Over egg, chips and beans at Andrew’s Café on Gray’s Inn Road, Christine Kings, who helped set up Doughty Street Chambers, was the first woman to manage a set of chambers and who has spearheaded the introduction of modern management at the bar, talks about sexism and being spat at by a clerk, a near death experience with Helena Kennedy, putting barristers on contracts and the role of solicitors in reducing stress at the bar and increasing diversity.
Managing the bar might seem an oxymoron, but after spending almost 30 years striving – with undoubted success – to do just that, Christine Kings, one of the two chambers’ directors at London’s Outer Temple Chambers, retires this month. A politics graduate, Kings also studied Chinese. Before entering the legal world, she was a support worker at a women’s refuge and then head of campaigns at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
It was while working at CND and organising a lawyers for nuclear disarmament event, that she met a couple of the barristers who would go on to set up the now renowned human rights and civil liberties set, Doughty Street Chambers. Founded in 1990, it was the first chambers in London to survive being housed outside one of the four Inns of Court and the first to put all its staff on a fixed salary.
Kings stayed in touch with them and at a dinner in 1989 one of the founding members suggested that the job would suit her. Responding to her protestation that she knew nothing about the bar, chambers or clerks, they told her that was exactly why she would be just the ticket, as they wanted to break the traditional chambers mould.
Another barrister advised her against it, telling her ‘barristers are all prima donnas; don’t do it’, as did the late Brian Raymond of Bindmans. Her pal Martyn Day, one of the founders of Leigh Day also advised her ‘don’t work for barristers’.
Kings went for two interviews and recalls: ‘They didn’t endear me to them much – they asked if I was going to have children and about my politics. When they offered me the job, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to take it.’
In a bid to tempt her Stephen Irwin, now a Court of Appeal judge, took her to have a look at the building. ‘It was a beautiful Georgian building and had just been fitted out. It was lovely. I walked in and thought: “oh, I’d love to work here”.’
Kings was given until 10pm one evening to let them know her decision. At 9.45pm she was still flipping a coin, when a friend called and told her that she might as well take it and see how it worked it.
And how did it work out? ‘It was hard – really hard,’ she says. Not because of the prima donna barristers, but because the set could not find clerks who would work with Kings, because she was a woman, unless she was subordinate to them. She recalls: ‘Clerks wouldn’t take my calls, they would cross the road when they saw me and one spat at me.’
The set eventually found a female clerk, who had been a second junior in another set, to work with her and employed two teenage runners. ‘That’s how we opened – and with me who didn’t know anything. It was just hopeless. It should never have worked.’
Kings attributes the set’s success to the dedication of the founding barristers. ‘They had made a huge personal commitment to it – they had put in money and had taken a big risk, including with me and the staff – and they were going to make it work. We all were.’
But, she remembers how her career could have ended as soon as it had begun. She needed to go to Ikea to get furniture for Doughty Street and Helena Kennedy offered to drive her there around the north circular. ‘She’d only passed her test the day before. It was brave of her to offer, but I thought we were going to be killed.’
With humility Kings professes ignorance as to how she turned things round personally in a male-dominated profession that had shunned her and spat at her, to become one of the most respected figures in chambers management. But, as she recalls the sensible and commercial no-nonsense ways she sought to change many of the unquestioned, historic ways of working in order to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and improve the working lives of barristers and staff and the service given to professional and lay clients, it is obvious.
It is easy to see why barristers in other sets would like her way of working. Speaking at a seminar at one of the Inns, a clerk asked how much she was paid. ‘Instead of telling him to mind his own business, I said I was paid £44,000 — in line with the Bar Council’s guidance. You could have heard a pin drop. The clerks were all thinking “she isn’t paid much” and the barristers were all thinking the same.’
Early on in the job, she complained to the Bar Council about the practice of the RCJ listing office of charging junior clerks £10 a week to get the court lists on time. ‘I got a frosty reception from the Bar Council’s director of services, who told me that didn’t happen and marched me round to the listing office to prove the point, only to be told by the listing officer that I was correct.’
Because of her intervention, the practice stopped and, Kings recalls receiving a few grateful ‘phone call from clerks to thank her.
Andrew’s Café has links with both sets where Kings has worked – she was a regular attender of the Doughty Street’s Friday Egg & Chips Club, which took place there, and it was in the same venue that a meeting with a barrister ultimately led to her move to Outer Temple.
‘I had lunch with barrister who was going through a bad patch. He decided he was giving up and the bar and thought he could do my job. He was a good people person and I told him that he could and sent him the details of three jobs going – one of which was at Outer Temple.’
A month later, head-hunters called to ask why she had not made an application, and she pitched up for a meeting with them at the Russell Hotel. ‘They told me I was not what the set was looking for, but said they would like to put me forward as the “maverick” candidate.’
She continues: ‘I wasn’t looking for a job, but I went along for interview with Michael Bowes and Phillip Mott at Outer Temple – and got the job.’
Kings has done a great deal to drag a conservative profession into the twenty-first century and introduce the concept of modern management. Initially as a much-needed therapy for those working in chambers’ management, she got together with a group of other female chief executives and senior clerks for drinks – they decided to meet up again and the Legal Practice Management Association was born.
During her career the bar has changed so much as to be ‘almost unrecognisable’ – with the biggest changes brought about by technology and regulation. Though, she admits with the former, it has been an uphill struggle, noting that after Outer Temple got rid of its library five years ago, some members remain wedded to paper and insist on printing off inches worth of stuff.
Outer Temple is one of the few sets that has taken advantage of the changes instigated by the Bar Standards Board after the rules were liberalised in the Legal Services Act 2007. In 2016, it set up Outer Temple International – a separate law firm that is a BSB-regulated entity, employs a solicitor and is insured by a private insurance company rather than the Bar Mutual.
Other sets have been slow to embrace the new practice models permitted, she suggests, because of the nature of the bar and the independence that enables members of the same set to work on opposite sides in a case without being conflicted.
Another huge change, she notes, has been the reduction in publicly funded work as a result of the massive cuts to legal aid over the last decade. Outer Temple, she says took the decision deliberately to move away from legal aid work and focus instead on financial and regulatory work.
Having been a tireless supporter of the publicly funded bar and promoter of wider access to justice — as a trustee of the Bar Pro Bono Unit (now called Advocate) for 12 years and its treasurer; a trustee and treasurer of Bar in the Community; a trustee and chair of the Mary Ward Legal Centre; vice chair and chair of the Legal Action Group; and a member of the Gibson Committee on public access, she says ‘that decision is not something to be proud of’ but was necessary financially for chambers, which now derives only 3% of its income from legal aid work.
More widely, looking at the structure of the legal profession, which remains split by the titles of barrister and solicitor, despite regulatory and practice changes that remove any real division, Kings says: ‘If you were you starting from scratch you wouldn’t start where we are. There is no reason why there shouldn’t be a single profession.’
But, she notes: ‘There is no appetite for it and too much vested interest in retaining the status quo.’
Due to the changing nature of the profession, she suggests it would be a good to train solicitors and barristers together initially, before doing additional training to acquire skills like advocacy.
She would also shake-up the bar’s working model in which barristers get a tenancy for life regardless of their performance. ‘Barristers should have contracts – for example for three years. The idea of having a tenancy for life is ridiculous. There has to be some security, but the idea you can just stay somewhere forever is out-dated.’
Her contractual model, she reckons, would also have the benefit of promoting flexibility and movement within the profession.
Kings is in favour of retaining the QC quality mark. ‘It is a good idea to have something that shows seniority. You need career progression and after 15 years in practice, it’s good to have something to aim for.’
While the new independent appointment system is ‘one hundred times better than the old one’, she says it is not perfect, and the requirement for 12 judicial references makes it hard for ‘those who are brilliant lawyers and settle great results for their client and so are in court less often’.
The issue of stress at the bar has, says Kings, become more visible in recent years, and many sets have sought to respond to that with various wellbeing initiatives. Her former set, Doughty Street, has played a key role in leading the way. But, she says, the suicide of one of its senior members, John Jones QC, in 2016 shows there can be no room for complacency.
The nature of the work in some chambers, where barristers are briefed at short-notice on urgent cases for vulnerable and desperate clients, promotes a culture of working long hours and always being available, which she says, some still see as a badge of honour.
Outer Temple, she insists, has tried to do all the right things to promote the wellbeing of its barristers and staff. It has, for example signed up to a 24-hour helpline and strives to promote a culture of not working long hours in chambers.
Solicitors, she says, have a role to play in cutting stress at the bar, by reducing the demands they make of barristers to do work at the last minute and late at night.
They also have a key role to play in promoting greater gender diversity, insists Kings, by briefing more female barristers. ‘Senior male solicitors can play a key role in briefing more female barristers, because there are more of them than there are women solicitors. And female solicitors should be briefing female barristers too.’
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Kings says she is surprised that there have been so few high profile revelations about senior members of the bar. ‘When I was at Doughty Street, Helena Kennedy and I got numerous calls and letters from people telling us about all sorts of abuse. One woman said she been raped by her pupil master, others told us they had suffered harassment and abuse, and a male pupil said his pupil mistress used him to baby sit her children.’
Her response to those who contacted her demonstrates why so few people have spoken out: ‘We advised them to go to the police, seek counselling or make a complaint, but we knew they had already thought about these things and had had to balance doing them against their future career at the bar.’
Ensuring that the bar does not go backwards in increasing diversity, is a problem that Kings is keenly aware of, particularly due to the cost of legal education, reduction in legal aid and continuing unconscious bias that operates in favour of students from a narrow sector of society.
‘Class is still one of the biggest barriers to getting pupillage’ she observes. ‘We have tried to make one of our application processes as open and fair as possible – we don’t ask for details of their academic background, but ask applicants to do an exam and attend interview.’
In a bid to remove the bias that some chambers might have in favour of Oxbridge candidates, Kings has previously asked the Bar Council to remove the name of the university attended on pupillage applications made through the Pupillage Gateway, and it has recently introduced a facility that allows chambers to hide it.
One of the biggest headaches for chambers in recent months, she says, has been Brexit. ‘It is creating a headache for sets like ours, because of the immigration issues. We’ve got pupils, associates and tenants who need visas and the rules have got more difficult and keep changing. We’ve got others working abroad who may need to set up entities to manage their taxes post-Brexit. It all takes up time and money.’
All this has left Kings feeling tired, and while she has enjoyed her career, she is looking forward to retirement, having handed in her notice last year. Her time will be spent learning French, volunteering as a ‘tree musketeer’, working on her allotment, and spending time with her family – much of which she will do on her bicycle.
‘I’m never going to need to wear shoes with a heel or makeup again.’