A true reflection

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The Bar Council needs not only to support the Bar but also to help it be understood by and to reflect the society it serves.

Stephen Crowne talks to Rupert Jones about his role as Bar Council Chief Executive.


Sitting in an office in Holborn overlooking the treetops of Lincoln’s Inn, Stephen Crowne thinks back over his first 18 months as Chief Executive of the Bar Council.

When the job came up he was working for technology giant Cisco and felt he wouldn’t be the obvious choice for the role, but couldn’t resist a new challenge. “I saw the job advertised and thought: ‘that looks interesting but they’ll almost certainly want a lawyer.’ But I was told: No, they were very interested in bringing another perspective in.”

He was appointed in June 2013 but had no immediate predecessor. The Bar Council decided it was unnecessary to replace the former Chief Executive David Hobart when he stepped down in 2011 – a decision they reversed two years later. “I noticed immediately that absence. What was clearly missing was a clear sense of what the organisation is here for and what its strategic priorities should be for the next few years – so that was one of my key priorities when I came in, to try and establish that clarity.”

While Crowne is the Chief Executive, the key figure at the Bar Council is the Chairman. “The professional leadership embodied in the Chairman is very important. To be the spokesman for the entire Bar, you need a Chairman who has a deep understanding of the diversity of the Bar and also brings their own particular perspective.”

Crowne compares his relationship with the Chairman to that between a permanent secretary in a government department and a minister. “It’s a key relationship. The Chairman deals with the political issues, I deal with the business issues. Those things overlap, but we manage that pretty effectively I think.”

Of course, a new Chairman is elected every year. Each Chairman naturally brings fresh priorities. How does the annual change impact on Crowne’s ability to plan two years ahead, let alone five or ten years? “Part of the purpose of my role and of having a strategic plan at all is to bring some basic continuity, so that any Chairman coming in knows that fundamentally this is what we’re about. But of course every Chairman needs to bring their own perspective and every Chairman will have in particular their own areas of expertise. It’s important that the organisation responds to that and supports it. It does work.”

One of Crowne’s first tasks was to manage the downsizing of the Bar Council’s offices in Holborn. It was a move he calls “a complete no brainer”: “We’re going to be saving £4,000,000 over five years, against investment of £1,500,000 so that’s a very important saving for the entire Bar.”

Crowne is responsible for around 160 members of staff and one of his other early tasks was to undertake a staffing review on the representation side of the organisation “to make sure that we’ve got the right people in the right place, but also developing them and giving them opportunities.”

It is essential, Crowne says, that the Bar Council’s staff are equipped with the skills needed in the modern legal environment. “The role of the barrister is changing. What I’m looking for, from the staff , is the ability to understand what’s going on, and be creative in coming up with ideas about what the Bar Council needs to do in the future.”

Did it mean downsizing staff as well as office space? “A small number of staff took the opportunity to leave voluntarily, which is always up to them in these circumstances. But I’m pleased with the outcome. It’s gone well. We’ve got a team which is well equipped for the challenges for the future.”

There were reports earlier in the year that an email was mistakenly sent to some members of staff telling them their services were no longer required. “There was a bit of mischievous reporting,” says Crowne. “What happened was there was a simple administrative mistake in a few letters that went out and it was corrected almost instantaneously.”

Crowne is keen to make sure he develops his own role too. “I’ve deliberately focused in my early months on the organisation and developing leadership. I’m now moving into a second stage which is reaching out more to the profession to get an understanding of what they want as well as explaining what we are about. Beyond that, my role will be to increasingly influence the policy environment – the big longer term issues that we face. For example the future of regulation.”

The Bar is a diverse profession and representing the interests of each barrister presents a unique challenge to Crowne. “It’s quite hard, because of the way barristers work, to get a coherent sense of what people are thinking, what the overall thinking is. But in the modern world any membership organisation needs to market itself effectively to its own membership and ensure we really understand people’s views. One of the things we’re doing is going out to talk to all of the circuits about all kinds of issues.”

When Crowne speaks to barristers, inevitably he will be met with grumbles about Practicing Certificate Fees. “I was determined with my arrival that the first PCF fee set should be no higher than the previous year and we achieved that. We’re trying to build in efficiencies. In an ideal world I’d like to say ‘we’ll cut it’ but this is not all within my gift. We are under an obligation to ensure the BSB has the resources it needs, but the BSB is thinking hard about its resources too. I’m determined to keep the PCF as low as possible.”

Next year the current charging system, under which barristers pay according to year of call rather than level of income, is changing. “It became clear the current system is unfair. The profession said that was the case. There are people with many years of practice who are not doing so well, it’s unfair to expect them to contribute the same as people who are doing extremely well.”

One of the other issues up for discussion is the reduction in income for those working in publically funded areas of law. Crowne says the recent Working Lives Study paints an alarming picture. “Significant numbers of practitioners whose work is publicly funded will find it difficult to sustain a career. The numbers speak for themselves. We’ve got to accept it’s a reality that’s facing quite a lot of barristers. We’ve got to help people think about their future and encourage them to look at alternatives.”

Crowne says the Bar Council is on the front foot in meeting the challenges ahead. “One of the positives to come out of the controversy around the cuts is that a wider group of stakeholders now understand the importance of the independent Bar to the whole operation of the justice system. The Government is taking a very big risk at the moment with the sustainability of that style of operation. That’s why we’ve invested a lot of time and effort now into various groups looking at the future of the justice system. We can tap unparalleled expertise across the Bar to try to influence policy for the future and we’ve made some progress with the Government on that.” “I do feel very strongly that legal aid and the operation of the civil and criminal justice system is a vital part, a vital component of what makes this a civilised country. There is a lot at stake here, this is not just people complaining about pay, and I think this organisation is extremely well placed to influence the evolution of the justice system over the next few years.”

Crowne says one of the “big worries” caused by pressures on remuneration and legal aid is that it will be much harder to make the Bar more diverse. “In recent years, a lot of progress has been made. The concern is that the legal aid cuts will force us backwards. The Bar has always prided itself on being meritocratic, but there are obstacles to people of merit succeeding which are nothing to do with their personal capability, more their circumstances.”

That said, Crowne says the Bar Council can do more to open up access to the profession. He cites the work-placement scheme and the national mock-trial competition as things that are being done. “The idea to pupils of standing up and doing a trial is greatly attractive and there’s a waiting list of schools for that initiative.”

One of the other difficulties the Bar faces is its public perception. “I carried in some prejudices and some views,” says Crowne. “I do think the Bar needs to be more sensitive to the way barristers are perceived by the public. People will inevitably have in mind the bewigged and gowned, dining at the Inns of Court images, and we do need to change that to be honest, I don’t think it is helpful to what we are trying to achieve now. It does come back to diversity. If people can see that the Bar looks like the rest of society, that will carry us a very long way.”

The answer to tackling that problem, he believes, is being more open as a profession. “I think we have to tell the story as it is, be open to debate and criticism and come up with positive ideas for improvement. Things like Silk on television don’t do us any harm, there may be lots of criticism about its accuracy but it carries a message that these are deeply committed people, that it’s a tough life, and that, okay some people might do very well out of it, but lots of people are working hard and the rewards are relatively modest.”

As for Crowne’s day-to-day tasks: “inevitably one has meetings”. One of his more unusual tasks this year was to pour ice-cold water over himself for the ice bucket challenge. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. It was over so quickly,” he says.

Despite the numerous challenges, expectations and pressures he faces, Crowne enjoys his job. “It’s a great place to work. You are surrounded by a lot of extremely able and confident people who are, guess what, extremely good at arguing their case. Barristers can be very forthright but they are an inherently reasonable group of people. If you make your case, they respect that, and they’re happy. I’m very happy with that.”

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Stephen Crowne

Stephen has been Chief Executive of the Bar Council since June 2013. Before that he spent two years with Cisco, and five years as Chief Executive of BECTA, the UK Government education technology agency.

Stephen Crowne

Before joining the Bar Council as Chief Executive in 2013, Stephen held a variety of senior public and private sector posts in education policy, most recently as Chief Executive of BECTA, the UK Government education technology agency and with Cisco, the networking giant.