I have been thinking a lot about the future of the Bar recently. About how the decisions we make now will affect the practices of barristers who have not long embarked on their professional journey, and those yet to come. Well before the events of this year, the practice of the barrister and the market in which we operate had been changing. The State of the Bar survey confirmed what we already sensed and observed. It felt like we were approaching a set of crossroads. Seemingly, COVID has accelerated our arrival at that junction.
Last Sunday, more than 230 aspirant barristers sat the Bar Entrance Exam – a record number. This year, having completed two courses conducted mainly online, 80 Readers joined our Bar. I signed the Roll more than 23 years ago in May 1997. The practice of the law and the role of the barrister were very different then. What kind of institution will barristers of my generation leave for those who will be in practice 5, 10, 23 years from now? Will it be an institution which has a secure place in the legal market; where several thousand advocates can flourish; where barristers are equipped to serve the needs of their clients and the courts, and compete with those who would take our place? A college that has retained and nurtured the rites and traditions which are foundational to our identity while at the same time evolving and improving where we can, individually and collectively?
I hope so.
As most reading this will be aware, I have renominated for Bar Council and I will, if elected, again put myself forward for the role of President. I have long thought that, from a governance perspective, a one-year term for the President’s role is too short. I confess, though, that my pen hovered over the nomination form for a long time. This has been a much more challenging year than I could ever have imagined. But, then I started thinking about the future of the Bar again and signed the form.
Those thoughts have been shaped in large measure by the opportunity I have had over the past few years to interact with the junior Bar. That opportunity has presented itself in numerous ways – through formal and informal mentoring, through leading juniors in a team of counsel, through speaking to participants in the Readers’ Course and, significantly, through Bar Council. I used to think that our governing body was too big, but I have come to the view that its size is justified principally because of the value that comes from the contribution of the six members of category B (members 6-15 years’ call) and the four members of category C (members under 6 years’ call). Of course, the experience and wisdom of the more senior members of the Council is invaluable, and I have come to know and respect many silks whose practices would otherwise never intersect with mine. But the beauty of Bar Council’s structure is that it gives more junior members of the Bar a real voice, and it is a voice that is really worth listening to. And I have admired the way they have participated in the decision-making of Bar Council, particularly over the past eight or nine months when many, many difficult decisions had to be made.
Some of those decisions were unpopular with some people. Very often, they involved decisions about how to prudently manage the financial resources of the Bar – members’ funds – in a way which ensures our ongoing financial viability. In those decisions, we had the benefit and the burden of the ‘big picture’ – the broader context in which our decisions would take effect. We also had to balance in our consideration the strategic imperative of the longer-term survival and strength of our Bar.
One of the difficult decisions we had to make was asking the Law Council of Australia to waive our capitation fees of approximately $127K for 2020-2021, as the Australian Bar Association had done. Put simply, having discounted or waived subscriptions for more than half our practising members, we were not in a position to pay the capitation fees without jeopardising our future financial viability and creating a significant problem for future Bar Councils, which will be faced with a potentially steep decline in subscription revenue as a result of the effect of COVID on our members’ practices this year. Notwithstanding the special – indeed, unique – impact of the COVID crisis on the Victorian Bar, the Directors of the Law Council declined our request for a waiver. Our decision not to pay the capitation fees was no reflection at all on the value of the work of the Law Council; we recognise the importance of that work and the substantial contribution that many of our members make to it. The participation of VicBar members in the work of the Law Council through its sections, which they pay for through section fees, is independent of the participation of the Bar in the governing body via payment of capitation fees, so members of the Bar will still have the opportunity to contribute to the Law Council’s work this financial year through section membership.
Thankfully, the announcements this week to bring us out of lockdown, and the very welcome news that jury trials will recommence in the middle of November, provide us with some confidence in the immediate future. Before too long, we hope that Readers who have, this year, been denied that all-important time in Chambers with their mentors will have that opportunity. We hope that members of the junior Criminal Bar – especially those who have missed out this year on that crucial cut-your-teeth trial work – will soon be busy again and taking the benefit of the backlog in the courts. We hope that members will be able to soon enjoy the in-person company of their fellow barristers which this year has shown to be so critical to the strength of our college.
But as we get back to a version of the way things were, let’s keep thinking about how the way things will – and should – be in the future.