Going to the Bar: “You never feel ready”

“The greatest opportunity is the chance to work with excellent people — other barristers, including senior counsel, and instructing solicitors.”

Some career decisions are bigger than others. But with guidance from senior practitioners, decent preparation and an open-mind, practising at the independent bar can be an exciting and liberating experience for lawyers of all levels of experience.

These were some of the messages from Going to the Bar, an event hosted on Friday 16 November 2018 by The Piddington Society and the Young Lawyers’ Committee of the Law Society of Western Australia with Francis Burt Chambers, to hear from established and emerging barristers about why they went to the bar.

Darren Jackson SC (Francis Burt Chambers), Rachel Cosentino (Francis Burt Chambers), Kate Pedersen (Quayside Chambers) and Nicholas van Hattem (Francis Burt Chambers) discussed their careers and decision to practise at the independent bar.

They all recognised that going to the bar was a big decision. It requires confidence in your skills and a preparation for a different form of practice.

Scroll down for Q&A’s with Darren Jackson SC and Rachel Cosentino.

The speakers were eager to shed some light over their choices and the bar in general.

Darren Jackson SC said that the bar was changing. There were new chambers being established, which means that the demographics and backgrounds of barristers is becoming wider. Rachel Cosentino said that she had only recently considered the bar as an option for career. While she felt that she didn’t fit the traditional mould of what a barrister was she found a strong sense of support and collegiality.

The panel said that consulting widely to solicitors who had made that jump and to senior practitioners on whether this was the right move for them was a good place to start.

One of the considerations lawyers have in going to the bar is their financial situation. One panellist said said they were advised to account for six months of income, while another said they set aside three months for their transition.

The difference in skill sets was also discussed. Some solicitors have more experience in courtrooms while others develop technical expertise.

Jackson SC, who is also chair of Francis Burt Chambers, agreed that this was common concern and challenge for people coming from different parts of the profession, but that both skills and knowledge would be acquired in due course. Rather than taking time to refresh skills in a particular area being a cost, it was mentioned that this was an investment in a lawyers’ career.

Nicholas van Hattem practices at Francis Burt Chambers after a diverse career in commercial firms, community legal centres and government.

For junior practitioners considering the bar, van Hattem spoke of Francis Burt Chambers’ pupillage program which is for solicitors with, in general, fewer than 7 years post admission experience. Among other things the program places that new barrister in a “cell” of with two senior barristers, usually including a silk, and an emerging barrister to help guide and develop their practice and skills.

Though he was not part of that scheme, van Hattem did join an informal cell. He joked that he would not have asked Craig Colvin SC to be his cell leader who became the Hon Justice Colvin of the Federal Court of Australia a week after he started. Nor would he have asked John Prior to be part of the cell, who became his Honour Judge Prior of the District Court of Western Australia a month after he went to the bar.

Darren Jackson SC Q&A

Darren Jackson SC: “I would have come to the Bar sooner than I did.”

Describe your career before going to the Bar.

In 1992 I did my articles with Northmore Hale Davy and Leake, which soon became Minter Ellison. I stayed with Minters until 2005, when I went on secondment as Special Counsel in the Australian Securities and Investments Commission for 9 months. After that I joined Blake Dawson. After 4 years at Blakes I came to the Bar in 2010.

What made you decide becoming a barrister was the right move for you?

I realised that it was a way to practise law while maintaining a high degree of personal and professional independence.

What do you see as the greatest challenge and opportunity for lawyers when they become barristers?

The greatest challenge is maintaining the work flow. I mean two things by that. The first is obtaining the work, especially when you are starting out. The second is that, once you are established, you need to make sure that you are not taking on too much, so that you can maintain high standards in your work and have a life outside work.

The greatest opportunity is the chance to work with excellent people — other barristers, including senior counsel, and instructing solicitors.

If you had your time again, what, if anything, would you differently?

I would have come to the Bar sooner than I did.

What does collegiality mean to you, and has this changed since you joined the Bar?

Collegiality means an environment of support and courtesy between fellow barristers. It is a mutual recognition that even though we may often be opposed to each other, we are all facing the same challenges, and we are all working together to promote the administration of justice. This has not changed since I joined the Bar — I have been lucky enough to experience it from day one.

Rachel Cosentino Q&A

Rachel Cosentino

Describe your career before going to the Bar.

I was admitted to practice in Western Australia in 1999. I was an employed solicitor at Gibson & Gibson until 2005 and then an equity partner for the next 7 or 8 years. I then headed up various practice groups at Slater & Gordon lawyers between 2013 and 2018. Over the 18 years I have practiced I worked in many areas from workers’ compensation, personal injuries, industrial and employment law, commercial litigation and estate litigation.

What made you decide becoming a barrister was the right move for you?

I joined the bar mainly because other people who I know well and whose opinions I respect urged me to.

I had listened to an interview with a neuroplasticity scientist who said that doing the same things well over and over is not enough to keep our brains healthy. Apparently, if you don’t use it, you lose and only by learning new skills continually are we properly using it.

What do you see as the greatest challenge and opportunity for lawyers when they become barristers?

Not much. Although some might say that I left it late to come the bar, I really enjoyed every day of my career until that point. I learnt a lot and found it rewarding. It’s early days for my practice as a barrister, so perhaps in 2 or 3 years I will have some insightful reflection on what to do differently.

What does collegiality mean to you, and has this changed since you joined the Bar?

Collegiality for me is about discovering how much you have in common with your colleagues.

This has been best exemplified for me by a national professional association I have been a member of for a few years, and the readiness of the other members to share their stories, mostly of failure, and coming back from it.

It’s humbling that some of the best and greatest practitioners are generous in their honesty.

Going to the Bar was hosted by The Piddington Society and the Young Lawyers’ Committee of the Law Society of Western Australia, held at Francis Burt Chambers.