‘There is a life after the criminal Bar’

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Weber Shandwick head of public affairs Alex Deane doesn’t regret his time scraping a living at the criminal Bar, but amid a continuing assault on the profession it was time to take what he had learned and change careers

I know that, just as many solicitors now excel in higher courts, there are plenty of barristers who have paper-heavy practices. But for me, the Bar has always meant excellence in advocacy. This is what made me aspire to it.

I joined my Inn (Middle Temple) in 2000, while I was still at university. I hadn’t read law, but three years of debating as an undergraduate meant that the opportunities for advocacy of the criminal Bar really appealed to me. I debated throughout the CPE (now the GDL) and the BVC (now the BPTC), representing the Inn at the World Championships twice — in South Africa (beautiful Stellenbosch in the winelands) and in Singapore (where most importantly I met my wife, and also won the competition, with my remarkably gifted partner, who’s still at the Bar).

The Inn was incredibly supportive, just as — in my view — all four Inns continue to be for all their students, even in toughish financial times. Thanks to the Inn, at this point on the timeline my run-up to the Bar is “so far, so good”. But as astute readers of Legal Cheek, you’ll have spotted the impending doom problem already, in the inclusion of the words “criminal Bar”.

I worked for the Conservative Party after the BVC, and started pupillage in October 2005. Even back then, people had often said to me that “crime doesn’t pay”, but, like many people before and since, I’d taken such words with a big pinch of self-confident salt. I suppose the big “if I knew then…” question for me is this: if I had known that governments of both stripes (or “all” I suppose, given the Coalition) were going to eviscerate the profession I wanted to join, would I still have gone to the Bar in the first place?

It’s pretty easy for time to salve raw wounds and for (let’s be generous) near-middle-aged people like me to retrospectively colour their route to where they are now as happy in all ways, to think that their path was all “good character-building experience” no matter how desperately unfair the system or how scant the reward for toil at the time. Even bearing all of that in mind, having thought about it a lot I genuinely think that my answer is “yes” — that I’m still glad to have been at the Bar — but that, despite that, sadly I could not in all good conscience recommend the criminal Bar to any young person now contemplating it. The rest of this piece will try to explain those two points.

Without repeating what I’ve said recently about action by barristers and solicitors in support of legal aid, in my view those working in the criminal law are doing a public service — one I was proud to undertake. My years at the criminal Bar certainly gave me exposure to a much broader cross-section of society than I or many other people might be likely to encounter, and it meant that I was taught a forensic approach to thinking and case-making that has served me well since.

But if you pay at a level below subsistence, then no matter how idealistic, people will eventually have to leave, or not join in the first place. Putting it generously, the government plays fast and loose with the truth about barristerial income, publishing an annual “top ten” list of people earning from legal aid, trying to win over the public by criticising “fat cats”. But what they do with that list is just like the knowing misuse of “deficit” and “debt”. They fail to explain that such earnings might have been accrued over several years, are before tax, are for a self-employed person without pension or holiday or sick pay, are pre-expenses like chambers rent, and so on etc. In fact, as many readers of this blog will know, the fact is that some barristers in criminal law are earning as little as £13,000 a year (and that’s after paying much more than that for the courses to qualify). There are more and more bankruptcies in the junior Bar and many are earning less than £25,000 a year; that’s before the expenses they incur and don’t get back.

A day in court for a criminal barrister for an appearance can often be the fixed rate of £84.50 — that’s before non-reimbursed travel expenses, which often amount to more than the cost of the fee, and often goes unpaid for months or even years. That is to say that the profession is being deliberately crushed. You can’t live on that, plainly — neither on the raw amount, nor on the amount left after your expenses (which may exceed it), nor in an environment with the uncertainty about when — or if — one will be paid. It is sadly true that many at the junior criminal Bar would literally be better off on benefits rather than working their 70+ hour weeks.

So, while in retrospect I can see that I personally gained a great deal from my time at the Bar, it’s impossible for me to recommend to anyone without a big private income (which I didn’t have) or a suicidal appetite for getting into debt (ditto) that they should now go to the criminal Bar. When I was there (I stopped in 2009*), the situation for the criminal Bar was already on a steep downward curve. Now, it’s got a lot worse.

And I’m afraid that, despite the admirable best efforts of the CBA, which I applaud, I fear that it’s going to get a lot worse still. Since 1997, fees for criminal cases have been cut by 40% — but the government is now proposing a further 30% cut. The Bar has been unbelievably patient and stoic about it: if that happened to any other public servants, I think that there would have been riots by now. If you read nothing else about this, take a look at the junior Bar in their own words for a sense of what that means in real life.

As I’ve said before, in my view, when the Bar is destroyed, access to justice will suffer. The state will be able to do what it likes far more, and people will be subject to the power of unrestrained prosecution like never before in the modern age (and many more guilty people will go unpunished thanks to inadequate prosecution). A strong independent Bar is a great barrier between the power of the state and the individual. But parking all of those principles (which I can now afford to wax lyrical about from the sidelines), the harm being done to the individuals in the current maelstrom is simply so severe that I couldn’t advise anyone to do it. Despite the steady flow of people into the job at the bottom still, if you’d like to test my position, ask any junior tenant working in crime what they’d say, too.

Of course, these aren’t just questions for people considering starting a career at the criminal Bar. They’re also live questions for those people I admire so much who are still there. To those still plugging away, I’d say this. If you can make it work, then I’m delighted for you. Our country needs advocates and thank goodness that it’s working out in your case. But if you’re getting deeper and deeper into debt, consider this. You have skills, and you have options.

Those options don’t mean severing yourself from the world of the law. My connections with the Bar continue. I’m still a door tenant with my fantastic chambers. I’m going to serve on the Inn’s new Membership Committee. I’m proud to be elected at a local level in the City of London, which in part was a result of my time at the Bar (my Ward contains the Temple). I taught debating for the Inn for ages. And so on.

The point is that if you want to leave, or if you have to, there is a life after the criminal Bar, and several routes within it offer many opportunities for case-making and advocacy in different forms — for which your experience suits you admirably.

*Here’s another issue, by the way. I left practice in 2009. I got a cheque a couple of weeks ago.

Alex Deane is a Square Mile Common Councilman and head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick.