Troubleshooting tips for the junior Bar

Taking stock of your practice, planning for the future and adjusting the way you work is one way to make use of interrupted times. Athena Markides grilled a panel, one famously secret, at the Bar Conference for their advice


Q. What are your top tips for being a great junior?

Andrew Powell (AP): First, communication is key. Leaders have different styles and sometimes, much like a chameleon, you have to adapt to their way of working. If it is a leader to whom you have never been a junior, it might be a good idea to speak to other juniors to try and gauge what works well for them. Second, manage expectations: again, this is a communication point, but it is important to establish what the division of labour will be. Are you to prepare the first draft of the skeleton augment? Prepare cross examination questions? If so, by when, and for which witnesses? The last thing you want is to arrive at court at 09.30am on day three of a trial to be greeted with, ‘So you’ll take the first witness this morning?’ And third, set boundaries: while the gown might be mistaken for a cape, we are not superheroes (well, most of us aren’t). If you’re happy to take early morning/late night calls about a case, that is fine. But that won’t work for everyone; be clear from the outset.

Q. And your tips for working well with clerks?

Amy Rogers (AR): Again, it all comes down to one key tip, which is communication. The only way your clerks will know how you want to see your practice develop, or where you want to be in five years’ time, whether your workload is too heavy or too light, etc, is if you tell them. It’s much easier and more effective to have those conversations collaboratively, on a rolling basis, rather than storing everything up for an annual unburdening, or post-mortem if something goes wrong. Your clerks can be your greatest ally in helping you juggle deadlines and maintain some sort of work/life balance, if you work together to identify potential flashpoints in advance. Remember that what is obvious to you about your area of practice may not be obvious to your clerks, especially more junior clerks. It is always worth taking the time to make sure they understand what your work involves, why some cases need more preparation time than others, why a case might overrun, and so on. It will help you both!

Q. What would you do if you felt your clerks were treating you less favourably than your colleagues?

AP: Speak to the clerks. This doesn’t have to be a confrontation, but it can be approached in the form of asking for an appraisal or review of your work. The issue might go a little deeper and be more about fair allocation of work, which is ultimately about transparency. Chambers are under a duty to review how unassigned work is allocated.

AR: I agree. Sitting down with your clerks to review your practice, work profile, and (where available) ‘opportunity reports’ can be the jumping off point for a broader discussion about why you are not seeing particular types of work and what can be done to redress that. Sometimes there may have been a genuine misunderstanding as to whether you were interested in a particular type of work, and the answer to that is better communication. But, as Andrew says, if a discussion on those lines does not resolve your concerns, chambers must ensure a fair allocation of work and record, review and react to disparities in the distribution of unassigned work. On a practical level, it may help to share the issue with a more senior colleague in chambers, who knows the individuals involved and who can help you address the problem while (where appropriate) maintaining good working relationships with your clerks.

Q. How should you handle mistakes in your written work/poor performance?

AP: Mea culpa. Better to own the mistake than to try and brush it under the carpet. Reputation is your professional currency at the Bar, so it is important to try limit any professional damage.

AR: Absolutely. Pick up the phone; be straightforward about what has happened; and come up with a plan to help resolve the issue. Many clients will understand mistakes happen; and will appreciate your frankness. (Of course, you may also need to notify your insurers!)

Q. What is the importance of social media in modern marketing?

AP: It can be a great advantage, but also a hindrance; just one tweet can cause professional embarrassment. I’d agree with the Secret Barrister’s endorsement of Joanna Hardy as a good example of how to conduct a Twitter account: she strikes a good balance of information on serious legal issues, with general commentary (and good humour) on current affairs.

AR: There is no escaping social media. And more than that; it is genuinely useful as a way to raise your profile and engage with clients. But there are some golden rules (see the BSB’s ‘social media guidance’). Generally, stand back and ask yourself the age-old question: would I be happy for this to be shown to a judge? If the answer is ‘No; I would die of shame and embarrassment,’ it’s probably not a good idea.

Q. What do clients find the most/least positive thing about using barristers? How can we do better?

Rebecca Priestley: Clients value high calibre advice and advocacy, courage and independence. The Bar frequently also offers cost effective legal advice on complex issues. The digital revolution has transformed traditional business models at an unprecedented rate, influencing how clients expect to access, experience and fund legal services in a far more competitive and fast-changing environment. Barristers historically appeared to live in a rarefied world; recent events have demanded a radical and rapid change to working practices, and barristers have, in my experience, been adept at Zooming rather than advising within the cloistered confines of Chambers and conducting court hearings remotely. Clients expect a seamless service from their first encounter with chambers through to follow-up after a case. If met with unfriendly, unhelpful or inefficient service at any point in that supply chain, they may take their custom elsewhere. For a barrister, being technically and intellectually able is a given. You also need to be personable and responsive, manage client relationships well and engage collaboratively with the legal team. People skills are in many ways as important as intellectual skills. Being arrogant, unresponsive or poor at handling clients outside the courtroom is a complete turn off. Working with a strong team mentality and being adaptable is critical. Take the time to understand your client’s priorities and, in a corporate environment, appreciate the business model and internal governance. This will help you understand the business context into which your advice is being delivered, including the potential financial, reputational and practical consequences for your client of taking a certain course. It may be unhelpful to deliver a 20-page legal treatise, without an executive summary if the advice is being used by in-house counsel and needs to be summarised for a brief executive report for the Board. Much as you may love listing every case on the point in hand from the last 20 years, it may be the last thing your busy client wants. Ask your client how it would be most helpful to present your advice! Most of all clients want to know that you ‘have their back’ and will remember how collaboratively you worked with them and supported them when dealing with difficult issues. The current crisis makes this more important than ever.

The Secret Barrister’s troubleshooting tips

Q. SB, what are your top tips for dealing with a difficult judge?

1. Prepare in advance. It sounds trite, but the nastiest, angriest judges can be soothed by a timely and neatly presented skeleton or schedule (or if you’re in crime, a helpful note in the sidebar of DCS) setting out the issues and alerting the court in advance of the hearing to the problem you’re going to drop on the judge’s toes. The most hostile judges tend to be the most insecure; if you minimise the surprises you’re springing on them and show them the way through the problem (ideally convincing them that it was all their idea), you can learn to wrangle them.

2. Don’t bullshit. There is a temptation, if a judge points out an obvious hole in your argument that you’ve missed, either to persist with an atrocious line of reasoning or, worse, try to pretend that you were well aware of said hole and bluff. Judges have seen this a thousand times before, and it will just make them angrier. If your point is inarguable and unsalvageable, just accept your error and move on. If it fatally undermines the entire premise of your application, and there is no rescue, it is still better to concede gracefully than flog a dead duck. If that’s a phrase*.

3. Smile. It’s hard to be really crushing to a happy smiling face.

* Horse. Flog a dead horse.

Q. Are there reasons for optimism at the criminal Bar?

Optimism? Christ. Give me a second. I think things are getting better than they were. I do think we hit rock bottom a few years ago, and that put a rocket up the profession and forced us to actually do something to improve our lot. There have been some minor improvements in AGFS (defence fees) – although in other ways some cases have got a lot worse – and some improvements in prosecution fees with more to follow.

We have more fighting to do. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I also think we are slowly getting media attention that we wouldn’t have had a few years ago, and there is some public recognition of what we do.

Q. Have you ever made a mistake with a firm of solicitors and what would you do to rectify that?

Rectifying massive mistakes – my speciality. Headline: admit fault. Even if it’s enormous and is liable to end your relationship with that solicitor, it is still better to be honest about what you’ve done, and offer solutions to fix it. Most of the time, any error can be remedied, and even if not, relationships can be salvaged with integrity. Trying to cover it up or evade blame is absolutely the last thing you should do.

And yes! Phone conversations when admitting fault, or face-to-face if possible, are much better. Escalating passive-aggressive email chains are the death knell for any professional relationships.

Q. Any suggestions for fair allocation of work in chambers?

I think Amy’s point about communication with your clerks is the key here. Most of the time (in my experience) clerks are good at spreading work around, and will respond if you gently remind them that there is a certain type of work you’d like to do a bit more. Practice management meetings are your formal opportunity to raise issues, but don’t be afraid to talk to your clerks outside those formal windows. If you are briefed on a particular area or by a firm and you’d like to do more of the same, say that to the clerks. There’s an understandable feeling when you’re junior that you should just take what you’re given, and obviously you don’t want to carve a reputation as a prima donna straight off the bat, but there is no harm in saying, ‘This is something I’d like to do more of.’

Q. In addition to tips about working with clerks and judges, what advice would you give pupils starting their second six to get their practice going from the get go?

Attention to detail and proactivity are important. Calling solicitors pre and post hearings – even small hearings – to discuss the case and show willing, makes a difference. In crime, being sociable and getting your face and name known can give a boost. Your supervisor should help you with this, and spend the first six introducing you to everyone you’re likely to encounter, but in second six you have to keep it up. Even though you’re junior, your view and your input still matters.

Become known.

I didn’t!

Q. I tell my pupils not to go on social media. What are the dos and don’ts of social media for developing practices and errr not....

Ha!

No good can come from Twitter.

In all seriousness, there is a reason I’m anonymous. I started blogging when (even more) junior, and it would have been impossible to tweet, blog and write as I have under my own name. I think social media is a valuable networking tool, but be careful of your tone. Avoid politics, and keep an eye on how personal you are. Basically, be the opposite of me. The model Twitter user for me as a criminal hack is Joanna Hardy of Red Lion. She tweets about important issues with wit and verve and remains both brilliantly entertaining and completely professional.

Q. How do you say no to clerks when you have too much work, without disappointing them?

Give reasons. Explain why you can’t do it. Usually it will be because to accept the work would have an impact on another case, and clerks will understand why you don’t want to compromise yourself. But ultimately, you have to be firm. Once you’ve got tenancy, they can’t actually make you do anything.

(So glad I’m anonymous right now…)

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Athena Markides

Athena is a barrister at Crown Office Chambers, and has a common law and commercial practice. She is also a member of the Bar Council. Athena was Chair of the Young Barristers’ Committee Chair for 2019.

Andrew Powell

Andrew Powell is a barrister at 4 Paper Buildings.

Amy Rogers

Amy Rogers is a barrister at 11 King’s Bench Walk.

Rebecca Priestley

Rebecca Priestley is Chief Executive of Outer Temple Chambers, joining last year from Lloyds Banking Group where she was People Director, Group Employee Relations and Policy. An experienced Executive HR Director and City lawyer, Rebecca has also been Head of HR Legal at Lloyds Banking Group and Standard Chartered Bank and a senior associate at Simmons & Simmons following initial practice at the Bar. Rebecca is also a Non-Executive Director on the Board of the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), an alliance of FTSE 100 companies and City law firms, committed to building mentally healthy workplaces.

The Secret Barrister

Best-selling author of The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It's Broken (Picador: 2018), and Independent Blogger of the Year (2017 and 2016 Comment Awards), the Secret Barrister is a junior barrister specialising in criminal law and blogs at thesecretbarrister.com. Fake Law: the Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies by the Secret Barrister was published by Picador on 3 September 2020.