The QC profile

Challenging the concept of a ‘stereotypical’ QC, Peter Purvis talks to five of this year’s more diverse Silk successes, with some healthy criticism of the selection process and advice for would-be applicants

Addressing challenges for women applicants

Anya Proops QC 

11 King’s Walk Chambers, London

Anya Proops QC specialises in information rights, media, public and employment law. Described in the legal directories as ‘a fierce advocate in court’, she is also a formidable advocate in seeking the development of an application process which recognises the particular challenges which many women can face in taking Silk.

Proops considers that the application process still has an unnecessary aura of mystery, encouraging many applicants to use expensive consultants. She proposes that the Panel could help by providing more detail and illustrative examples in the applicant guidance and by running explanatory seminars for would-be applicants. She also suggests that greater transparency in the process could assist chambers in building up a knowledge base to assist future applicants, while at the same time reducing some of the stress the process entails for many applicants.

In particular, she thinks the guidance could be clearer on the issue of how the Panel views applicants who list fewer than 12 (or eight) cases, as it currently gives the impression that those with fewer cases were likely to be disadvantaged. Proops is concerned that a significant number of female barristers are deterred from applying for Silk, particularly as they struggle to compete with many of their male counterparts in terms of accumulating cases for their application due to maternity leave and childcare responsibilities. She alludes to ‘very depressing’ statistics on this issue. It would help, she feels, if the guidance could spell out that applicants will not be penalised for being unable to identify 12 cases due to parental leave or carer responsibilities and that, provided that there is sufficient evidence before the Panel to demonstrate excellence, listing far fewer cases ought not to prejudice the applicant’s position.

While the Chairman of the Panel came across in the interview as someone acutely sensitive to the difficulties professional women faced in competing equally with their male peers, Proops would like to see more being done to reassure would-be female applicants. In particular, that the Panel fully appreciates the particular challenges which many female barristers face in ascending to the higher levels of the profession, and that the application process itself will be managed in such a way that avoids any undue indirect discrimination.

In the years leading up to making her application, Proops had not thought a great deal about applying. However, when the time came, she realised that she had accumulated a number of cutting-edge appellate cases, such that she could make a credible application. (She felt very fortunate to be in a position to apply, particularly given that she had a lengthy maternity leave in 2012 and since then had not been working at full capacity.)

Since being made Silk, Proops has run a seminar in chambers for senior-juniors contemplating a QC application.

Diversity awareness vital to advocates

Lisa Busch QC 

Landmark Chambers, London

Lisa Busch QC practises in planning and environmental law and in human rights, including in the immigration context. She also deals with immigration cases involving human trafficking, victims of torture and unlawful detention cases. She has appeared in a number of cases concerning the removal of claimants suffering from life-threatening illnesses from the UK.

Busch did her BA at the University of Western Australia, followed by post-graduate studies at Oxford, and attended Bar school in London. She garnered an impressive number of scholarships, bursaries and prizes without which it would not have been possible to achieve her ambition of becoming a barrister, and she financed herself through higher education and Bar school. She did her pupillage in a large planning and public law set.

Finding herself increasingly up against QCs, Busch began to think about applying for Silk, with encouragement from others, including judges. She was at a stage where she felt that she had sufficient cases of substance and potential assessors to make a viable application. She had been instructed in the HS2 inquiry which had dominated her practice for two years, and so had to go back three years for some of her cases.

Busch found the application process fascinating and fair, but also stressful, particularly the dependence on one‘s assessors to provide the necessary support. She was fortunate that within an otherwise extremely busy period she managed to find a relatively quiet week to complete the application form.

She is critical of those in the profession who are cynical about diversity (one of the five competencies in the process) as she considers that an awareness of – and proactivity in – issues of diversity is vital as an advocate. She explained to the interviewers what she did in relation to her numerous immigration and asylum cases at the outset of the interview. A large number of Busch’s cases involve claimants who are extremely vulnerable, including cases involving sick children and adults.

Busch feels that people should not make assumptions about the Bar – it is now far more diverse than the stereotype of a homogenous white, male, middle-class preserve.

It was still early days, but Busch expected her workload as a QC would increase, although not necessarily in the short term as she was acutely aware that she would in effect have to ‘start anew’ as she built up a Silk-level practice. She accepted that this prospect, while somewhat daunting, was an inevitable part of the process on becoming a QC. Mentoring had not featured in her preparation for making a Silk application and she rather wondered whether any system of mentoring could really fit comfortably with the professional independence that one needed to maintain as a member of the Bar.

Surmounting life’s hurdles

Kama Melly QC

Park Square Barristers, Leeds

Kama Melly QC is widely recognised as one of the foremost advocates in the north east. In demand for serious heavyweight crime cases including the gravest sexual offences, she specialises in cases involving child exploitation and child defendants (some as young as 10 years of age). She relishes working with ‘people who have not chosen to be involved in the justice system’.

Although she has faced challenges at the Bar from being a woman of mixed heritage, she felt she encountered bigger hurdles due to her working class background. Having lived in a squat for the first seven years of her life, raised by her mother, she dropped out of college at 16, but later studied for A-levels while managing a skateboard shop. She chose law – and more specifically criminal law – because it involved interesting law and real issues, emotions and desires. The work also enabled her to exploit her personal strength in getting on with people from all walks of life. Melly was assisted at Bar school with a scholarship at Middle Temple.

She returned to Leeds (where she had taken her law degree) to practise when the opportunity arose there for a pupillage. Melly recognises that it is fairly unusual for a barrister to have worked so much in just one court (Leeds Crown Court), but doing so had allowed her to balance work and family life – and then only by being ‘pretty relentless’ and ‘never allowing any dead time’.

Obtaining Silk was a matter of ‘solid preparation’ for the competition over a number of years. Having had a copy of the latest QC application form on her laptop to look at in odd free moments proved useful. Melly also went through her diaries to help recall her cases. She received advice and support from senior colleagues and some formal training on competency-based interview techniques. She also researched the (then recent) Supreme Court ruling on joint enterprise, which she felt might crop up. It did.

Melly considers it incumbent upon members of the profession, particularly at senior levels, to show the way on diversity though understanding, commitment and action. Silks, she said, should ‘set the tone’ in the robing room in the treatment of black and minority ethnic and female colleagues.

Overall, she said she found the Queen’s Counsel competition process arduous but ‘pleasant’. She ‘adored’ the QC Ceremony which she shared with family and close friends.

One of the challenges she anticipated as a new QC was spending more time away from her family. But to balance that, she hoped to get more time off between cases. As if not busy enough, Melly also ‘volunteered for things’ (she was Chair of the Bar Conference in 2015) because, as she puts it, ‘you can’t criticise the way things are, if you are not prepared to get involved’.

Advice for applicants: pull out all the stops

John McKendrick QC

Outer Temple Chambers, London

At 39, John McKendrick QC is one of the youngest new Silks appointed in 2016. He has a diverse practice, working in public, commercial and regulatory law in the UK, and across Latin America and in the Caribbean. McKendrick comes from a working class family background in Glasgow. His parents encouraged him to study law as ‘a safe option’ to provide social and economic security. It was while studying law at LSE that he became attracted to the idea of becoming an advocate.

For the QC application, McKendrick says that he had reached a point where he felt he had 12 credible judicial assessors to apply, having had a good two-year period. He found the application form time-consuming and ‘rather tedious’ but it forced him to be totally rigorous and honest about himself and the viability of his application. He became thoroughly familiar with the Guidance for Applicants, which he says helped him considerably when it came to the completion process.

The key to the whole application process, McKendrick believes, is in having a sufficient number of cases of substance and assessors; then ‘the rest falls into place’ but only as long as you are prepared to ‘pull out all the stops’ so that your assessors will have seen you perform at your very best. It was ‘worth staying in chambers until midnight to polish off that skeleton’.

McKendrick said the interview was straightforward and that the two interviewers were ‘very pleasant and put me at my ease’; they ran him through all of the competencies and sought examples of what he had done to demonstrate excellence across the board. When it came to the diversity competence, he found it was essential to have clear evidence of activity and to avoid talking in generalities and platitudes. McKendrick was able to cite his work acting for adults who lack capacity, representing their best interests in the Court of Protection. Many of his clients have learning difficulties and other mental impairments. Other clients have mental health difficulties. Further, as the only legally qualified trustee of a migrant charity, McKendrick was able to evidence his contribution to promoting the diversity of the migrant community in London.

Being a QC should open doors to more interesting and complex work, he expects. As a Silk he will have fewer hearings and more time to polish his written advocacy.

Bar should do more to subsidise the younger generation

James Ewins QC

Queen Elizabeth Building (QEB), London

At the age of 10, having been involved in a road traffic accident, James Ewins QC became fascinated by the legal process surrounding his claim for personal injuries, particularly a conference with a barrister. Ewins decided ‘there and then’ that he wanted to be a barrister, and plotted his academic course accordingly. While at university, a chance meeting put him in touch with the then head of chambers at QEB, leading him to do a mini-pupillage there. He subsequently applied for pupillage, and was taken on as a tenant in 1998.

Ewins now specialises in complex matrimonial finance work. ‘Big money divorces’ entail multiple and complex inter-linking facets of family finances from simple bank accounts to offshore corporate and trust-based asset structures with the associated tax issues, as well as issues of large scale intergenerational inherited wealth. The common thread, however, is ‘the human element’ . ‘You get to know a huge amount about people through a forensic examination of their finances,’ he says.

When his head of chambers suggested that he apply for Silk, Ewins‘ first thought was, ‘I never believed I would last that long!‘ He had suffered recurring bouts of cancer between 2003 and 2010, and had placed any thoughts about applying for Silk well into the future. Instead, he re-prioritised his life somewhat, and took a two-year sabbatical from work freeing slaves in India.

Ewins suggests that no-one contemplating making the QC application should underestimate its demands. He spent a full week completing the application form and recalls the emotional challenge that such rigorous self-examination brought about. On learning that he had been recommended for QC, Ewins felt the background stress of the previous 10 months‘ application period suddenly disappear, reminding him of his tenancy decision 19 years ago.

He maintains a strong commitment to, and proactivity in, encouraging equality and diversity at the Bar for those entering the profession and those who later seek the higher positions, such as Queen‘s Counsel. As such, Ewins feels that the Bar should invest more in assisted places and scholarships, and in supporting those who return to practice after maternity leave, if the Bar and in due course the judiciary are properly to reflect the diversity of modern Britain. He believes that the present generation of successful barristers should be prepared to subsidise the younger generation to overcome unfair disadvantages.

Ewins‘ motivation is founded on his faith: as a Christian, he believes that he is called to seek justice, especially for those who are poor, vulnerable and voiceless. For him, his qualifications and skills as a lawyer make that calling particularly clear and compelling. Since returning from his sabbatical, he has become a leading UK and international legal expert on modern slavery and spends a large amount of time working pro-bono on the subject. This work has included research work for the Centre for Social Justice, acting as a specialist legal adviser to the Modern Slavery Select Committee and producing an Independent Review of the Overseas Domestic Worker Visa.

Contributor Peter Purvis, Policy Adviser at Queen’s Counsel Appointments

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Peter Purvis

Peter is policy adviser to the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel in the QCA Secretariat. He is currently working on his seventh Silk competition. He was previously a senior civil servant in DEFRA, freelance consultant on EU issues and a counsellor.