Regional super chambers model still allows legal aid practitioners to thrive
As a student at Cambridge, commercial law never appealed to Amanda Yip QC.
The City of London was pushed very hard by the university,” she recalls. “And nearly all of my contemporaries went to the magic circle. But I was always interested in advocacy, and criminal law was the area that I was drawn to most.
So while her Cambridge mates headed to London, Yip went back to the North West, where she had grown up, to do her barrister training on circuit. “Everyone thought I was mad,” she adds.
Some fun years followed, as Yip, just 22 when she completed pupillage at Exchange Chambers, found herself subjected to the full array of criminal legal work. Fresh out of bar school, she was suddenly representing heavyweight criminals on all sorts of serious matters.
At the time junior barristers in chambers would often be sent up to Carlisle, where we might handle 12 sentencing hearings in one day, acting variously as prosecution and defence counsel,” remembers Yip. “We’d stay up there for the week, in this really nice hotel that did special rates for the bar. In the evening the barristers would have dinner together and chat about the cases. They were great times.
Fast forward 25 years and Exchange Chambers junior tenant Sarah Griffin, who was called in 2011, is following a similar path. Having turned down a training contract at Allen & Overy to become a criminal barrister in Liverpool, she is building a practice based on Class A drugs supply, serious violence, fraud and sexual offences. She has also recently been instructed in a murder trial. What may come as a surprise to many — given the swingeing cuts to legal aid that have taken place since Yip was coming through the ranks — is that Griffin is optimistic about the future. She explains:
I do mostly legal aid work, but some privately paying cases as well — I’ve developed a busy practice and there is a lot of quality work available within chambers.
This disclosure doesn’t tally with the popular narrative of a crumbling criminal bar that is becoming a no-go zone for young barristers without independent means.
Certainly, Yip is keen to set the record straight about the very different conditions that prevail for criminal and other legal aid barristers at large regional sets like Exchange than for those in London. She comments:
Speaking to students, they seem to hold this perception that it is impossible to make a living with publicly funded work, with these frequent dire warnings being given to them not to go into it. But it doesn’t reflect the reality of what we are seeing in chambers. While the cuts have had an impact, it is still possible to do well. If I were to be doing it all over again I’d have no concerns about starting as a criminal barrister at a leading regional set. In fact, that’s precisely what I would do.
The disconnect between popular perception about legal aid careers at the bar and the reality outside the capital boils down to the very different way that the regional super sets operate. Hoovering up all the top local work across their diverse range of practice areas — Exchange has specialisms in everything from commercial law to family — they are able to be choosy about what they do. That means no criminal law Magistrates’ Court work, unless it’s privately paid.
There is less competition, says Tom Handley, Exchange’s director of chambers, continuing:
You’ve got to remember that 80% of the bar is in London. It’s hugely competitive to win work and chambers often have to cover all sorts of Magistrates’ Court cases as a loss leader. Inevitably it’s the very junior barristers receiving these instructions. That doesn’t happen at good sets in the provinces.
Another factor is lower chambers’ rent. Exchange’s average member contribution is 12.5%, whereas for many London sets it’s over 20%. “If you’re keeping close to 85% of what you earn, that’s a reasonable amount of money to be left with,” adds Handley. And then there is the much lower cost of living — and associated quality of life premium — in the cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds across which Exchange’s 159 barristers are spread.
Looking ahead, Handley expects any future drop off in legal aid work to be mitigated by a growing seam of private insurance-backed cases, which are already common in the field of white collar crime where company directors are typically exempt from public funding.
Still, a career in criminal law is not for everyone, as Yip herself found out as she gradually gravitated to personal injury and clinical negligence work as a young barrister — a fairly common step for regional rookies to make. She recollects:
I had my first child four years after coming to bar, which changed my practice quite a bit. Up until that point I had developed a largely criminal practice, albeit with some personal injury and even family work as part of the broad based training that Exchange still gives its young barristers. But one of the problems with crime is that you have to be in court every day, whereas civil work offered more flexibility.
At the same time, Yip had always had an interest in medicine, having studied science A-levels and even briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a doctor. Finding that she really enjoyed the technical medical side of clinical negligence work, she began to reduce her criminal law caseload and never looked back.
Having had her three children by the time she was 30, she spent the next decade building an increasingly high-level personal injury practice before being awarded silk aged 41. Now she’s dipping her toe back into criminal law as a part-time Crown Court recorder.
Having not practised in that area for a long time,” she reflects, “it’s good to have colleagues who can help you. Staying in touch with different areas of the law is another bonus of being in a large mixed set and, I think, generally makes for a more interesting working environment.
Exchange Chambers is currently inviting applications from barristers across all practice areas and locations. In particular, the set is interested in hearing from criminal and personal injury barristers under seven years’ call. Apply here.
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