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Barrister numbers destined to shrink dramatically, says young bar leader

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Former Lord Chief Justice tries to buck up spirits at young bar conference, but outlook still bleak for many and the prospect of fusion looms

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It can be a little bit irritating for those starting out in a legal profession buffeted by hurricane-like winds of change to be told by the older generation:

“There, there — sit tight, everything will be fine.”

But those attending last weekend’s annual conference of the Bar Council’s young bar committee seemed to take it on the chin when former Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge did pretty much just that.

The full speech from the country’s former senior judge was unfortunately not recorded, however, one crucial line was tweeted: “For those in the publicly funded bar, hang on. Things change, wheels turn.”

Committee chairman Max Hardy, a 10-year call barrister at London chambers 9 Bedford Row, told Legal Cheek that “at least Igor Judge managed to strike an optimistic note” at what otherwise was a fairly gloom-laden meeting.

Hardy’s interpretation of the former Lord Chief’s remarks was that often in the evolution of the legal profession “as one door closes, another opens”. However, Hardy acknowledged:

“It is difficult for people to identify with that view when the door has just been slammed in their faces”.

Rookie barristers have since had their pessimism endorsed by former Bar Council chair Desmond Browne QC, who, speaking last night at Legal Cheek Careers at Gray’s Inn, said he was gloomy about the future of the publicly-funded bar and forecast that the squeeze on legal aid would continue into the foreseable future.

On the frontline, that will probably translate into less pupillages and tenancies. Hardy said he had no doubt that relatively soon the number practising at the English bar would drop considerably. He maintained numbers were holding steady currently — there are some 12,600 currently at the independent bar — because “in the short term people are adopting a wait-and-see approach and there is still some recruitment taking place”.

Ultimately, however, Hardy predicted:

“There will be more chambers mergers and closures. We could be drifting towards a tipping point, where once that is reached the contraction process will accelerate dramatically.”

Hardy also acknowledged that those attending the conference and law students generally are keen to see reforms to the lawyer qualification process. There is considerable support for a broader general qualification that would allow lawyers to move towards specialisation later in their careers.

However, he warned against using that argument to boost moves towards fusion of the solicitor and barrister professions.

“I’m not in favour of fusion,” said Hardy. “And I’m not in favour of making the qualification process work in favour of fusion. But I’m extremely conscious of the huge number of students doing the BPTC who will never qualify or practise as barristers So perhaps we should look at making the BPTC more of a transferable masters course.”

Also at the weekend conference, the Bar Council announced the launch of a “wellbeing” survey to assess the mental health of the profession.

According to the council, collected data will “highlight wellbeing as fundamental to sustaining performance as a barrister, and to empower and equip members in addressing risky behaviours which affect their performance.” It went on to emphasise that responses will be anonymous and confidential, and that data will be analysed by an independent third party.

Rachel Spearing of Pump Court Chambers in the Temple chairs the Wellbeing at the Bar programme. Announcing the survey, she said:

“The Bar, by its very nature, is a stressful place to work. From the speed at which cases can change to the often isolating nature and responsibilities of self-employed practice, barristers are acutely at risk from performance-inhibiting factors.

“It is also equally important that we support those entering the profession to develop the skills needed to manage their wellbeing in a challenging work environment. Now, more than ever, we need to encourage discussion on the topic and rethink our attitudes towards health and wellbeing.”