A Week in the Life

Melissa Coutinho, co-Chair of the Employed Bar, reports back to Counsel from the 2012 conference.

A gloriously and unseasonably hot March 21st this year, saw barristers hurrying across Lincoln’s Inn Fields with envious backward glances at those sunbathing and enjoying an al fresco lunch seemingly without a care in the world. They were heading towards the Employed Bar’s Annual Conference. This year’s theme was “A week in the life of an Employed Barrister,” which was chosen to demonstrate that there is no typical week for such a soul. It focused on the breadth of work and variety of working arrangements that employed barristers enjoy, within the parameters permitted by our Code of Conduct.


Because employers were more likely to spare them for an afternoon than for a whole day, it began at lunch time. This meant it had to cover a wide range of topics in a compressed time. I introduced our first speaker, Alison Levitt QC, who as Principal Legal Advisor to the Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, is a prime example of someone who has successfully moved from the self-employed to the employed bar. She shared with the audience the similarities (high profile work) and differences (employment status) between the two roles and stressed that her independence had not been compromised. She called for those who refer to the self-employed bar alone as ‘the independent bar’ to change the language that they use.

Dr Vanessa Davies, Director of the Bar Standards Board, spoke for the first substantive session, “QASA—an update and implications.” Also speaking was Nick Green QC, Chairman of the Advocacy Training Council. While nobody wanted to argue with the principle that barristers who appear as advocates in court should perform well, the detail of the proposals was challenged by those concerned about how the scheme would operate in practice. Dr Vanessa Davies was clear that the scheme would go ahead even if some further delays could not be ruled out.

Many of the queries came from barristers who do not appear on a daily basis in the criminal courts, who wanted to know if they needed a ‘ticket’ and if so how they could get one. Some saw assessment centres as the only sensible option available to them, as they did not appear as regular advocates in the Crown Court. Others queried whether a scheme which only deals with the Crown Court is proportionate. Since the conference, a consultation on the revised scheme has been announced.

A very short coffee-break preceded Nick Lavender QC, Chairman of the Professional Practice Committee and recently elected Vice-Chairman of the Bar for 2013, moderating a panel discussion on different working arenas and the ethical and practical issues arising from this. The Panellists were Sarah Goom from the Attorney General’s Office, Sara George, a partner at Stephenson Harwood at 13 years’ Call and Dr Mirza Ahmad, recently of St Philips Chambers. The three represented barristers who had spent the majority of their legal careers with employed status, Sarah Goom who had moved within the Government Legal Service for 20 years ever since leaving chambers, Sara George who had started out on her legal career as a pupil doing exclusively criminal law before moving to the FSA and then Allen & Overy, and Dr Mirza Ahmad, who after working in local government for 26 years working his way up to Director level, decided to move to local chambers in Birmingham while harbouring political ambitions that he shared with us.

Whether being a lawyer to the Iraq Inquiry, dealing with serious financial fraud or heading the largest local authority in Europe, (as their respective positions had allowed), the three speakers all shared one feature - they considered that luck had played a part in their careers and none had planned their current position. A reoccurring theme was the reticence of employers to flag up ethical considerations, leaving these to the individual to consider, perhaps a surprise to those that question the independence of the employed practitioner. Accordingly, Sara George was able to share with the audience that while the FSA had not placed any restrictive terms within her contract that affected her work on departing the organisation, she herself imposed a six month moratorium so that she did not defend those that she had recently sought to prosecute. 

Graham Reid, a Legal Director at law firm RPC, drew on his experience of practice at the self-employed Bar in a leading professional negligence set for 9 years before joining RPC in 2002. Since then he has specialised in the legal services sector, acting for lawyers, their insurers and regulators. His background in dividing his professional life between defending professional negligence claims against law firms, advising in respect of all aspects of legal services regulation, including investigations, disciplinary proceedings, advising on setting up in this jurisdiction and designing conflict avoidance systems for in-house lawyers set him in good stead for taking his audience through the Legal Services Act, and what a barrister could do without incurring unwanted consequences and what required greater care. 

He covered different working arrangements referencing the Code and legislation to illustrate via practical examples what worked well and the considerations that had to be borne in mind. Even his use of ‘word cloud technology’ whereby the press of a single button allows the condensation of copious text onto a single page, with a word cloud visually depicting words sized by their frequency, when applied to the Code of Conduct made a not insubstantial document appear much less daunting. Thoughtful faces around the room suggested that I was not the only one to consider what other documents one might apply such technology to when time was at a premium...

The last session of the conference before a Q&A was covered by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC. He gave a frank account of the landscape of criminal cases today and the probable direction of travel in the immediate future. While his admission that work was limited and subject to the same cost efficiencies that others in the public sector had already encountered was not surprising, his straightforward approach to what this might mean for those at the Bar who wanted to do publicly funded crime was appreciated. A Q&A session moderated by Stephen Leslie QC (former Leader of the South Eastern Circuit) that allowed regulatory, commercial and criminal lawyers to answer a variety of questions brought the formal part of the conference to a close and allowed for further networking opportunities. Most gratifying was the news that two members of the audience appeared to have potentially arranged new jobs as a result of taking the exhortation to make the most of networking opportunities seriously.

Did the conference achieve its aims of informing barristers about the breadth of work and variety of working arrangements that they might enjoy, as permitted by the Code of Conduct? Well, 50+% returned feedback forms and of those 94% of respondents agreed the conference was either excellent or very good.

The Employed Barristers Committee had worked hard to pull the event off successfully, ably assisted by our secretary Emma Brickell.

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Melissa Coutinho

Melissa Coutinho is a lawyer for the Government Legal Service An accredited arbitrator, qualified PPM practitioner and a magistrate, she also writes and lectures on medical products and their regulation.