Guest blog: Why I moved to the employed Bar

20 July 2017

Matthew Gowen, Barrister within the Birketts' Corporate Criminal Defence Team, explains hy recognition is so important for barristers working in-house in the public, private and the third sector.

 M Gowan

The evening of the Employed Bar Awards must have been a good one as I left London clutching some glassware with my name on it and awoke the next morning (far too early - thanks kids) feeling a little second-hand! In the days that followed I had time to reflect upon how the profession has changed and how these Awards, in their own way, go to highlight the wide-ranging contribution employed barristers make in so many areas. 

Until 2012 I had followed the traditional route for criminal barristers; called in 1992 and for more than 20 years was self-employed, predominantly at Red Lion Chambers in London, prosecuting and defending serious crime. I enjoyed chamber's life, being part of a historic and respected profession, the camaraderie, the gossip and courtroom dramas! 

In the latter years of my life at the independent bar I, like many other criminal barristers, started to move away from pure crime towards regulatory work. Despite this re-focus, cuts in criminal legal aid, increased competition for work and my continued ambition led to me considering other professional avenues. I felt I needed new challenges; when I joined the independent bar this was not something I ever imagined would be the case. I had the opportunity to become a consultant for Birketts which gave me the opportunity, at a remove, to experience life within a law firm. In retrospect the decision to be able to work in a dual-capacity for a period of time was invaluable as it gave me the confidence to be able to take the step away from chambers. 

Even so, the decision to join the employed bar was not an easy one. Before joining Birketts as an employee in late 2014 I was aware of a certain stigma attached to the in-house or employed profession. There was a perception that some barristers (particularly advocates) took the option to go in-house if they couldn't make it at the independent bar or perhaps if the stress and poor work/life balance of private practice was too great. This certainly did not apply to me; I just wanted the new challenge against the backdrop of the changed landscape of the criminal bar - the added bonus was the work/life balance becoming much better. 

As the finalists in the Employed Bar Awards showed, the quality, diversity and expertise of the employed bar is something to be proud of and lauded. Many barristers decide upon the employed route for a variety of reasons, some right at the outset of their careers, others when the opportunity arises - we don't become second-rate due to those choices, and nor does it diminish our experience and expertise. 

The great benefit now for me is that I am involved in cases from start to finish; meaning I deliver effective client care and continuity in a way that I was unable to do at the independent bar. I also have more head-space to deal with the cases as my work load is more limited and focused. 

The Awards are a great first step in publically acknowledging the value the employed bar brings to the profession and hopefully will encourage others to pursue the less traditional career model. The finalists were all deserving of recognition; I am still amazed and honoured to have won.

Thanks to all those at the Bar Council for organising and to Dominique Smith who had the light-bulb moment!

Matthew Gowen, barrister at Birketts and winner of the Employed Advocate of the Year at the Bar Council Employed Bar Awards.