Susanna McGibbon, Treasury Solicitor and Permanent Secretary at the Government Legal Department (GLD), shares her thoughts on Bar Council Chair Sam Townend KC's inaugural speech. 

Many congratulations to fellow Lincoln’s Inn Bencher Sam Townend KC on becoming Chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales 2024.

I was honoured to join colleagues from across the legal profession as is tradition, at the new Chair’s own Inn for his inaugural address. An excellent start to the new year reflecting on the coming year for the Bar and hearing about Sam’s priorities for his term of office.

Sam delivered a powerful and impressively comprehensive speech covering topics of deep interest to members of the Bar: resourcing issues in the justice system – particularly affecting criminal and family casework and the impact that has on attracting and retaining practitioners in those areas; regulatory issues including the timing of Call; politics and the rule of law and of course the profession itself – earnings, diversity and the unacceptability of bullying and harassment.

I can’t possibly reflect on all those topics but let me begin where Sam finished – what a wonderful profession we are fortunate to be part of – with its huge range of demanding and stimulating work which affects the real lives of our fellow citizens. As Treasury Solicitor and Permanent Secretary of the GLD, I am lucky enough to see this firsthand on a daily basis, working with talented lawyers, within government and in private practice, whether that be solicitors, employed barristers or self-employed barristers. No wonder our legal profession and our legal services sector is the envy of the world. The Bar Council has an important role in promoting our profession globally as well as supporting members of the Bar throughout their careers and being a voice for the continued development of the profession. I value the close engagement we have on common issues and am delighted that many government lawyers make a great contribution to Bar Council activities. An excellent example is the recently honoured Simon Regis CBE, who co-chairs the Bar Council Race Working Group, alongside Barbara Mills KC, the new Vice-Chair of the Bar Council.

Sam began his address by sharing a little of his background so as to provide context for his perspective on the justice system and the Bar specifically. Much like Sam I come from a pretty non-traditional background for the Bar. I was state-educated and the first in my family to go to university. I believe it is so important that those different backgrounds and experiences are visible across our profession including, indeed particularly, at senior levels. It is great that the Bar Council is committed to the Bar being more reflective of the society we serve. The more we showcase and promote the variety of routes to the profession, demonstrating that it can be accessible to all, the more we will make the progress we seek. I look forward to working with Sam in support of this over the coming year.

In GLD, we try to do our bit. We have a social mobility action plan which commits us, amongst other things, to ensure our outreach with schools and universities reaches students from lower socio-economic backgrounds at a formative stage in their career choices. Every summer we host the Government Legal Profession Diversity Summer Scheme, which pairs up students from non-traditional backgrounds with government lawyers to gain experience in government law. This offers students unique access to see what government lawyers get up to on a daily basis and provides insight and hands-on experience of the varied work on offer. Another way that we are seeking to support colleagues from a wider range of backgrounds to thrive within the profession is to offer more opportunities to become government lawyers outside London – and importantly to enable them to progress through the ranks without having to uproot personal lives. We made further progress in 2023 by opening our office in Salford, complementing our offices in Bristol, Croydon and Leeds as well as London. We are keen to build on our relationships with the Circuits and to encourage GLD-employed barristers to contribute to the profession locally.

Sam also mentioned another issue that is close to my heart. As recent Bar Council Reports have shown, there continues to be an unacceptable pay disparity based on gender – even at the most junior levels. I am conscious that as a consumer of the self-employed bar, we in GLD have a part to play in ensuring that our instruction practices deliver a fair distribution of work. We have more to do in this space, including better understanding the experience of women on the Attorney General’s Panels of Counsel and improving our data on who gets instructed on our high-quality cases and issues. I hope 2024 is the year we can make real progress together on this important issue with the Bar Council and the Inns of Court Alliance for Women.

Finally, I am grateful for the opportunity to plug the important role the employed Bar plays in the profession as a whole and it was great to see many colleagues from a range of organisations, public and private sector, at the event last night. Sam rightly acknowledged that experience in employed practice brings with it the development of an additional range of skills such as organisational leadership and management as well as the expert knowledge of the complex legal issues government or private companies navigate daily. I agree with him that it should be easier to move between the employed and self-employed bar during the course of a career – in both ways!  Perhaps that could be a focus for the Employed Bar Committee of the Bar Council this year as it celebrates its 25th year. 

Once again, congratulations to Sam on his inauguration and many thanks to Nick Vineall KC, the outgoing Chair, for his enormous contribution over the last year. Let’s look forward to a year where collectively the Bar continues to tackle its challenges and celebrate its important role in society.