Killian Flood: Life can be tough at the Young Bar, but I still love it
When I was called to the Bar, my godfather congratulated me on my new life of “dignified poverty”. Had I known just how apt this description was, I may not have laughed so loudly.
As a student, I was fully aware that the path to an established practice is fraught with challenge. Yet, I was undeterred. After all, I had no lived experience to temper my expectations. I was also fuelled by unearned self-confidence and a sense of exceptionalism that is common amongst law graduates.
I was humbled quickly. There were, of course, initial struggles such as not knowing proper procedure and subsequently paying the price in the County Registrar’s Court, or having my carefully-constructed drafts met with heavy sighs by my master.
But there were also many subtler moments where I felt like an outsider, such as when older colleagues would gossip about the various personalities within legal circles of whom I had never heard. I would stand quietly to the side, trying desperately to time my laughter correctly as if to prove I knew what was going on.
As time went on during my devilling years, I gained more confidence (this time, earned) in my abilities. I spent a lot of time on my feet in court and learned how to deal with adversity. I developed a deeper understanding of case law and procedure by staying late and reading every judgment I could find. I became comfortable in the culture of the Bar as I made genuine connections with my colleagues. I was even lucky enough to get some briefs in my own right.
The sudden state of inactivity
However, as I left devilling behind to fully focus on my own career, I was faced with an entirely new obstacle. Let us call it involuntary idleness, a phenomenon akin to being cast adrift on a rubber dinghy in the Pacific Ocean. There’s no immediate danger of drowning, but the future doesn’t look too promising.
Most barristers will have experienced the sudden state of inactivity following the busy years learning from your supervisors. All at once, there are no court dates to attend, no research that needs to be done, no meetings to join. It is as if you have been stopped in your tracks, as you slowly realise that working in the busy practices of your masters has not resulted in a thriving practice of your own.
The true challenge of the Young Bar (Years 1–7) is not developing the skills necessary for practice but building up the practice itself from scratch. As an early years barrister, you have a limited body of work to justify being briefed at all, irrespective of your perceived abilities.
I spent much of my third to fourth years writing articles for Irish Legal News, operating online courtrooms for TrialView and ghost-writing submissions for established practitioners. Otherwise, I was waiting for the phone to ring. It occasionally did, and I always valued the call.
For the Young Bar, briefs are wildly inconsistent and, typically, the work is at a lower level. This is not surprising. Solicitors are understandably disinclined to take any risks with their own hard-won practice and, in my experience, will only brief counsel who they know are competent.
All of these difficulties in the early years of practice could be taken in stride if not for the associated cashflow issues. Obviously, where a young practitioner is struggling to find work, it is going to be reflected in their bank account. This is to say nothing of the insulting levels of pay in criminal legal aid, which have caused my colleagues to withdraw services in a historic protest last week.
Cruelly, even if a young barrister has a few briefs, there is no guarantee of prompt payment. The time lag between doing work and getting paid is often measured in years which results in constant income insecurity. Little work and late payment do not a booming practice make.
When taking everything into account, it is no wonder that so many young barristers leave the Bar before seven years. Life at the Young Bar is tough.
But I love it all the same.
High-level problem solving
There really is nothing that compares to the cut and thrust of contested litigation. Every court appearance involves a battle of wits and strategic planning, whether it is a big trial in the Commercial Court or a standard discovery motion in the Master’s Court. You are constantly tested as you bring all your legal knowledge and skill to bear for your client in order to convince a judge of your position. When it all goes right, the result can be thrilling.
For me, the core of the job is high-level problem solving in a pressurised environment. The pressure is not for everyone, but I personally savour the responsibility of representing clients when the stakes are high.
And the stakes are always high. Yes, some cases matter more than others. A District Court debt claim will seldom bear the same importance as a Supreme Court appeal, but such cases can still have a profound effect on the lives of the individuals involved. Equally, we need only consider recent decisions relating to non-prosecuting gardaí presenting cases in the District Court to see that even low-level cases can have wide-ranging consequences for society.
More than anything, the interaction between law and society is a constant source of interest to me. While laws are a codified set of rules, they are open to interpretation and can be applied in radically different ways depending on the underlying facts of a case. Every case is different, because every litigant is different. In this way, there is a variability to the job which always keeps things fresh and exciting.
Similarly, the law is constantly evolving through legislation and case law, so you can never stand still. Each day is a learning opportunity and I relish the chance to become better.
Added to this is the famous collegiality of the Bar. It is a welcoming, friendly place where members are generous in sharing their knowledge and experiences. The standard of the Bar is extremely high and the guidance offered by practitioners is precious. While nobody can build a practice for you, there are always those who will look out for you. So many senior colleagues have given me advice and encouragement over the years, while others have even recommended me for work.
The Bar offers an unparalleled level of freedom and self-direction. Your career is your own and, unlike a solicitor’s firm, you are not beholden to a managing partner demanding 60 billable hours a week. While there are always occasions when you have to burn the midnight oil, there are also times when you can go shoe shopping on a Tuesday morning. This is true flexibility in the workspace which is valuable and underrated in an ever-more corporate world.
Ultimately, the barrister’s profession is one which rewards hard work, diligence and professionalism. Patience is required as you slowly build a practice and there will undoubtedly be setbacks along the way. However, enduring the hard knocks is well worth it because the work is so gratifying. As time goes on, money worries ease as a sustainable practice develops and you have security of workflow.
The working life of a young barrister is far from perfect, but then again, there is a lead-in period to success in any profession. Doctors do not start day one with neurosurgery.
For me, there is no job that I would rather do. Now in my sixth year at the Bar, I feel genuinely privileged to still be here with a modest practice. There is much left to do and many challenges still to come. I cannot wait.