December 1, 2015

Insight to life at the self-employed Bar

Life at the Self-employed Bar

Carolina Bracken, Carolina5PB

Background

Carolina’s interest in criminal law was sparked while on a school trip to the magistrates’ court when she saw the first appearance of a man pleading not guilty to assaulting his girlfriend in an Asda carpark. As a practising barrister, she now knows that a first appearance is “one of the simplest types of hearing” but from her perspective as a 14 year old she “was totally captivated”.

While most people don’t decide on their career path this early on, Carolina’s story demonstrates that preparation and a broad range of experience can be massively beneficial when it comes to securing an Inns of Court Scholarship and pupillage. Carolina was able to develop a diverse skills-set from completing mini pupillages, working as a witness care officer for the Crown Prosecution Service, working at a think tank and hosting a radio show.

I never wavered from my decision to pursue a career at the Bar, but I am absolutely confident that the reason I was invited to pupillage interviews was my experience. Neither my job at the CPS nor at the think tank involved any law or court advocacy; however, they demonstrated my commitment to and interest in criminal justice more broadly (which is particularly important at the current time, when the criminal Bar is under such attack), and provided endless examples of when I had put key skills into practise.

Life at the Self Employed Bar

How did you choose between practising at the employed and self-employed Bar?

There are two main reasons I chose to practise at the self-employed Bar. Firstly, I knew that I wanted the freedom to defend as well as prosecute, and to branch into areas outside general crime. Generally you are more restricted in the scope of work available to you as an employed barrister. In contrast, as well as general crime (drugs, sex, and violence), I do a significant amount of trading standards work (rogue traders, and counterfeit goods), some inquests, and represent pharmacists who have breached their professional codes of conduct.

Secondly, as is true for many barristers, I am more or less unemployable. Although I enjoyed my (short and finite) stints as an employee, I am too restless to maintain that routine more permanently. I much prefer the freedom of being self-employed, and the inherent pressure and motivation of being wholly responsible for your own work.

What do you feel are the advantages of practising as a self-employed barrister?

Deciding between practise at the employed and the self-employed Bar is a lifestyle choice. Life at the self-employed Bar has significantly more flexibility, both in terms of the types of work available to you, and your ability to manage your own time. You will have far more control over the direction of your practice as a self-employer barrister. If you finish in court early, and would rather take the afternoon off and work in the evening, you can make that decision! However, being self-employed requires a significant level of self-discipline and organisation; your time is your own, but you must be able to manage it effectively.

Are there any aspects of the employed Bar that you would like to integrate into your own practice?

Holiday pay! (I realise that’s unrealistic…) I would love to be able to take holiday without having to make the complex calculations, not only to determine the money you’re not earning, but also the opportunities you might be missing out on.

At some point, I will have to think about a pension – I would very much like to have an employer who is already thinking about that for me! But those factors are inherent in being self-employed, rather than self-employed practice at the Bar specifically.

The criminal Bar is a challenging environment at the moment, particularly in light of the assault on legal aid. This uncertainty is driving more people away from self-employed practice and towards the relative certainty of life at the employed Bar. The comfort of a salary is an undeniable attraction for many.

It is always possible to move into employed practice. This becomes increasingly attractive for some as they start to have children, and need a more regular working week.

How would you encourage anyone who feels that their background is a barrier to a career at the Bar?

The Bar is interested in talent, not background. The reputation of a set of chambers is only as strong as the reputations of the individual members. The structure of chambers, and the Bar more generally, has a strong focus on those at the top supporting those on their way up. It is in our own interest to bring the best into chambers, regardless of their background.

I come from a very ordinary family; my father works for B&Q, and my mother was an administrator for many years. I have no family in law, and started out without any contacts in legal practice. When I first became interested in being a barrister, I was acutely aware of how little I knew about the profession. The answer is to get the experience, and start securing that experience as soon as possible. Become fluent in barrister, so that you can understand a conversation about dining at the Inn, and being called to the Bar.

Use your background to your advantage. Particularly in criminal law, you will meet and represent people from every background imaginable. You will have to be able to communicate effectively with affluent defendants facing driving charges or fraud matters, just as well as with drug addicts and alcoholics, or people with serious mental health issues. You will deal with people from all over the world, let alone the country. From experience, it can be very refreshing and comforting for a defendant to meet a representative who breaks the ‘barrister’ mould.

I’ve been asked before about my experience as a woman at the Bar. I know there are issues in terms of maternity leave and child care that are an inevitable disadvantage of being self-employed (though I’ve not had to tackle those problems myself, just yet!). I’ve never really been aware of being a ‘woman at the Bar’, per se. I have never had a sense that I have been treated differently, or looked at less favourably, because I am a woman at the Bar. Gender and race equality become more unbalanced as you reach the upper echelons of the profession. But this is no bar at all to someone from an underrepresented background reaching those heights.