although his predecessors have taken the lead on quality assurance, he intends to leave this largely to the Criminal Bar Association. “It is going to come in at the end of the day; it is a matter for the criminal Bar”. He understands that some might treat it as an affront for others to say to a barrister whether or not he is competent to do a job he professes to do, “but if we can see the wider benefit, this way we are assuring people that they are and will be perceived as performing services of a special quality, it is bound to impress”.

Michael had the rare experience of having chaired a Bar response team, to Lord Justice Jackson’s review of civil litigation. His team answered the questions about cutting costs but not those about funding, since they felt that that should be part of a separate consultation, but Jackson went ahead and dealt with both areas. Michael recognises that clients want speedy dispute resolution though “a lot of judges don’t do case management”. Since the Bar is saying that dire consequences will follow from the removal of legal aid from certain areas, I asked about the Bar’s own suggestion for litigation funding, CLAF. As it happens, the recent Europe Economic Report recommends waiting to see how things develop after the Government implements the Jackson reforms in October 2012 and then to respond appropriately thereafter.

A little light relief

At the age of 40 Michael’s wife, a solicitor, pointed out that he had no distractions from work. “I had an imbalance between my professional life and my domestic life”. So he took up horse riding, and with predictable enthusiasm does eventing and dressage and enjoys watching others do it.

Why become Chairman of the Bar? “I want to get things done,” he said. “I want barristers to be proud of what they do, to feel valued and to be valued”