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The self-examination needed to take silk

New silk Deshpal Panesar QC talks about the challenges of the QC appointment process, what he would change about it, and whether it is all worth it in the end

There is a sort of miracle about most careers at the Bar. The fact that every year, cadres of people choose to cast free of the security of a salary, a defined career, paid leave, or the support of an institution, to pursue a career at the Bar, is remarkable enough. All the more so if you appreciate the currents they have to navigate to succeed, from the caprice of the market, to the political changes that may curtail whole fields of practice, and the politics of chambers. Add to that constant competition, and a very high rate of attrition and the choice seems more puzzling. And yet people do make that choice, year in, year out, to the abiding benefit of the law, the legal system, and those they represent.

Notwithstanding all of that, on 16 March 2020, 114 barristers will prepare to embrace a whole new set of imponderables as they walk, in robe, stocking and wig, to Westminster Hall, to receive their red leather-bound letter of appointment as Queen’s Counsel. This year I will be one of them, a Pagri instead of a wig, and I have been asked to answer some questions about the process, including for those who might be considering applying.

What is the process of application like?

It is without doubt, demanding. It requires a demonstration of excellence in a series of criteria, in a 52-page application form, with 36 referees (12 judicial, 12 client, and 12 practitioner, which usually means opponent), and a competency-based interview for those who pass the initial sift. However, that detail and complexity is both necessary and useful. It is a part of the process of self-examination as to whether you are ready, and as to whether this is what you want to do.

“Any minority candidate will have faced a series of challenges and obstacles, both internal and external, to get to the point of considering applying”

Don’t be deterred by that, of all things. Allow yourself plenty of time, read and take on board the extensive (and very helpful) QCA guidance, speak to those who have been through it, and avail yourself of the help that is available. The Bar Council operates an excellent mentoring scheme for those thinking of applying. Do that and you will know, or have a good sense, as to whether you are ready; the readiness is all. And if you are, you will manage the process.

What would you say to other Black and Ethnic Minority applicants?

I don’t pretend to speak for whole communities. In my experience ethnicity was not relevant to application process itself at all, and the QCA are working hard to reach out to potential candidates to make the process clear and accessible. Potential applicants’background, is, for many, more likely to have been relevant to the multiple tipping points that led you to the point of applying or not.

Any minority candidate will have faced a series of challenges and obstacles, both internal and external, to get to the point of considering applying. Others will at times have sought to define you by your distinct characteristic, or to categorise you, and the things you have achieved, by that quality. Don’t let them. But, equally, don’t let anyone else make you self-censor, or shy away from embracing your background and being proud of it.

My first direct experience of the Bar was a mini-pupillage, on which my supervisor said, ‘Because you are different, people will remember you. What they ascribe to that memory is down to you.’He was right, and I am grateful for that advice, and when the new silks are introduced to the judges on the day of the ceremony, I will remember it when I bow before him in the Court of Appeal on 16 March.

Are there improvements you would suggest to the process?

The process is accompanied by very significant expense which can be a disincentive. It is, without doubt an expensive process to run and maintain, rigorous as it is, and there are concessionary rates (half) for those who earn under £60,000 a year. However, the QCA has indicated that fees are likely to rise, and those fees are not the only (or even major) part of the unavoidable expense of applying and succeeding.

So, the one change I would suggest if possible would be a mitigation of the fee cost. The law is an infrastructure as vital as roads and bridges and services. Anything that potentially deters potentially suitable candidates, those who aspire to embrace the difficult questions and issues that the law poses, merits reduction where possible, especially in comparison to other professions where there are not equivalent costs to advancement.

Would you encourage others to apply?

Without hesitation. If you are ready, and you have accrued cases of the required complexity and substance, it merits the all of the effort. Simply engaging with the detailed competencies makes you a better lawyer. Further, the process takes you out of your silo as a practitioner and encourages engagement with your profession, which is continuously rewarding.

Application is a flag that you want to lead, with all the service that entails, in thought, in practice, and in the furtherance of the law. Whilst I will not pretend being appointed is not exciting and terrifying in about equal measure, I found the process was underpinned by a sense of warmth, encouragement, and support from across the profession, judiciary, and law that will remain with me for the rest of my career.

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