The guest speakers for the evening were His Honour Judge Rickard Marks QC, Anesta Weeks QC, Rosina Cottage QC, Dr Tunde Okewale MBE, and Edmund Gross. His Honour Judge Richard Marks QC is the 81st incumbent of the legal office of the Common Serjeant of London. This is the second most senior permanent judge of the Central Criminal Court. He was called to the Bar in 1975, appointed a recorder in 1994, and took silk in 1999. He is also the Mentor and Judicial Patron of the Kalisher Trust. Anesta Weekes QC of 33 Bedford Row Chambers was called to the Bar at Grays Inn in 1981, took silk in 1999 and was appointed a recorder in the following year. She is a Grade A Trainer for the Inns of Court College of Advocacy and a member of the International Advocacy Training Council. Her experience includes prosecuting and defending serious criminal offences, acting for professionals in disciplinary tribunals, and she has worked on major public inquiries including The Morris Inquiry and The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, alongside extensive international pro bono work in the Caribbean. Rosina Cottage QC of Red Lion Chambers was called to the Bar in 1988, took silk in 2011, and appointed Recorder in 2012. She is a highly respected silk, involved in prosecution and defence of multi-handed serious sexual offences, murder, and fraud. In 2017 she was recognised by the Legal500 as Crime Silk of the Year, and in 2014, was the Times Lawyer of the Week. Dr Tunde Okewale MBE of Doughty Street Chambers is a leading junior barrister at the criminal bar with an established practice in serious, business, and financial crime. He is also the founder of the charity ‘Urban Lawyers’ which serves to stimulate discussion amongst young people about their attitudes towards the criminal law whilst also providing opportunities to secure work experience, and attend mock assessment days and interviews. Dr Okewale’s dedication to championing diversity has been recognised by awards in 2013, 2014, and 2015. In 2016, Dr Okewale was awarded an MBE for ‘his services to the community and disadvantaged young people’. In 2017 Dr Okewale was further awarded an honorary doctorate by Sheffield Hallam University, and appointed honorary lecturer at the University of Manchester School of Law. Edmund Gross of Furnival Chambers was called to the Bar in 2016, and is member of Gray’s Inn. Prior to his pupillage, he did paralegal work at Peters & Peters LLP. He completed his pupillage at Furnival Chambers in 2018 and successfully secured tenancy in the same year. He has been the secretary assistant of the Kalisher Trust since 2016, and is a Kalisher Trust Mentor.
The question and answer panel session focused on the theme of promoting access, diversity, and career progression. For those of you who could not make it on the evening, the panel’s responses have been summarised below.
Question 1: Can you share what a typical day looks like for you? And while doing so, dispel a myth about your position?
Each of the panellists in turn emphasised that there is no such thing as a typical day at the Criminal Bar, as each day can throw a curveball in terms of different, challenging, and surprising cases, and in terms of unexpected complications to existing cases. However, one thing each of the panellists’ days had in common was the large workload. They all wake up early, and begin dealing with emails almost immediately. While Ms Weekes QC and Ms Cottage QC, as senior barristers, tend to deal with larger cases with enormous responsibilities, an early career barrister like Mr Gross will work on smaller cases, but be expected to deal with multiple cases each day, sometimes having to travel to multiple courts in a single day. Dr Okewale emphasised the importance of taking a little time out of each day to de-stress, in order to more efficiently manage responsibilities. HH Judge Marks QC emphasised how much he enjoyed his career as a criminal barrister, and strongly encouraged those in attendance to consider it as a career path. As a judge, his days also do not follow a ‘typical’ pattern, and he has learned to expect the unexpected as cases unfold.
In terms of dispelling myths, Ms Weekes QC addressed the pressures on your personal life that can come with an intense career such as one at the criminal bar, while Ms Cottage QC and Dr Okewale dispelled the myth that the bar is an unfriendly career, as they have both found barristers are quite happy to help one another out. Mr Gross dealt with the issue of pay as a junior barrister, sharing that if you are trying to establish what pupillage pay at a chambers is likely to be, check their first year baseline pay as these are likely to be roughly similar. HH Judge Marks QC argued that the impression many people have of Judges being supremely confident individuals is somewhat misguided; many put up a facade, and frequently come across difficult problems, but need to put up a front in order to progress up the career ladder.
Question 2: Drawing on your own professional experiences, what have you found to be the most rewarding, and most challenging, aspects of a career in criminal law specifically?
The work Ms Weekes QC found most rewarding was her representation of a man on death row in Jamaica at the Human Rights Commission in Washington DC; she was able to persuade the court his case should be commuted to life in prison. However, she explained, it can be challenging to ensure enough preparation time and attention is given to each case. This is easy to underestimate, but getting preparation right matters. Ms Cottage QC describes working at the Criminal Bar as a privilege, and that being able to provide assistance to people at some of the most difficult times of their lives is truly rewarding. The other side of this coin is that the work can also be challenging in that it is emotionally draining. Dr Okewale’s most rewarding case was his involvement with the first ever student-led criminal appeal with the Cardiff Innocence Project in 2013. He too emphasised the importance of reconciling competing expectations from clients, judge, prosecution, yourself and ensuring you maintain a work-life balance. Mr Gross also discussed the rewarding nature of the criminal bar, as the impact of even a minor offence can be huge for an individual’s career. On the other hand, managing the volume of the workload can be challenging; it’s important to make sure you get enough rest. As a criminal barrister, HH Judge Marks QC found successfully cross-examining witnesses; making a strong closing speech to the jury; and, of course, winning cases, to be the most rewarding aspects of that career.
Question 3: This year, the Kalisher Trust has for the first time established an excellent mentorship programme for its scholars. But many of the aspiring barristers in this room will not have access to this kind of professional support, accordingly could you please provide three tips on how one can get ahead and stay ahead at the Criminal Bar?
Ms Weekes QC advised that students should do something they are really interested in; to pick two points of law, and follow through, whether with independent research, joining a related law society, or attending open lectures and events. These show a ‘get up and go’ personality which will stand out in an interview. Building on this Ms Cottage QC emphasised that visiting a court is free, and watching cases unfold helps students better understand the legal process. When undertaking mini-pupillages, students should be cheerful, helpful, and memorable. There’s always something that you can help with, and always an intelligent question to ask if you’ve been paying attention. Dr Okewale had three further suggestions. First, when trying to progress you should start at the end and work backwards, just as you might on a case. Having clear goals helps shape good decision making, and helps to identify the opportunities, contacts, and information you might need to progress towards those goals. Second, do not internalise failure, but instead see it as an opportunity to evaluate your performance, look at your mistakes, and grow. Finally, things don’t happen quickly but they do happen suddenly: your education is laying the roots and foundations for you to flourish. Mr Gross agreed with the points already made, and further added that joining an Inn when in your third or fourth year of your degree can be helpful, as the education teams are invested in your success and very supportive. Building on earlier suggestions, he also recommended that students should do as much debating and public speaking as possible. Finally, it’s important to be yourself in interviews because if you have to fake it to get a pupillage you’ll have to fake it for the whole year and it will be miserable. Let your character come through. HH Judge Marks QC said that in order to get into chambers you have to be interesting, charming, and engaged. To build a career from this, you have to put in the hours, pay attention to detail, build connections, and engage with the community, whether through your Inn, the criminal bar association, or an organisation like the Kalisher Trust.
Question 4: The legal profession generally, and the Bar specifically, is often criticised for failing to represent the wider society that it serves. And whilst it is often said that “diversity at the Bar is better than it was” statistics from the Bar Standards Board indicate that progress remains slow, particularly at the senior end of the profession. What are your thoughts on how the accessibility and diversity of the Criminal Bar has been and is improving? Based on your experiences, is there anything in particular you would like to see changed?
Each panellist emphasised the significant progress which has been made in terms of diversity at the bar over the past decades. Diversity is more noticeable at junior levels of the profession, but at the senior level progress has been slow. All panelists also emphasised the importance of supporting colleagues, challenging stereotypes and speaking up for diversity. Two key concerns are self-elimination and retention. The Kalisher Trust does outreach events with schools to try to combat self-elimination of applicants based on their background. Their advice to prospective applicants is to be confident; who you are or where you are from does not matter as long as you are a good barrister.
Question 5: The Criminal Bar Association has warned of an impending ‘recruitment crisis’ as the recent and unprecedented cuts to legal aid have meant that the profession is failing to attract and / or retain young bright people. Is a career at the Criminal Bar still a viable option for young aspiring barristers? Do you have any thoughts on what the future of the criminal practice looks like?
While all panellists strongly encouraged the pursuit of a career at the bar, arguing it remains a viable option for young aspiring barristers, it is important to be realistic. There has been a significant reduction in the amount of money allotted to the Criminal Bar by the government. Financial planning and budgeting will be highly important for anyone considering a career at the bar. However, prospective barristers should have faith in the fact of the adversarial system—advocates will always be necessary. Overall, the Criminal Bar is a vocation, and a fantastic career if it’s something you are passionate about.
The panel was followed by a drinks reception and networking. Congratulations to Anu and Elspeth for organising such a wonderful event, and many thanks to the panellists, for giving up their time, and to Prof Mary Bosworth for her unwavering support and championing of diversity and outreach at Oxford and beyond.
Post by Toni Brunton-Douglas
MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice Graduate