The Criminal Bar: what is the future for eager graduates cramming their way into a tighter knit profession?…. Dola Ajibade
Given the financial climate at the moment it’s little wonder that all the chambers evenings directed at GDL students come purely from commercial sets. Legal aid reforms, designed to cut public expenses, have hit the criminal sector hard so when 6 King’s Bench Walk (6KBW) decided to hold a chambers evening I had to attend. A brave invitation I thought by 6kbw, which came with a clear warning from David Herling (Director of the GDL), that only those interested in this field should attend.
Truth is none of us were sure if it was the route to pursue, and what were the reasons for 6kBW inviting us? They were not short of applicants i’m sure. However there is no denying the quality of the GDL cohort at City, a course known for its additional edge of academic rigour in an already intensive (and what many would describe as) painful nine months. The result? Some of the best barristers in England and Wales.
On the evening direct questions about the criminal bar were fired (it may have been the wine)...
How much will I earn? Will I ever be able to leave my parents house? Why is so much emphasis placed on academic ability when we are helping people mostly from working class backgrounds? How does someone with a first class honours and from a middle class background relate to criminals from a different background to their own?
Their answers to these very general questions? They stated that, yes the bar does place great emphasis on intellectual ability because historically that is how it has always been. They acknowledged the problem of being able to relate to clients and represent them to the best of your ability when you are not from the same background, especially in criminal law. Yet they stated they did not rule out people with a high 2:2 who demonstrate other qualities, similarly those with a first class honours with no experience do not just walk straight through the doors. Reassuring advice, I thought, useful to a post-graduate, I was won over already.
6KBW’s website is swarmed with positive reviews from Legal Directories (Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners), and the location of the chambers itself already tells you the history attached to the chambers. No promising criminal barrister would decline an offer from 6KBW. It made me wonder though, what is it about the criminal bar that despite its shortcomings, students still choose it as an area of practice? Are there really that many students who want to work for long hours on low pay just to help people? Because that would have to be your motivation, the rewards are not financial.
It’s touching that students want to work for the greater good and when you ask your peers why they want to be a criminal barrister this is usually their answer. But what makes people stand out in mini-pupillage or pupillage application form to somewhere like 6KBW?
Well, 6KBW places great emphasis on intellectual ability, proven dedication to the bar through pro bono work and extracurricular activities. You need to be able to pinpoint exactly why you want to be a criminal barrister and lastly, tailor your covering letter to their specific chambers. The most common mistake by students is using a generic covering letter, just changing the name of the chambers for each application. This pointless time-saving device screams out to chambers, particularly when you forget to change some fact or other to suit the appellation in hand. The sad thing is all this effort is wasted, and you rarely know why rejection has landed at your door (few chambers give individual feedback). My advice, yes covering letters are time consuming but it’s worth it, you want to apply to chambers knowing that you did your best to gain a place there.
Within the criminal law sector, 6KBW has a vast range of expertise including international criminal work and fraud. Those on a pupillage will rotate every four months in order to capture the many areas that the chamber covers. 6KBW are very proud of their pupillage training programme which includes an advocacy course entailing mooting, legal ethics training for the crown court, in which you will be representing in by the end of the pupillage.
Both pupils taken on this year were from different professions. One from investment banking, and the other a solicitor from a magic circle firm. I asked the ex-banker about the hours he works and he stated that he is used to early mornings because of his previous employment and that he liked to have that time to gather himself together before his pupillage supervisor came in. The ex-solicitor was tired can you believe, of commercial work. She stated that she had to ‘kiss goodbye’ to her maternity pay package and other privileges which do not come with self-employment, but stressed how the move was important to her and she enjoys her work.
We heard about Sarah Whitehouse, called to the bar in 1993, who was awarded ‘Junior Barrister of the Year Award 2011’ by Chambers and Partners. This demonstrates the quality of 6KBW as well as how hard one works as a barrister. To me, this is an amazing achievement. I think as a student one is worried about what happens when you finally do become a barrister, what happens next, what does one work towards? The award answers this question, I think for me especially it is important to see progress in one's career. 6KBW seems a set of chambers where the work is never short and the prospects of being a successful criminal barrister are not limited in any way.
Dola Ajibade is a current GDL student at The City Law School.