Life at the Bar · The Future

Still A Job Worth Doing

I have been debating the value of going to the criminal bar in Legalweek. I am occasionally said to be too gloomy. But it’s not as bad as Alex says. This is still a job worth doing

17 thoughts on “Still A Job Worth Doing

  1. SMQC, when it comes to lost causes, your stance is about as winnable as Gary Glitter’s application to be a primary school teacher.

    The comments at LW do, I suppose, reflect the overwhelming majority view of those at the coalface. Except that is when it comes to the interests of the Bar. The first commenter at LW writes that it is in nobody’s interests that juniors are unable to prosper at the criminal Bar.

    Call me a sceptic, but I would say that the current state of affairs is very much in the interests of the senior criminal Bar who are able to shore up their own position by using a constant supply of fresh fodder in the form of pupils and newly called juniors to work for an undignified pittance. With the BSB doing its damnest to create a ludicrous over supply of aspirants, keeping down the minimum pupillage award to a level which would be unlawful if pupils were employees, and the senior Bar seemingly having neither the collective self respect nor the balls to take on Jack Straw over the CLS budgets, it does not look good.

    Whilst I feel your £10K comments do nothing but make you look like a tit, I do, however, have some sympathy with the sentiment of what you write. It is, however, a sentiment borne of an era when there was no pretence that entry to the Bar, nor any other profession, was for anyone other than an aspirants from an upper middle class background. Back then, there was a paying your dues theme which was understood from the get-go, and with the blessed absence of the modern diversity nonsense, no one was under any illusion that, unless you had private means, you looked elsewhere for a career.

    But times and have changed and we now have diversity and a generation of students who not only lack rich families but also have education debts that no previous generation was expected to shoulder.

    I fear that you, and your senior colleagues need to appreciate that you cannot have it both ways. You cannot run with your wider access message and then get uppity because the junior end of the Bar is not possessed of rich daddies and trust funds which they can use to live off whilst earning their stripes by doing your grunt work for you.

    I feel that many hope you will choose to wind back on the impression you have given.

  2. Firstly, I think you need to look at your advocacy here. Is it really compatible with your stated aim?

    Secondly, I am afraid that the proposition that the senior bar needs to take on Jack Straw is wrong. It is not the senior bar, although your use of that phrase is telling. If the job needs doing then it is the whole bar. Don’t whinge from the sidelines. If people don’t agree with you it may be because you are wrong. If you can’t persuade them it may be because you are wrong. The Bar has, in fact, done rather well in the recent past by knowing exactly which battles to fight. That the government then chooses to renege on all its agreements is hardly the bar’s fault – yours or mine.

    Thirdly, you cannot attribute oversupply to the BSB. It is a competition issue and the legal position is clear. You might not like it, but blaming people doesn’t sort out the problem. Stop looking for a magic wand to make your position better. That is the sort of behaviour you attribute to those with rich daddies.

    Fourthly, you don’t need private means to come to the Bar. I know that you imply that the ‘Senior Bar’ know nothing about life but actually you are wrong. Pupil supervisors talk to their pupils and – in good Chambers – senior members talk to junior members. It may not be easy for the first few years but you need a sense of history which you lack. In the 1980s we would have laughed at the idea of working every day in the first 3 years. You talked to your bank (admittedly a tough one at the moment) and you went without. That is still possible. I accept that it may be more difficult in London but that – if you practice there – was a choice you made. Yes you have debts regarding your education, but they are not repayable when you first start in practice.

    If your Chambers is making you do grunt work then I suggest a simple 3 step process. Ask yourself if it is because of you. It actually may be. Then, if not, ask them to stop. If they won’t – move. But your suggestion – which simply cannot be borne of knowledge – that this is the practice of the entire Bar is erroneous, offensive and a whine.

    I appreciate that you may want a fabulous income straight away and the means to pay off your debts. You can’t have it. But to pretend that you will inevitably be unable to carry on is silly. If you are any good – and if you are lucky – you will manage to make a better living than 85% of people in this country. And your problem with working hard for that, and waiting for it is what exactly?

    In the end, if you speak for the majority as you claim, then they are both utterly silent and willing to carry on regardless. The Bar loses comparatively few people after tenancy. If you were right, people would be leaving in droves.

    There is something in what you say, but it is overstated and, for my taste, there is too much complaining and too little shouldering of burdens. To blame the senior bar for everything and to attribute to members of your own profession a determination to exploit you and your colleagues is hardly a demonstration of professional behaviour. Is it?

  3. Simon, well said. This is a tricky situation, and one should be as constructive as possible.

    That said, is there any means by which the Bar could collectively do better at making agreements with government that are enforceable? For the Bar to get (as I understand it) repeatedly and consistent screwed on these deals speaks badly for the realism and toughness of the Bar’s negotiators.

  4. While I know you (SMQC ) wants to do his best for bar aspirants, quite frankly you are out of touch, and often add little value.

    Having followed your blawg and postings on the student room for a while, it is quite clear your have an unfaltering incorrect opinion, which was probably the case in 1992, but is just no longer so with regards to the bar.

    Whenever someone try’s to dispute you, you will not take their point, even though they are giving you factually indisputable information such as Alex Deane.

    This faux opinion is not helpful to anyone, least of all those you encourage to load up on debt when they never had a chance at this profession in the first place.

  5. Prospering, the difficulty with comments like this is that merely repeating that I am wrong allows no one to assess what you say are two competing theories, and so offers little to any reader. No one knows who you are, or anything of your experiences. You don’t identify Alex Deane’s ‘factual information’ (which I take to be a reference to his own account of his experiences). Your comment is no more than sounding off.

    Alex Deane (and you) may be right. But the catalogue of complaint is so overstated that it is impossible to judge. It includes things – like complaints about the rudeness of Court staff – which I have never encountered. It includes too much moaning about how little you are paid without giving sums of money, Chambers or dates of call. The difficulty is that, as any good advocate knows, persuading people of your case requires hard facts and figures. Your assertions depend on taking your partial picture of things at face value, whilst ignoring the obvious pieces of information that you withhold. It doesn’t appeal to me I’m afraid.

    I have repeatedly invited those who take this view (and the members of the Bar who make the alternative accusation that I am much too gloomy) to write a guest post. I set simple conditions: you must tell me who you are and you must be polite. That’s it – public anonymity is guaranteed unless you are prepared to out yourself. I extend the same invitation to you.

    Your last paragraph betrays a lack of research. If you check the blog you will find that I repeatedly express concern about people getting a BVC qualification without a chance of pupillage. To allege, without doing that simple check, that I encourage people to get into debt is both discourteous and sloppy. It is also massively patronising. BVC students aren’t corralled into doing the course. They want to do it. Not only does the law permit them to do so – so there is no question of encouraging – but they are entitled to make adult decisions for themselves. My preferred solution – a barrister run filter – offers help without impeding choice and, incidentally, would involve the profession in yet further unpaid assistance.

    Given the screen name you have adopted I assume that you left the Bar. How do you honestly think you would have responded to the suggestion that you were simply being encouraged to load up with debt, when on the verge of pupillage? A retroscope is the world’s most wonderful scientific instrument, suffering merely from the problem of non-existence.

    If you would like to debate this properly, drop me an email.

  6. Barboy….

    Your “Senior Counsel” tirade has nothing to do with Simon Myerson QC. It is London specific and Simon is a barrister on circuit. I do think his comments show a lack of understanding of how truly despicable the situation is in London, but then, why should he know, or care.

    I can’t see a problem with a £10,000 award at all. Surely your problem is with the Bar Course providers or universities, not with the Bar. Nothing stops you from working for a year or two before you start pupillage. I did it.

    Real shame you chose to comment (as young people always do) from a position of absolute certainty that you are the all knowing seer of truth. This leads you to being rude rather than engaging. And leads to the debate which could be had being lost.

    Simon Myerson offers his experience and viewpoint having succeeded at the bar. I wish there had been a similar tool when I was coming up. He may not be right, but his views are valuable and useful.

  7. I write as someone who has managed to secure a Criminal pupillage.

    1) I followed SMQC’s blog like a bible. I found it to be both realistic and helpful. I secured my pupillage at first attempt and pre-BVC… something I have now been told is more rare than common. I attribute at least part of this to the knowledge I accrued from this blog and equally from third-party contributions/comments to the blog.

    2) Barboy – You are incorrect to draw comparisons between pupils and employees. It is also, in my opinion, incorrect to draw a comparison between pupils and “apprentices.” Pupillage is fundamentally different in that i) we are enormously unhelpful for a good proportion of the year, ii) we are there to learn for OUR ultimate benefit and not that of our supervisor nor any overriding “company.”

    My logic (and the only way I can stomach my award) is to view my pupillage as yet another year of study and to liken the award to a scholarship/bursary. In this way it becomes a positive amount. (“At least they’re not charging me.” etc) By this logic, someone is giving up their time and effort to TEACH ME something and then paying ME for it. Not a bad situation at all.

    3) At a time where the criminal bar faces challenges it strikes me as a rather odd and entirely counter-productive strategy to discourage aspirants from joining it. Talk about sealing a fate. Although we appreciate the warnings, we are not a naive bunch. We know it is tough and we know we are not destined for riches. But, in my opinion it is unwise to discourage the bright, enthusiastic and gifted from entering the criminal bar at this time.

  8. I concur with Anon1. Those of you inclined to moan, about being paid to learn your trade, should remember that there are people prepared to do it for nothing should it come to that…..

  9. Anon1

    I have also followed SM advice – to no avail – I have to suggest that your academics, CV and interview got you the job, and probably always would have.

    I would be willing to do it free, and i still moan…

  10. @StillHopeful

    Your comment is very interesting to me, as I would have said that SM’s advice was precisely that – your academics (1st or 2:1 from a well-reputed University, the higher the grade the better and the better the University the better) experience (law-related, skills relevant to law, and interesting experience) and performance in interview will be what earns you the job, or not.

    It would be useful to those of us embarking on this process if those complaining about the advice on this blog would be specific about which things they think are misleading.

  11. Still Hopeful –

    My words were “I attribute at least part of this” to the knowledge accrued from the advice on this Blog. Nothing more.

    I in no way suggest (nor believe) it was the result of the blog alone!!!

    (Which would be a rather spectacular claim!!)

    I was defending the blog from previous negative comment. Nothing more.

    Quite simply – it was enormously helpful to me. I agree with you – the fundamental core of any application (including my own) are the qualifications etc etc of the applicant. This blog highlights that and forms just part of the advice/knowledge to which I refer.

  12. One problem I had with Alex Deane’s piece is that it conflates two distinct points which should, in my view, be kept separate. The first point is about financial remuneration, the other is about how he felt he was treated by (it seems) absolutely everyone he came across.

    The money currently paid to the very junior end of the criminal Bar undertaking publicly-funded work appears to be derisory. Although it is about fifteen years since I did any criminal work on Legal Aid, his observations accord with what I have been told by friends who still practice in crime. I have no difficulty at all in accepting his financial warnings as good sense based on universally applicable facts.

    Having said that, his criticism of pupillage awards seem to me to be rather thin. You know what is on offer when you apply. If you don’t like it there is a simple way to avoid it. No one forces anybody to take pupillage in a set which offers less than they want to receive.

    Perhaps that sounds a bit fuddy-duddy, so now I’ll be even more fuddy-duddy. I did pupillage with people who worked behind bars, delivered pizzas or waited in restaurants to make ends meet.

    If £10,000 is offered and you think you need £15,000 or more, there are plenty of ways to make up the difference. But it requires you to realise that passing a load of exams and wishing to be a practising barrister entitles you to exactly the square root of bugger all.

    The anecdotes he relates about how he was treated by his Chambers, instructing solicitors, Magistrates and court staff suggest that he was, perhaps uniquely, unlucky.

    I witnessed some young barristers and solicitors receiving a less than friendly reception from Magistrates, ushers, dock officers and the people behind the desk in the court office. I also witnessed many more, indeed the vast majority, being treated extremely well by exactly the same people. Almost always there was a very simple explanation – you reap what you sow. Treat people politely and with respect and they tend to treat you in the same way.

  13. county court ushers strike me as never less than polite and often downright helpful. pretty much the same for all court staff i encounter on a daily basis – even when office staff seem inexplicably unwilling to give me what i want, or are just bored and crap as they sometimes are, they still seem civil.
    in fact, i find people at courts quite nice really, including ddjs, djs and (when i am allowed near their mightinesses) cjs. obviously i hate, loathe and despise them all when they find against me (aka ‘when they are WRONG’) but they seem to do so with politeness and tolerance of my faults.
    i don’t currently have any contact with the mags maybe it’s all vile there, but i doubt it.

  14. In response to Mr Wondered, let me tell you about Betty.

    Betty was the usher at the Edmonton County Court for many years.

    The Resident judge was HHJ Tibber, a really excellent judge with a solid knowledge of the law. He did a lot of homework and ripped through cases at a rate of knots and, the true test of a top-notch County Court Judge, was very rarely appealed successfully.

    Betty faced an awesome list most days. Judge Tibber heard some trials (including my first County Court trial) but usually he heard applications. In fact he heard very many applications and weeded out a huge number of cases that would otherwise have gone to trial. The unnecessary costs he saved by intercepting the killer point at an early stage must have run into millions of pounds.

    A busy court means a busy list. It needs managing. And that is where Betty came in. She spoke to everyone to find out whether they were ready and how long they thought their application would take, and would annotate hr papers accordingly. Her manner never ceased to be courteous even when she encountered rudeness – but she had a potent weapon to use against the rude.

    I recall one day when an unspeakably pompous junior barrister decided to display how important he was. It was about 9.45, Judge Tibber always sat at 10 on the dot, and Betty was rounding up the day’s customers.

    Mr Pompous pushed his way through the crowd to announce (so that everyone could hear) that he had a very big case and his client had flown into London for a conference at 2pm. He required his application to be heard promptly. And then came the fatal words: “I hope you can understand how important this is.” He seemed to have no understanding that his clients might find it demeaning that his 2 o’clock conference was more important to him than their case.

    Betty smiled, as always, and assured him he would be given the first available slot.

    When it was my turn to tell her how long my case would take I noticed her annotation against Mr Pompous’s case. It comprised a big arrow pointing down. My matter was heard and I was away before Mr Pompous had uttered a word to the judge. Somehow I think his 2 o’clock conference was delayed.

    Betty was an excellent usher but she was not a rare beast of that genus. They are not paid much, but they take great pride in their work. Talk down to them and you will get everything you deserve.

  15. Sadly, it makes me think of them too… Although not all of them.

    You need to get the best out of people in order to have a just legal system. If people are intimidated or frightened, that won’t happen. It is our job to ensure that we do allow clients and witnesses to give of their best. For me a barrister moaning about how they are treated is worrying about the wrong person.

    Anyway, if a Judge is being unpleasant there are always ways. The man who said, “I don’t think that the shorthand note will have captured the sound of your Honour’s pen being thrown down again, or the exasperated sigh directed at the jury” is still revered where I come from. And a current leader of a circuit has gone into a difficult Judge’s court fully robed and when asked “Mr Leader, as you are not in my list may I ask why you appear in my Court?” has replied, “Your Honour, to watch” and then sat down. Message received and understood.

    Of course this does mean confiding in and trusting your senior colleagues.

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