Described in the latest edition of The Legal 500’s UK Bar guide as ‘a major force’ who has ‘built up an excellent set’, Carolyn McCombe’s career in chambers – like many other standout leaders in law – took a more circuitous route.
When studying law at Cambridge, McCombe recalls how ‘all of the most intelligent and talented people were set on a career at the Bar’. While admitting to ‘flirting’ with the idea of one day donning a horse hair wig and black gown, she concluded she was ‘neither intelligent nor talented enough’ to become a barrister and so ‘became a litigation solicitor instead’ (no offence to litigators intended).
After almost a decade of working at small City firm Stafford Clark – during which time she made partner – McCombe began to wonder whether she really wanted to continue her career as a solicitor. It was then, in the mid ’80s, that she saw a well-timed advertisement for a graduate to join the clerking team at One Brick
‘I have now been doing a job I love for over 30 years,’ she says. ‘I still feel something of a fraud being called a chief executive. When I first joined Brick Court in 1984 there were no chief executives and I was part of the clerking team which, in those days, combined clerking with whatever management there was.’
McCombe moved to 4 Pump Court in 1990 as its new senior clerk, a position which quickly evolved into a chief executive role as the non-clerking aspects of managing a chambers became ever-more complex and time consuming. Still, the biggest challenge she faced upon arriving at her new set was to reinvent it from an excellent common law and circuit set to a leading commercial chambers. A challenge it may have been, but one that has been overcome.
4 Pump Court is now recognised by The Legal 500 as a leading set in the fields of arbitration, commercial litigation, construction, energy, IT and telecoms, and shipping, among other areas. McCombe is quick to praise others for this successful transformation: ‘Achieving that transition has only been possible because of the calibre, energy, and determination of the members of chambers, but any part I have been able to play in the process has been immensely gratifying.’Having spent almost three decades in post, McCombe is well placed to explain how the role of chambers CEO has developed and been embraced by many other forward-thinking sets. ‘Most sets now appreciate that combining the tasks of clerking with the responsibilities of running a multimillion-pound business is no longer viable and requires different skillsets,’ she
‘That is why there has been an influx of new blood into chambers to take over the CEO role, bringing with them different experience and qualifications. This works well when both CEOs and clerks appreciate the contribution the other makes to the success of a modern set.’
The unique business model that is chambers has seen some CEOs survive and thrive while others have crashed and burned. McCombe puts her own success down to having been a solicitor first, and combining this background with the experience she gained as a clerk before then taking on the CEO role. This rich history of experience to draw upon has enabled her to appreciate the very different aspects that contribute to the success of chambers as a whole.
‘In the last decade I have certainly found my solicitor background useful in dealing with the introduction of contractual terms, complaints procedures, and compliance generally,’ she says. ‘It is always a challenge balancing the interests of individual members of chambers, who are each a small business in their own right, alongside the business of chambers which has its own responsibilities and issues.’
One of these responsibilities must be the fair treatment and protection of all members and staff from harassment and inappropriate behaviour. In the #MeToo era, and with more women joining chambers than ever before, I ask McCombe how she feels life has changed at the Bar?
‘I have no personal experience of sexism or bullying,’ she begins. ‘However, I’m sure it exists both at barrister and clerk/staff level, and everything possible should be done to eradicate it. It should not be overlooked that bullying is not just a male issue; there are women who abuse their position as well.’
‘I do think the Bar has modernised and now recognises that there is no place for attitudes and behaviour which do not conform with best practice in, for example, recruitment,
equality and diversity, allocation of work, and policies which support barristers trying to balance family commitments with a career. There are still elements at the Bar who do not understand the need for such modernisation, but I hope and believe that they are a dwindling minority.’
McCombe says she has never personally found chambers a difficult place to work. ‘On the contrary, I think being a woman in a clerking/CEO role can be an advantage and I have never had anything other than support and respect from both the barristers and clerks that I have worked with,’ she continues.
On the subject of female leadership, I wonder what additional skills, experiences, and/or viewpoints women can bring to leadership in chambers. ‘Barristers and clerks often have large egos, which make them good at their respective jobs but can mean there is a lot of weight being thrown around,’ offers McCombe. ‘Most women take themselves much less seriously and are adept at ego juggling. I think that makes them particularly suited to leadership roles in chambers where they can achieve their goals in a rather more subtle way.’McCombe believes that the best way to encourage more women to aspire to work and lead in chambers is for current senior clerks and CEOs to lead by example and create an environment in which women feel comfortable and appreciated.
‘I am delighted to be involved with a new initiative set up by several women senior clerks called COCo (Clerks in Open Conversation), which aims to offer encouragement, support, and advice. It is open to all but is particularly aimed at female clerks who have fewer role models within the profession,’ she explains. However, McCombe also wants to encourage graduates into chambers so to increase the pool of able clerks who have the skills necessary to manage the modern Bar.
In July 2018, McCombe stepped down from her role as chief executive to take on a new position in chambers which she describes as ‘the oddly entitled mix of’ head of professional standards and ADR. ‘During my time as chief exec, I became increasingly pre-occupied by issues of regulation, compliance, HR, and business management which were the roles I enjoyed far less than being on the front line,’ she explains. ‘This new role brings together the two aspects of chambers life that I enjoy and feel most strongly about.
‘The very high professional standards under which the Bar operates makes it the extraordinary profession that it is. Supporting barristers at all levels, particularly when there is a problem, is extremely satisfying. Working with 4 Pump Court’s arbitrators and mediators brings me closer to the clerking role which was the aspect of the job I used to most enjoy.’ Shedding the responsibility of all aspects of chambers life and having more time to concentrate on the two aspects she enjoys the most is ‘a fantastic compromise’, she says, while also enabling her to have more time for herself (‘in theory at least’) and to develop other interests outside chambers. Still, one issue McCombe remains passionate about is the importance of secondments for the Bar and how they can become a compliance trap for unwary and ill-prepared counsel.
The positives for a young barrister going on secondment are many and varied, explains McCombe. Most obviously junior barristers can build up a relationship with a particular law firm or in-house team and gain an appreciation for the pressures under which solicitors operate. A secondment often grants them an opportunity to increase their expertise in a particular area which they can then bring back to chambers. Examples might be working with an insurer dealing with GDPR issues or with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) providing an understanding of the regulator’s perspective.
Another positive can be financial. This is particularly crucial for the publicly funded Bar, but any junior will benefit from the stability of a guaranteed, promptly paid income, even if it is just for a few months.
There is, of course, a negative side to secondments. The barrister may miss out on opportunities while away and chambers must find suitable cover when it is short its usual stable of juniors. For this reason, McCombe suggests that secondments be limited to no more than three months in length and be flexible enough to enable the secondee to keep their self-employed practice ticking over.
As they became increasingly more popular, McCombe recognised that many barristers were undertaking secondments without complying with their own professional rules and in some cases without insurance. The advice that was, until recently, on hand was ‘at best confusing and in some parts inconsistent’, and led McCombe and others to lobby the powers that be to take action.
‘Having got the Bar Council and Young Bar Committee on side, I was fortunate that the Commercial Bar Association (COMBAR) and the Chancery Bar Association (ChBA) agreed to pool their resources and produce excellent guidance and a draft conflicts protocol. In addition, Bar Mutual Indemnity Fund agreed to extend the scope of its indemnity and to issue fresh guidance in relation to secondments which made it clear what they were and were not covering.’
As she enters this new chapter in her career, transitioning away from the responsibilities of a CEO, I ask McCombe what she believes has been the biggest change in clerking over the last three decades? ‘Undoubtedly the transformation of the role from diary keeping and fee negotiation to running a multimillion-pound business with increased regulation and compliance issues,’ she replies, ‘and the need to market chambers as an entity in its own right, rather than just promoting each individual member of chambers.’
And finally, what, if anything, would she change about life at the Bar? ‘One of the key challenges for chambers is to maintain its sense of community and support while embracing the flexibility that working from home can provide for individuals. I think this is a particular issue for the junior Bar,’ she replies. ‘The Bar can be an immensely stressful and lonely career and we need to ensure that there is an environment which will support members of chambers in all aspects of their working life.’