All bar none

The days of Londons dominance over the bar are drawing to a close as barristers start to recognise what the regions have to offer.


All bar noneDecrepit tube trains with commuters packed in like sardines, soaring property prices and the daily grind of London life have stopped many potential barristers from taking up the profession. But the long-established belief that to become a barrister a person has to be in the English capital is a myth.

Yes, the Royal Courts of Justice and Old Bailey are in London, but that does not stop barristers from other regions from going to the famous courts or from taking up high-profile cases.

Provincial chambers have a long tradition of acting in high-profile cases, such as that of the Birmingham Six. Westgate Chambers in Lewes, East Sussex, for instance, is currently involved in one of the numerous terrorist trials arising out of the 21/7 attempted bombings.

Indeed, according to the Bar Council, almost a third of practising barristers work outside of London, with almost half of chambers (312 sets) in the provinces. The regions also have almost 50 barristers who operate on their own, compared with Londons 125.

Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester make up the main hubs outside London. Jonathan Fox, chief executive of Birmingham-based St Phillips Chambers, says that for the first decade of a barristers career the regional bar offers many more opportunities than London.

Fox says there are fewer competitive pressures throughout the regional bar, which means that young barristers have more opportunity to get their teeth into the juicy cases, which, in London, would be taken by the senior members of the bar. In terms of the costs of trading then this is common sense as its cheaper, explains Fox.

Trading from the centre of Birmingham doesnt cost the same as from central London, where the rent for property can be double, and as a barrister you have to pay your own rent. Theres also the general cost of living to take into account. Most important are the hidden costs of trading, including average commute times and city-centre car parking, all of which are generally lower than those paid by our London colleagues.

At St Phillips and No5 Chambers the largest Birmingham-based set applicants for the last round of pupillages could expect a guaranteed income of between 35,000 and 40,000, the equivalent of many sets in London.

So with lower rents, cheaper transport and generally less expensive living costs, a pupil in the regions could actually be better off than their counterparts in London. Tom Handley, director of chambers at Liverpool set Exchange Chambers, says that Londons traditional dominance in attracting the countrys leading legal cases and barristers is waning.

The brain drain of the countrys brightest barristers down to London is on the way out and so is the practice of automatically instructing London barristers on big cases, says Handley.

Handley has campaigned long and hard to prove that the countrys best barristers do not necessarily need to be London-based and he believes the message is getting through. The regional bar is getting stronger and stronger. A number of barristers chambers now have the infrastructure and expertise to compete on an equal footing with the London market leaders, he says.

Also, theres the quality of life being better outside London, which is obviously important, but while its a factor theres more to it than that. Were finding that more and more barristers from outside our region are expressing an interest in coming on board. We increase their access to quality work and bring a new dimension to their marketing and client care.

But how do you become a barrister outside London? Studying a BVC at a London school and doing your qualifying sessions in the capital would not stop you from joining a chambers in the provinces.

Be it in London or the regions, to apply to any BVC course, just go online at www.bvconline.co.uk. However, as with law degrees, education providers of the BVC have classes across the country. Outside the capital, the College of Law has branches in Birmingham, Chester, Guildford and York, while BPP Law School teaches in Leeds and Manchester.

To join one of these regional courses, which are taught to the same standard as those in London, there is still the prerequisite that a BVC student has to join one of the four Inns of Court Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincolns Inn or Grays Inn.

The Inns, although based in London, hold events on the court circuits (North, North East, South, South East, Midlands, West and Wales & Chester) throughout the year so that those students who cannot make it to London have the option to attend dinners in their region.

These dinings, like those in London, count towards qualifying as a barrister. BVC students need to attend 12 of these before they can be called to the bar.
Regional schools will also subsidise students who still want to experience the London Inns. Nottingham Law School, for instance, provides buses down to London, while Cardiff gives around 25 for travel expenses.

One Manchester BVC student says that she actually prefers the circuit dinings. The whole point of attending the dinners, apart from to qualify, is to network with those who youll be working with and to get pointers from barristers and judges whove had experiences that will help you, she explains. I know I want to stay in Manchester so I dont see the real need for me to dine in the actual London Inns, apart from, of course, for the sheer experience of it.

There are also associations of barristers attached to each circuit some affiliated to the London Inns that focus on the specific educational needs a student or barrister requires for that particular region.

However, St Phillipss Fox points out that joining a regional set is not all rosy. Theres still a perception and its only a perception that all complex major work needs to be done in London, he says.

Theres still the snobbery factor that Londons better than the regions. In some cases for very specialist advice, this is the case. Its slowly changing, with buyers generally becoming more sophisticated and realising that they should make their decisions on a horses for courses basis rather than using the unsophisticated approaches of the past.

If youre thinking about London, unless youre going to be a very specialist tax barrister, for example, you should also consider the regions.


Working outside London
Jeremy Wainwright, Westgate Chambers,
Lewes, East Sussex
Called to the bar: 1990

I did my pupillage at two well-established criminal sets in London. I had a young family and had bought a flat in Sussex. After doing a mini-pupillage in Lewes I applied to come to Westgate. At the time a number of people at the bar told me I was mad to be leaving London.

I came to Lewes because it had courts that had regular visits from High Court judges. It kept all its cases rather than transferring them to the Old Bailey. It had a tradition of high-profile cases, which has continued. The proximity of Lewes to London means the local bar can thrive alongside barristers who regularly come down from London. This avoids the risk of an inward-looking parochial atmosphere.

The days of solicitors being prepared to travel to London with their clients for conferences are on the wane. Nowadays solicitors like a local, readily accessible bar. When I joined there were nine members of chambers. Now there are 46. There is now a set in Eastbourne.

1 Kings Bench Walk has a facility in Lewes from which half a dozen members practise locally and the old 1 Crown Office Row annexe in Brighton has a growing number of tenants.

One advantage of practising outside London is that its quicker to become known. This is a plus if you work hard. A poor or lazy barrister is soon found out, as with fewer courts they cannot be hidden by the clerks.

There are strong friendly contacts with local solicitors, providing for a good working relationship between the two branches of the profession. Mutual support means that clients are less likely to feel the need for London lawyers.

More affordable housing and beautiful countryside provide a better quality of life than in London, especially for anyone with a family.

Work outside Sussex is still available. Members of chambers have been in crown courts from Middlesbrough to Plymouth.