2 Bedford Row is the place to go for top-notch crime work at the Bar.
First impressions can be deceiving – just look at sweet lil Miley Cyrus – but when you walk through the door of 2 Bedford Row they hit you like a wrecking ball. First, there's the location: one of those tree-lined London terraces that takes you back to a time of pea-soupers and bowler hats. Then there's the flurry of activity; it's no secret that criminal barristers are a bit more hard-pressed for time than their commercial counterparts, but the difference in buzz between 2BR and a commercial or Chancery set is stark. And third, there's the prestige: the Criminal Bar has always been the most famous part of the profession thanks to works of fiction from Rumpole of the Bailey to Silk. And the roll-call of names listed on 2 Bedford Row's door is more star-spangled than a Texas rodeo.
“Literally the whole range of offences."
Right at the top of that list is William 'Bill' Clegg QC, head of chambers, who took silk a full 25 years ago and is perhaps best known as the barrister who successfully defended in two of the highest-profile murder cases in recent memory. In 1994, he won the acquittal of Colin Stagg – wrongfully accused of the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common – and in 2008 he secured the release of Barry George, another victim of a miscarriage of justice, over the killing of Jill Dando.
Back to that list, and scrolling down you'll find the name of Richard Whittam QC, recently appointed a deputy High Court judge, who in 2016 helped uphold the historic conviction of two men for the murder of a 15-year-old girl in the 'body in a carpet' case. And then there's Brian Altman QC, the criminal barrister du jour, who specialises in serious crime and terrorism. Altman has prosecuted in several cases arising out of the conflict in Syria and – at time of writing – is prosecuting four individuals accused of conspiring to kill a policeman or soldier in an ISIS-influenced terror plot.
These three leading lights encapsulate the fact that 2BR deals with “literally the whole range of offences,” a source told us. "We also do some enforcement work and some regulatory cases, but other than that it's pretty much everything that falls under the crime umbrella.” In Chambers UK the set picks up first-class rankings for crime and financial crime, with nods for its health and safety and sports work.
If you are one of those with a desire for crime work, you should be under no illusions as to the pressures that practising criminal law can exert. So if you're going to interview murderers and rapists, it's important to have a solid support network. “There's definitely a certain type of person who wants to do criminal law," a source told us. Tough. Self-motivated. Self-sacrificing. Thick-skinned. "There are cases that after you've completed them really keep you thinking, but people here know that and are always willing to talk to you and help you take the pressure off yourself.”
Indicating the importance of personal as well as academic ability at the Criminal Bar, the recruitment process places a premium on “what you're like as a person” rather than “who you are on paper,” according to a pupil. Similar sounds come from those making the decisions –“I saw an interview with former head of pupillage Stephen Vullo QC in which he said, 'We couldn't care less where you went to university.'” It's because the Criminal Bar is all about case histories and facts: whether or not you can cross-examine a serial killer is more down to oratory mettle than being a brainbox boffin with a distinction on the BCL. Around 75 of the 200 or so applicants are invited to a first-round interview. It starts with an advocacy exercise – "usually a scenario in which you're asked to put five points for and five against a statement like 'we should legalise all drugs'" – followed by an interview covering why you are the right person for this set.
Candidates who make it to the second round face a more formal advocacy exercise in front of a bigger panel. "They email you a day in advance with a plea in mitigation and with the offence so you can swot up on the law. Mine was on possession of a bladed article.” During these exercises “it's important you don't go over time – they're looking for short, concise arguments.” Sources described a process that is tough in all the right ways. “One of the first questions I was asked was: 'When you leave here today, how should we remember you?'" a pupil recalled. "It was clear that was a chance for me to show off my personality.”
"I've been in court every day since the start of my second six.”
2BR's pupillage officially lasts 12 months, but this is always extended with a further third six for anyone wanting to be considered for tenancy, making the whole process “an 18-month job interview.” The last twelve months are spent on your feet. You have one supervisor per six months but their job is more to make sure you're not overloaded and are getting a good spread of work. There's an ad hoc assignment system because “a lot of the supervisors are very specialised so if you just worked with them, you'd only see their niche.”
As pupils near the end of the first six they start working with more junior members “so you can see some of the Magistrates' Court work that you'll be doing on your first day on your feet.” That's because “as soon as the first six finishes you're off – I've been in court every day since the start of my second six.” Pupils most frequently work on legal aid cases in the Magistrates' Courts: “We do everything apart from heavyweight stuff like murder and rape. I've worked on assault, petty theft and driving offences.” Two of the four individuals who completed pupillage in spring 2017 took up tenancy.
Phone a friend
Interviewees spoke of the set as a supportive environment in which “if you have any doubts, you just phone somebody." Because pupils are exposed to so many different barristers, they build up an extensive network of potential phone-a-friends. Pupils “always get feedback” on written work but during their 18 months there are "no formal assessments as such.” Instead, there is advocacy training every two weeks that is overseen by a committee who are “definitely keeping note of how we perform.”
At the end of the 18 months, there is a mock trial exercise to ultimately decide who makes tenancy. “It's at Blackfriars Crown Court, Bill Clegg plays the judge, the tenancy committee forms the jury and everybody else is invited to watch.” Apparently, “it's meant to be daunting, and it is... but by then you'll have been on your feet for over a year, so you should know what you're doing.”
“It's meant to be daunting, and it is..."
This is the Criminal Bar we're talking about so “if you go into pupillage expecting to have lots of free time, you'd be mad.” There's a rota for Saturdays and one of the pupils will always be on call. Also, in keeping with other criminal sets, this is to some degree a 'no frills' operation. Pupils all sit in the basement, next to the kitchen and library, but rather than this leading to isolation, it means barristers and clerks pass through regularly and “stop and have a chat.”
There's no chambers tea but there are regular drinks at local watering hole The Old Nick for new recruits, or birthdays, or pregnancies, or to “celebrate the hallowed hour of 6pm on a Friday.” Groups like 'chambers ladies' also organise a couple of dinners a year. “Even though we don't have flashy banquets or lunches like the commercial sets, hard work and camaraderie mean that you get to know everyone really quickly and there are no egos here – you feel the same talking to Bill Clegg as you do to a junior tenant.”
Brawn matters at the Criminal Bar, so let your personality shine though when you apply. But for gawd's sake don't say you want to do crime because of Silk or other TV shows.
2 Bedford Row
2 Bedford Row,
- No of silks: 16
- No of juniors: 59
- No of pupils: 4
- Graduate recruitment contact: Louise Oakley, 020 7440 8888
- Method of application: Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa): 4
- Tenancies: offered according to ability
Type of work undertaken