Law: When age should be no bar: Sharon Wallach reports on current proposals to help young barristers compete for work

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The Independent Online
A FLOURISHING legal profession depends on the employment and welfare of young lawyers, and moves are afoot to ensure their professional survival in difficult times.

The Bar Council is investigating the prospects for young barristers through a working party led by Peter Goldsmith QC, a member of the council's legal services committee. The concern is, he says, to ensure that the young Bar in particular is able to compete effectively. 'The days of restrictive practices have gone, what matters now is the quality of service provided by the Bar, in order to be both efficient and cost-effective.'

The working party is examining whether there has been a decline in work for the young as well as looking at ways to help them in the future. 'We are identifying problems as we go along,' Mr Goldsmith says.

One such problem concerns the operation of standard fees in magistrates' courts. The way they work, he says, means an incentive to prefer one sort of advocate to save the public purse, rather than use the best person. 'If solicitor advocates are winning the work because they are better, that is fair competition,' Mr Goldsmith says. 'Our concern is that the competition remains fair.'

The Bar's working practices also came to light as a problem area. 'We welcome the fact that a number of chambers are recognising the necessity of adapting to provide what solicitors and clients actually want,' he says. This means, for example, offering to collect files from solicitors' offices, accepting faxed instructions, making attendance notes at the end of a case, rather than the time-honoured practice of scrawling phrases on a backsheet.

Nick Vineall , the chairman of the Bar Council's young barristers committee and a member of the working party, adds that young barristers are in a strong position to compete with solicitor advocates on costs because they have no overheads. 'But they can lose all the advantages by being slow,' he says. 'Some are rather insensitive to what the client demands.'

Mr Goldsmith agrees. 'It is important to ask solicitors what service they expect, and how it can be improved,' he says. The working party's research has met a 'very positive reaction from solicitors because they see it is in our joint interests to offer an efficient service.

'There is some pressure from commercial solicitors to give their own advocates experience, and try to use those instead of the young Bar. That is a danger,' Mr Goldsmith says. 'But in the civil field, it will be very difficult for solicitors to cover all specialisms in-house. I hope they will also realise that to become specialists these barristers will have to get experience in the lower courts as well. I want to make sure that the young Bar continues to get this experience. We don't want the Bar to be cut off at the knees, and solicitors don't want that either,' Mr Goldsmith says.

What can be done to ensure the survival of young barristers? ' We will want to see the Lord Chancellor's Department monitoring the effects of rights of audience on the young Bar,' says Mr Goldsmith. 'We can help create conditions under which competition can operate fairly, on an equal basis. We can help to identify changes in working practices, and areas of new work. We believe that if the people at the Bar offer the right service, it will work well.'

On the solicitors' side of the profession, there is also concern for the future. Earlier in the year an association was formed to promote the interests and welfare of young lawyers in Europe and to encourage cross-European links. The chairman of the European Young Bar Association (EYBA) is Andrew Greenfield, a member of the London Young Solicitors Group (LYSG) and a partner at the West End firm Slingsby Farmiloe & Greenfield.

'Young lawyers are usually employees rather than partners and therefore not so much in control of their destiny,' Mr Greenfield says. 'There have been a lot of redundancies in recent years, mainly at the bottom end of the profession.'

Throughout Europe, he says, young lawyers have no real voice, but they do share many common problems and issues, from welfare to multi-disciplinary partnerships. It is only in the past three years that young solicitors have been represented on the Law Society council. In few other countries are young lawyers represented on professional decision-making bodies.

The EYBA has 21 members, and hopes to increase this 30 by next year. Membership is for young lawyers' groups, rather than individuals, from cities rather than countries. 'At the LYSG we had established contacts over the years with city groups, and we wanted to harvest that energy. We also wanted to get away from polarisation into countries,' Mr Greenfield says.

Membership is not limited to EC countries. 'Europe is a lot wider than that. There is a lot we could do to help formative groups in places like Romania and Russia.'

One of the group's main projects is to improve on the existing informal arrangements for exchange programmes. A database is planned to be based in Brussels, where EYBA hopes to establish an administrative base.

Another project is a book on law in Europe, with publication timed to coincide with next year's AGM. It will cover areas from the organisation of different legal structures to local customs and social matters such as lawyers' favourite restaurants.

The EYBA is not about getting business, Mr Greenfield stresses. 'There will always be spin-off work, but it is not the main reason for its existence,' he says. That is to nurture the legal profession of the future.

(Photograph omitted)

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