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Reaching for the Bar

Reaching for the Bar

By Andrea De Souza

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Young barristers share their insights on the challenges and rewards of a career at the Bar.

As a solicitor, I often meet and work with barristers who can appear to be the rock stars of the legal profession. They get paid big bucks to turn up when things get exciting, appearing at mediations and trials. They don’t have to babysit difficult clients or do the day-to-day paperwork. They also have the freedom of working for themselves outside the structure of a firm or government office.

Like many solicitors, several of my colleagues and friends have thought about going to the Bar. I spoke to a few of the brave souls who have made that leap to see what insights they have to offer.

Dan Coombes, a barrister who practises primarily in commercial law, was a judge’s associate in the Supreme Court before going to the Bar in 2015. “I think it’s more about having your finances and personal matters sorted rather than the legal skills. You have to be financially resilient,” he said.

Dan made the savvy business decision to pursue work in two jurisdictions and maintains chambers in both Melbourne and Tasmania. Going to the Bar early in his career has been a good move for him. “Going later may mean that you have more personal and financial responsibilities such as children and a mortgage,” he said.

He also recommended doing a judicial associateship. “I have some great contacts from my time at the court and I gained a lot of experience in seeing what works with a judge and more importantly, what doesn’t. I don’t think I would have gone straight to the Bar without being an associate first.” He encouraged young lawyers who are thinking of going to the Bar to make the jump sooner rather than later. “Being a barrister is a different job from being a solicitor and you only learn those skills getting your hands dirty at the Bar, so you might as well go as soon as you can.”

Catherine Kusiak, a common law barrister who specialises in personal injury and medical negligence, also went to the Bar straight after her associateship without practising as a solicitor. “I didn’t want to be a solicitor. I was really supported as an associate and had the push to go to the Bar,” she said.

Having undertaken a County Court associateship, Catherine feels at home when appearing there. She also enjoys the freedom of being at the Bar. “You can really make it what you want, whether you want to concentrate on paperwork or appearance work,” she said. She didn’t find that she needed too many business skills, noting that she was well supported during the readers’ course. She advised that it is “good to have a plan of what you want to do” but that she herself had low expectations, and it has worked out much better than expected.

Michael Sharkey, a barrister who practises primarily in construction law, always intended to go to the Bar. He worked as a solicitor for several years before undertaking the readers’ course in 2015 and found that background helpful. “I’m glad for my experience, it put me in a better position both in terms of networks and legal skills,” he said. “It’s like having a baby, there’s no ideal time. Just go.

“There are definitely times when it is scary but there’s work at the Bar if you’re willing to work hard,” he said.

Choosing to go to the Bar can be a huge decision. You may be moving from the relative security of working as a solicitor with the structure and support of a firm, to the relative uncertainty of working for yourself as a barrister. It may mean starting again at the bottom of a crowded pond after years of hard work proving yourself as a solicitor. There were 1999 practising counsel at the Victorian Bar at the end of 2015 (Victorian Bar membership statistics). The number has been increasing with an average of 90 lawyers taking the readers’ course every year, so the pond is unlikely to get any less crowded over time. Only 549 of those barristers are female, and you might be concerned about joining an old boys club.

Once you’ve made the decision to become a barrister, there are still considerable challenges and costs to overcome. First, you need to pass the entrance exam, a three-hour partially closed book exam, covering both criminal and civil procedure. The minimum entry requirement is 75 per cent.

There is a $490 non-refundable fee to register for the readers’ course examination. Presuming you study hard and pass the entrance exam, you then undertake an eight week course costing almost $6000.

Is it worth the risk for a young lawyer to go to the Bar? Despite the administrative hurdles, the financial costs, and the personal and professional challenges, all the barristers I spoke to were glad they had made the move to the Bar. Despite their varied backgrounds, different approaches to their business and practices, and divergent specialities, they are all thriving as young barristers.

For more information, visit the Victorian Bar website at www.vicbar.com.au or attend a Step Up to The Bar information night organised by the Victorian Bar.

 


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