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Why it’s time to scrap the QC title

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Justice Secretary Chris Grayling doled out nearly 100 awards yesterday — but wouldn’t it be better to let the market decide on the top lawyers?

QCs

The last few weeks will have been Bolly-tastic down the cutting rooms of a shop that likes to bill itself as London’s oldest tailors.

The run-up to the annual QC ceremony means that all leave is cancelled at outfitters-to-the-legal-stars — Ede & Ravenscroft — as breeches are cut, black stockings wrapped in tissue paper and ribbon and patent leather shoes polished to a military shine.

We English do ceremony so very well — just ask any American, Japanese or even Frenchman kicking their heels on a cold February morning outside Buck House waiting for a guardsman to jeopardise his career by skipping about on the forecourt.

And yesterday it was the turn of the legal profession to take centre stage in the national pageantry as 93 practising lawyers bagged the coveted title of Queen’s Counsel, while four academics, a solicitor and a Ministry of Defence barrister were handed honorary awards.

But does anyone really care? Apart that is from the 99 individuals themselves, their loving families and doubtless their pets and horses. Is the QC title nothing more than professional vanity, with little — if any — practical relevance in either the business world or the cut and thrust of the criminal and public law courts?

A dozen years ago, the process of awarding silk was in disarray. In 2003, then-Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, suspended the following year’s appointment round amid a tidal wave of concern that the system was a not-so-thinly-veiled old-boys’ network of patronage.

The process was overhauled — with the creation of a supposedly independent quango, QC Appointments — and the silk road reopened in 2006.

But enthusiasm for the title — even among the legal profession — seems to have waned. This year, there were 50% fewer applications for silk than in 2006.

Why? Perhaps lawyers themselves are coming round to the view that the title is an outmoded trinket that is in some cases more of a millstone.

When defending the QC rank, the Bar Council invokes arguments around the practical usefulness of a quality mark for senior players in the profession. This, it maintains, is helpful for punters, providing them with an easily-recongisable badge of distinction in what would otherwise be an amorphous mass of advocates. The bar hierarchy also draws comparisons with the medical profession and the rank of consultant.

Frankly, that’s nonsense. Medics work in an environment where skills are far more measurable — and what’s more, they can kill patients when things go wrong. So if they fancy a flattering title after slogging it out for years doing 48-hour hospital shifts, who’s complaining?

But lawyers? Many a client might claim to have been driven to contemplate suicide after reading a long-winded and jargon-ridden advice letter or sitting through a tedious conference, but generally punters’ lives are not in the hands of their lawyers.

So why should they among all other professions be afforded the special treatment of what — despite efforts to make the appointments system more transparent — is still more or less a subjective award process?

There are no Queen’s Accountants, Queen’s Architects, Queen’s Cabbies, or, heaven forbid, Queen’s Journalists.

Surely the market should decide on the issue of who are the top performers. And indeed, outside of the rarified ranks of the commercial bar, many practising advocates view the rank of silk as more of a hindrance than a help, undoubtedly explaining why applications have nosedived.

By convention, newly-made up silks are expected to boost their fees. But in a tight and highly competitive market, doing so can kill a practice. Why should clients pay 20% to 30% more for a freshly minted silk, when they could get an equally good senior junior?

Other common law jurisdictions — Australia, New Zealand, Canada and even Ireland — maintain the varying incarnations of the QC badge or its watered down equivalent of senior counsel.

But typically, the US — the biggest common law profession — stands rigidly by a market forces approach. If an advocate is good enough, the clients will come, they will pay top dollar, regardless of whether the lawyer has worn black breeches and a full-bottomed wig for a day before kneeling before a former television producer.

Notably, there isn’t a branch of Ede & Ravenscroft on Fifth Avenue.