Brief for the next generation

Young barristers need help to face today's challenges, says the new cha irman of the Bar Council. Sharon Wallach reports
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The Independent Online
Appropriately for the youngest-ever chairman of the Bar Council, Peter Goldsmith QC at 44 counts among his major concerns the future of the young Bar.

He led the working party set up by the Bar Council in 1993 to investigate the prospects for young barristers, and in his inaugural speech to the council he said that the success of the Bar in fighting off the threat from solicitor advocates will depend largely on securing the future of the young Bar.

His raft of reforms for his year in office, which began earlier this month, includes the establishment of a clearing-house system for pupillage applications and the implementation of proposals to allow educational institutions other than the Council of Legal Education to teach the barristers' vocational course.

Mr Goldsmith's proposals for the business side of the profession also have relevance to young practitioners. A new scheme for chambers management training was particularly important, he said. His working party identified a need for training in how to runchambers in a changing environment.

"The first step to successful business practice is good management," Mr Goldsmith said. "The Bar cannot expect to be judged on the high quality of its advocacy and advice alone."

A firm of management consultants, Central Law Training, has been selected to run the training, which would cover strategic planning, marketing, client care, finance and personnel management. The first pilot training scheme begins in London next month. Itwould not be compulsory, Mr Goldsmith said, but added: "We hope chambers will take it up. The company will do the training at a reasonable cost - it is tremendous value."

Next, Mr Goldsmith said, the Bar must build on training with best-practice guidelines and by helping to provide sound management standards in chambers. "These will help to get work, to keep work and to give chambers a real competitive edge.

"I believe the standard of advice and advocacy the Bar offers to be very high, but we need to be sure that people understand that this service can be provided in a modern, efficient way."

Some barristers need help to improve communication with their clients, Mr Goldsmith said. For example, a barrister might miss a deadline in providing a document, for the best of reasons, but might not think to explain to the client.

"The Bar has changed out of all recognition. That is not to say we don't still get things wrong, but that is where it is the job of the Bar Council to help, particularly the young Bar."

Another part of the Goldsmith initiative on working practices is a call for greater co-operation between barristers and solicitors, for the ultimate benefit of the client. "I believe it is time for a new partnership with solicitors, working together in the client's interest," he said.

Mr Goldsmith believes there is no immediate threat to senior practitioners from solicitor advocates. "I am increasingly confident that the Bar has a very strong future," he said. "But it needs to make changes to meet potential threats, and especially to help new entrants."

The pupillage clearing house would go some way towards that, he hopes. "At the moment the burden on students is intolerable. They make 10, 20 or even 100 separate applications for pupillage. They don't know whether the chambers they are applying to will receive five or 500 applications. The situation causes a great deal of worry at a time when the student is doing finals or the vocational course, which is very demanding indeed. Some chambers offer pupillages earlier than others, which can put the student under more pressure to make a decision." From the point of view of chambers, the countless applications were also a burden, he said.

The scheme will initially be voluntary, he added. Compulsion would be too big a jump to make.

Detailed plans for vocational courses go to the Bar Council later this month. The major benefit of extending validation would be the opportunity for training outside London, which currently does not exist. And, he said, competitive stimulus would raise standards.

Mr Goldsmith also intends to examine the Bar's complaints procedures. The current, somewhat complex system is directed at discipline and misconduct. What is needed, he said, is a simplified procedure that would offer some redress for justified complaintsof shoddy service, say, rather than misconduct. An implementation group under the chairmanship of Robert Owen QC would "learn from the lessons of others" - such as the beleaguered Solicitors Complaints Bureau - and produce a detailed plan with a view toputting a new system in place at the beginning of next year.

"The biggest difficulty is how to deal with the fact that most of our work is contested litigation; many clients lose because they do not have good cases," Mr Goldsmith said.

"We have to produce a complaints system that is not merely re-arguing the lost case or blaming the barrister when it was not his service that was at fault. This is something of a challenge.

"It would also be appropriate to install internal chambers procedures to deal with matters such as the allocation and return of briefs and promises about when work will be done."

The responsibility for promoting the Bar rests with its members, Mr Goldsmith said. The argument put forward by some that solicitor advocates should be paid more than barristers under the legal aid system because of their higher overheads must be rejected. "We can't expect the taxpayer to pay more for no additional service.

"We are in favour of a graduated fee system in the Crown Court, which we want to be introduced without delay; it is important to our members. Our responsibility is not only to our present members but to the next generation of barristers. It is our duty to make sure they are even stronger and fitter."

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