Yesterday, an anonymous junior barrister (whose ID card is pictured below) found himself the talk of the internet, after a seemingly unremarkable post inviting questions about his job as a “wig-wearing court advocate” became the top ranked post in social network Reddit’s ‘IamA’ section.
‘IAmA’ (‘I am a’) is an online Q&A session, where users encourage others to ‘AMA’ (‘Ask me anything’). It’s popular among the world-famous, with President Barack Obama, Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson and adventurer Bear Grylls all having taken turns in the IAmA hotseat of late. Obama’s thread is here.
Non-celebs regularly feature too, but few of their posts rank very highly (Reddit works by having its users vote submissions “up” or “down”, which is used to rank the post and determine its position on the site’s pages).
So it was with some surprise that the barrister found himself barraged with questions as his post became the number one ranked on a site that attracts millions of users per day…
As he himself put it, in a very lawyerly way:
“I’m genuinely surprised by the amount of interest this has raised. I can’t believe this is top post in IAMA. This is an anonymous throwaway account but I have still tried to answer questions with the Bar Code of Conduct in mind. Any views I have are mine and do not represent the views of the bar at large, nor any representative group.”
So what did all those users want to know about the good old Bar of England and Wales?
Here are the highlights (questions in bold, the barrister’s answers in italics)
Have you ever worn your wig to bed?…In a sexy way.
To be honest, I do not wear the getup that often. It is impractical to lug around from place to place and so the courts only make us wear it when there is a particular large or important civil trial. Family barristers seem to never wear them. Criminal barristers wear them nearly all the time, though. I’ve never heard anyone complaining about the getup – people tend to like the perceived authority it gives them.
Is the Bar Council ok with this AMA?
Probably not. Hence the throwaway account and anonymity. Still, I am not one to want to bring the profession into disrepute. If anything I was hoping that this AMA, if on a small scale, will promote some of the positive things about the English Bar.
Could you elaborate? Why would they not be happy with this AMA?
I suppose because it is not officially sanctioned. They and the Bar Standards Board have concerns about the profession being brought into disrepute. I hope that I have answered questions in a professional and courteous manner and portrayed the Bar in a positive light.
How many minority ethnicity barristers are there? My ex is Indian and she passed the Bar but couldn’t get into chambers. She always told me it was harder because she was Indian and a woman. What are your experiences that could confirm or deny this?
From my perspective, I don’t think that ethnicity is a factor that prevents people from coming to the bar any more. Accents can be a problem for some, as can foreign qualifications that cannot easily be recognised or compared to British ones.
There seems to be an even 50/50 split between male and female barristers. There are fewer older female barristers because it was harder for women back in the 70s and 80s. Also, it is more likely that women will take career breaks.
My brother is a qualified barrister but he struggled to get a pupillage because he went to UCL, not Oxford or Cambridge. He’s now curator of a Mercedes Benz museum. So my questions are:
How hard was it to get a pupillage?
What university did you attend? (I’d ask what you got but I’m guessing a first).
Do you come from a wealthy background? (Sorry to ask but it will help dispel some common misconceptions!)
It was very hard to get a pupillage. I had to really fight to get one. I went to a red brick unviersity [sic] perhaps lower on the rankings than UCL. I did get a first. I come from a moderately wealthy background. My parents have been financially supportive but were certainly not able to pay for the relevant courses themselves. I took out a substantial student loan as well as a professional development loan.
How long did it take for you to get to the bar from University? And did you have to eat at the Inns of Court? What were the meals like?
It took me about 6 months to find pupillage from the time I first started applying. In order to qualify as a barrister you have to join one of four organisations called ‘The Inns of Court’. My organisation is called ‘The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn’. I had to eat 12 meals there in order to qualify as a barrister. It’s an old fashioned attempt at forcing people to network and meet each other. The food can be rather good.
Can you choose the style of wig you get or is it all just one style? Because I think I’d like a fluffier one.
There are a few different companies in London that make them and each have their own style. I bought a more traditional one. They cost about £500 ($800) and come in different sizes. The storage case that you can see in the proof photo is my personalised wig tin.
The wigs do tend to flatten and fray over time with use. They also go a bit greyish (or yellow if you’re a smoker). The ironic thing is that the older and crappier looking your wig is, the more ‘experienced’ you are considered. People with brand-new wigs were traditionally mocked. I’ve heard stories of times gone by when new barristers would put their wigs next to car exhausts to make them look dirtier.
It’s pretty undeniable that competition for the Bar is fiercer than for solicitors’, and most would agree that the average barrister might be of a higher standard than the average solicitor(?)
There are a slightly different set of qualifications and courses that are needed. Barristers take a course called the ‘Bar Professional Training Course’. The professions are considered ‘separate but equal’. However there is more competition for places at the Bar and so the Bar often attracts a different calibre of candidate.
Have you ever put the wig on while having sex?
I’ll ask my wife.
I understand the power of tradition, but isn’t it time for the old fashioned wig thing to settle comfortably into history? Do any movements exist for this, or is it just universally loved?
I wouldn’t say the wigs are universally loved. At best they are seen as a benign and traditional presence, like the monarchy. At worst they are seen as a bit of an annoyance. I think the public like the idea of having a barrister who wears one. Barristers like the idea of wearing them, even if they are not the most practical thing to wear. They had a government consultation a few years ago and stripped away their use in all but the most serious non-criminal matters. Criminal barristers continue to wear them regularly. I don’t think things are going to change soon.
Are criminal cases still referred to as Regina v. ________ ?
Technically yes but it is read “R v X” and spoken “Crown v X”
I’m going to have a daughter and name her Regina but tell her to tell everyone “It’s pronounced ‘Crown'”.
What kind of designs can you make on my coffee?
If you tell the magical Barrister wig that you want in Gryffindor, will it place you there?
The profession is one that is often misunderstood and considered to be elitist/upper class/ridiculously British. OK – so how upper class are you? Cambridge/Oxford? ‘public’ school? How about your peers? What about the solicitors – I have an impression of them as being more upper crust than the barristers actually.
Solidly middle class. Not public school. Not Oxbridge. Most of my peers are state educated but about half of them are Oxbridge. Very few are upper class. There are some of us who come from very modest means, but by the time they have been through university have the trappings and values of a middle class person.
Hello, a wig and a bar council card from 2007 are not proof that you are a practising barrister. You got the card when you were called to the Bar and it is valid for one year, also as it clearly states it doesn’t confer practising rights. Lots of random people buy wigs when they are called or even just have pictures of them.
Tips for getting a pupilage?
This website [Pupillage And How To Get It, run by Leeds-based silk Simon Myerson QC] is invaluable for pupillage advice. Scour it and learn it well.
Ok, so i’m currently a penultimate year law student at Oxford (hopefully this comes across as context, not bragging). I was considering going to the criminal bar for a long time but after a lecture from a senior criminal QC (who I will not name) I have been totally put off. She pretty much said there was no future in the publicly funded bar and that criminal advocates were having to take on all kinds of other work. She mentioned that criminal QCs were making a similar amount to pupils at commercial sets such as Blackstone.
I have since pretty much completely turned my ambitions around, ambitions which had stood for a number of years and i’m now looking for a vac scheme and training contract with Jones Day, focussing on litigation.
I guess my question is, what is your experience of the decline of the criminal bar (if indeed you think there is one)? And is it worth entering the profession now, while it’s waning? I notice that you’re only 5 years call, how was the profession when you entered? How has it changed?
Hello. The older guys seem to think that the Bar here is falling apart. For us juniors, it has always been the case. We have resigned ourselves to having a modest income and having to really market ourselves to bring in work. Nothing is taken for granted any more. I think that the worst cuts have been and gone. It is simply a case of adjusting to the changes that have been made.
The full thread is here.