December 3, 2015

Practising on the Circuits

Practising on the Circuits

Judge Mark Sutherland-WilliamsJudge Sutherland Williams

Growing up in an ordinary family in a seaside resort in Devon, Mark was unsure about whether he’d be comfortable practising at the Bar, “I assumed that everyone else would be public school educated, with silver spoons dangling from their mouths. But in fact such stereotyping has little to do with the modern Bar. People then and now come from all walks of life and the profession is a better place for it”.

Mark’s initial concerns diminished with time, and at the age of 28 he decided to pursue a career as a barrister, demonstrating that there’s no need to rush into the profession straight after university. After 5 years of developing a successful practice in asset forfeiture at 3 Paper Buildings, Mark was appointed as a fee paid tribunal judge: “In 2011 the opportunity arose for me to become a full time District Tribunal Judge, so I left the Bar after 16 very happy years”. In his role as District Tribunal Judge, he spends most of his time in a range of court centres throughout Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, although he also sits as a visiting judge of the Upper Tribunal in London.

To what extent does the location in which a barrister practises affect their career progression?

Clearly there are likely to be more opportunities for judicial appointments in cities and more densely populated areas than there are in rural and more remote areas. Having said that, on one view the competition is likely to be more intense in city areas, simply because the pool of candidates applying is likely to be greater.

My own view is that whether you are centric to Chancery Lane or more Circuit based, ultimately it is talent, professionalism and the other judicial skill-sets that will determine your career path. Geography has little to do with it.

What advice do you have for aspiring barristers based outside of London on how to access relevant legal work experience?

Speak (or write) to one of your local judges. Many will be happy to have you shadow them on a formal or an informal basis. Many will be registered with their Inns or the Judicial Appointments Commission as offering marshalling or work-shadowing opportunities. Alternatively, contact a local Diversity and Community Relations Judge (DCRJ). They are dotted around the country. Part of their function is to encourage others into the judiciary. They will point you in the right direction and it will create a local, friendly contact for you:

Plus, go and simply observe a few judges you admire. Sit at the back of their courts in the public gallery. See how they operate. Make a list of what you think they do well. Try to imagine how you would deal with the situations you see arising.

Equally, many Tribunals are open to the public. All Social Entitlement Chamber and employment tribunal hearings are generally public hearings. If you are thinking about entry level judiciary, there is no better place than the Tribunals Judiciary to cut your teeth while waiting for more senior roles to come up. Speak to your local court centres to find out when and where tribunals sit in your area.

Are there any advantages of practising outside of London?

Many. I have done both. Locally you tend to get to know people and the characters more quickly, whereas in London you may only come across some recognisable faces a handful of times in your career.

The Circuits also tend to arrange local social events and formal dining nights, and it is worth taking advantage of these. There are few professions in the world where from a very junior stage you get the opportunity of sitting down to dine with some of the most senior judges and QC’s on your circuit.

Many at the London Bar will tell you how they dread the commute. Not just getting into the Temple, but then out again to the many courts located within the M25/south east. Circuit based barristers tend to have more control over their travel plans; as well as some beautiful countryside to look at…

How would you encourage those young people who may feel that their background is a barrier to a career at the Bar?

Apply. Don’t be put off. The Bar needs you. I fully understand why someone from what may be considered an unconventional or minority background may discount a career at the Bar – not least because it may still be perceived by some as an intimidating or somewhat elitist profession. These days it is very much talent that counts above all else. Sure, we can’t all be rock-stars. You need to know how to play the guitar really well and deliver a good song. That will apply to any profession you choose. But once you realise that, by analogy, the Bar operates in the same way, your background becomes an irrelevance (and anyone who tells you otherwise is a shallow dinosaur!)

The Bar wants you for your talent, your ability to hit the right note and to work hard. All other considerations go out of the window. It is simply about having the confidence to see your ambition through and being the best you can be. The most successful barristers I know not only have the intelligence required for the job, but also the emotional intelligence to adapt to their surroundings and the changing working environments the Bar (and the judiciary) presents.

Outshine your contemporaries. And try to shake off the reservations you may have – they may not be real!