Training to be an employed barrister?

17 September 2015

Guest Blog | Training to be an employed barrister?

3 September 2015                

                                    Karen Squibb-Williams                                   

Karen Squibb-Williams from Acorn Chambers guest blogs on why 'one size fits all' training can no longer do justice to the needs of the practising Bar of the future. Given the vast range of specialty areas that employed and self-employed barristers can work in, Karen questions why training is the same across the board and discusses how more comprehensive career choices for new barristers should be made available. 


There is no such training! Why should there be? Does it matter? 

There are three types of barrister; non-practising, self-employed and employed. These three categories cover a very wide variety of careers and specialities. But one thing links them all; the members of each category all chose to train as barristers.

Historically there has never been a perception that the training of each category of barrister need differ. Is that an assumption that should continue to be made for the successful future of the bar? Quite possibly. But what should no longer be assumed is that any career is fixed for life. Flexibility and diversity are the professional corner stones of career maintenance and development.

Competition to enter (and in some cases, remain within) the profession, has never been more acute. Experienced and aspiring practitioners need comprehensive information about the choices available to them. Information about the opportunities at the Employed Bar is essential. At present there is not enough.

The training you receive on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) will be the same, whether you intend to be employed or self-employed.

If you actually want to practice as a barrister then there are many types of career available once you have completed your 12 month pupillage. It doesn't really matter where you do this, so long as your supervisor and chambers, or employer, are properly registered. You could practice at the Chancery Bar, the Family Bar or develop a broad, mixed practice, all based in chambers, often with the usual tears and triumphs that accompany the passage to tenancy.

Equally you could work as in-house counsel or advocate for a company, a firm of solicitors, perhaps as a Legal Adviser to magistrates, or casework lawyer in the Government Legal Service. If your preference is for criminal work, then you can choose to be self-employed or enter the Crown Prosecution Service as an employed Higher Court Advocate - this means you would practice in the Crown Court on behalf of the CPS, just as if you were in chambers. 

Clearly the range of choices is enormous. So why is the training the same? What about the Inns compulsory advocacy weekends? What about the Bar Standards Board's compulsory 'Advice to Counsel' courses? In the past neither of these has built in options that would be of interest to those who have decided on being an employed barrister. It has all been geared up to self-employed practice in chambers. 

How many people are interested in this problem? Well, the practising bar numbers are 15,716. Of these, 2,771 are in employed practice with 25% working for the CPS. This means that approximately 1 in 4 of those intending to practice are much more likely to become employed barristers. Appropriate information and possibly training provision should be integrated into the syllabuses of all those involved in training barristers. BPTC providers, The Inns of Court, the Advocacy Training Council (ATC), the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board, and of course future employers, should all play their part. 

The 'one size fits all' principle can no longer do justice to the needs of the practising bar of the future. There is now so much political, social and media attention on how the legal profession is engaged, regulated and paid, that it is essential to maintain the integrity of training for all practitioners. It is also vital to protect the best possible career development opportunities for all coming to the Bar by ensuring they are thoroughly informed and properly equipped as professionals from the outset.

Second class citizenship for those at the Employed Bar should by now be a myth. There are many examples of the type of positions held by employed barristers. The Attorney General, Solicitor General and Treasury Solicitor are all employed barristers. Some work as senior legal advisors for television and the press; some lead in industry such as BP, BA and National Grid. 

In my case, as a late entrant to the bar, called in 1999, two years were spent self-employed (crime). I then joined the CPS as a regional front line prosecutor in 2001.  Since then I have spent six months seconded to HMCPSI (the CPS Inspectorate) conducting a national review of Domestic Violence prosecutions; a few months seconded to the Advocacy Strategy Programme assisting in increasing the use of Higher Court Advocates nationally; then onto being the National Strategic Policy Adviser specialising in prosecution policy for; Forensic Science, Disclosure, Expert Witnesses, Non Accidental Head Injuries in Children (SBS and SIDS as it then was), Fraud, Identity fraud, Contempt and media issues. I was a trainer for Domestic Violence prosecutions and Advocacy. And for the other half of the week I was seconded to the Attorney General's Office. Since leaving the CPS in 2013, I have established my own Chambers and now take on work in my specialist areas of Forensic Science, CJS case management issues, NAHI and, surprisingly, Procurement law! Not one of the top 100, but a pretty interesting career so far!

Then, as now, there was no training for employed barristers. I didn't even know that you could be an employed barrister! The University Careers advisor (at University of Oxford) didn't mention it. Nor did ICSL (as it then was), my own Inn, my friends' Inns, nor did the Bar Council or the Bar Standards Board.

You might ask whether better information and specialist training would have made any difference.  I am in no doubt it would have made a significant difference; not to whether I would have made a better employed barrister, but to the extent that a career move from chambers to employment would not have felt like a slightly grubby secret. With better information from the outset I could perhaps have planned to go straight into employed practice and thus reduced some of the huge debt accrued in those first two years (mostly on childcare costs and £45 mentions that were never paid for).

Having said all of that, it is true that the tide is changing. Bar Association of Commerce, Finance, Industry (BACFI) and the Bar Council's Employed Barristers Committee (EBC) have for years both worked strenuously to raise the profile and status of their membership; at one stage the EBC even had a slot on the Advice to Counsel Course. At least then pupils could be told about employed practice and the concept of transferability, i.e., moving between chambers and employers and back again. After almost every presentation (at that time) letters were received expressing gratitude for demonstrating real alternatives to joining chambers, and simply throwing some light on the opportunities in employed practice.

Some of the Inn's have now introduced a section on employed practice on their advocacy courses. This is good, but it is still piecemeal. Mainstream provision of information and training and Bar Council matters, are still discussed in terms of the "independent" and "employed" Bar, despite the unanimous resolution by the Bar Council in 2002 to change such references in the Code of Conduct to "self-employed" and "employed".

All barristers are independent. Industry and government benefit directly from the skills and independence of the profession as a whole; employing in house barristers ensures a high standard of drafting and advocacy, whether in the boardroom or in court, as well as continuing access to robust independent advice.  Employed barristers are as proud as their self-employed counterparts to exercise the specialist skills of the Bar and prioritize an ethical approach to many corporate decisions. In house Counsel have at times been described as the 'conscience of the company'. These barristers now work in a wide variety of circumstances to provide a great depth of legal expertise within a strong ethical framework. 

In short whether employed or self-employed, all are barristers first.

So, what needs to be done? Better information or specialised training?

The first step is to harvest information about all the emerging resources to raise awareness of employed practice.  In chronological order of the steps one would take in becoming a barrister:

1. School and University Careers Advisors - they should make sure they have a full understanding of the similarities and differences between self-employed and employed practice. If they don't, press them for the information - the web contains so much.

2. BPTC providers - similarly, they should be developing this understanding by ensuring they include speakers and external trainers from the Employed Bar in their careers evenings. When considering which provider offers the best course, ask them what information they have about employed opportunities.

3. Inns of Court - (and COIC - the Council of the Inns of Court); they carry a particular responsibility for ensuring appropriate information and training is available to all aspiring practitioners. Is there a 'register' or 'directory' of training materials and career information? Where can it be obtained? Is there an appropriate quantity and quality of the compulsory training elements that reflects the proportion that will enter employed practice? Do the Inns' Committees ensure they communicate regularly and effectively with those representing the Employed Bar, such as Employed Barristers' Committee and BACFI? In particular how is this reflected in the Pupillage Checklist requirements?

4. Pupil Supervisor Training - are prospective employers able to provide Pupil Supervisors? If not, could the Inns be doing more to promote training for aspiring employed Pupil Supervisors?

5. The General Council of the Bar - every effort should be made to ensure all Committees incorporate the interests of the Employed Bar. There is still a rumour that some quarters think there is no difference between an employed barrister and a solicitor. Those who train as barristers may feel differently.

6. The Bar Standards Board - here too every effort should be made to ensure that the Employed Bar are an integral consideration when developing and enforcing regulatory matters.

7. The Circuits - There are six regional Circuits; are they doing enough to support the concept of employed practice? Are the employed bar welcomed to Mess dining events? Or is there a whiff of 'closed shop' about Circuit mind sets?

8. Websites - There are numerous websites offering information about training to become a barrister, or the right people to contact, such as www.LCAN.org.uk .

Once there is comprehensive information available about career choices for barristers, will there be a need for specialised training for employed practice? Advocacy is probably the one key area where this could be considered sooner rather than later. It is recognised that advocacy is not exclusively 'forensic', i.e., about presenting an adversarial case in court. It is about presenting persuasive argument, whether in the court room or the board room. Given the widespread encouragement for the use of ADR and Mediation as important alternatives to litigation, persuasive advocacy is set to become an increasingly necessary skill for all barristers, self-employed and employed.


Karen Squibb-Williams
Acorn Chambers