Most barristers are independent professionals. In practice this means they are self-employed and in competition with each other.
It is notoriously difficult to get into the English Bar (3,000 annual applicants, >400 places so prior probability of an 11% chance of obtaining pupillage as an academically-trained barrister in a given year), largely due to
a) that shortage of pupillages (sub-400 per annum) as well as
b) high cost barriers to entry (typically up to £30k for post-graduate tuition, plus the opportunity cost of foregoing graduate-level earnings for a further two years +).
But life is also very competitive after successfully completing pupillage: chambers compete with each other, and even tenants of the same chambers must compete with colleagues in their practice areas to win market share, or at least to win a share of the better-paid end of the price distribution within that particular market for barristers’ services.
That is the hidden message the ubiquity of what might seem like ‘sales puff’ tells you: barristers need to continually market and promote themselves in order to survive.
How do you evaluate a barrister?
Consequently, if you trawl through barristers’ profiles, they are replete with impressive claims about their expertise and past successes. And that may be well and good: you would expect that the difficulty of obtaining the academic training and then securing pupillage would be a Darwinian indicator of quality. So in most cases I would suggest those professional boasts are quite accurate too.
But since there is a UK population of around 16k barristers, how on earth can you distinguish between them? In other words how – as a member of the public, or a solicitor looking for a client – might you be confident you are selecting the barrister best suited to advance your case?
Common ways for solicitors to choose Counsel are:
a) personal direct knowledge through past experiences;
b) indirect knowledge – recommendations from solicitor colleagues or client requests;
c) third-party professional publications’ reviews (Legal500; Chambers and Partners);
d) assumptions of a barrister’s quality based on the reputation of chambers (and representations made by the practice manager/clerk) with a particular focus on the barrister’s online CV;
e) inferences drawn from number of years’ call and price (the higher the figure the better the expectation of quality);
f) other information from the internet, including mentions in the legal media and social media presence.
As a member of the non-legal public you are likely to be more limited in the sources of information you rely on to form a judgment – a solicitor might recommend a barrister for you; and/or you might google the barrister’s webpage.
Forget about ‘rate – my -barrister‘
What is missing is a more objective (and transparent) way of gauging quality. What about voting? As far as I know there is no Google or Amazon reviews system to aggregate other clients’ assessments of individual barristers. This is because barristers are not set up like businesses. You might find reviews of a particular chambers, but that is not entirely helpful: a chambers may have hundreds of members.
There is a site set up by the Bar Council to facilitate direct access: https://www.directaccessportal.co.uk/search/1/barrister – it certainly does not have star ratings and I anticipate the introduction of such a scheme would be controversial among members.
Bit. ifthere were, it would not help. This is because there is a significant problem with a voting system that is baked-in: sometimes barristers lose cases not through lack of skill but because the case was bound to fail. Indeed, it may well be that it is the high-risk cases that go to the most experienced Counsel, in much the same way that critically-ill patients would be cared for by an experienced consultant in an ICU. So their case ‘failure’ rate is likely to be higher. And a client who has paid for representation and lost is less likely to feel generous in assessing the services they received. So neither success rate nor market-based voting are viable approaches.
A composite measure?
My view is that the best metric of skill probably has to be a composite measure: it is not controversial to state that years’ of call is an indicator of experience, and a small step to say that greater experience is one aspect of quality.
Another metric would need to be reputation, although again there is no single measure of reputation that is universally appropriate. The Treasury has its bands of approved Counsel – that is a mark of appreciation; and Chambers and Partners assigns some barristers ‘tiers’ reflecting their standing. I think those peer-review grades have a role to play too.
The third metric (a novel one I think I may be the first in advocating for the Bar) should be an objective reflection of a barrister’s long-term average ability to forecast the outcome of a case, both because this is a valuable skill and because it indicates the application of experience and analytical skills.
We already have a scoring system, initially developed to gauge the accuracy of meteorological forecasts: Brier Scores. A Brier Score is essentially another term for the mean squared difference between forecasts and outcomes. To give a single example, if I were to advise a claim enjoyed 55% prospects of success, and the claim succeeded (the outcome being coded as ‘1’), then the Brier Score would be (1-0.55)^2 = 0.20. A lower score is better, since a score of zero indicates perfect prediction, and a score of 1 would be being entirely wrong. Clearly you would want an average score based on as large a number of observations as possible, and probably at least 30 chronologically consecutive assessments.
Since a barrister’s advice is confidential, I do not think there could be any independent validation of such a metric. But I am hopeful that the inherent interest of reflecting on the accuracy of one’s predictions would encourage barristers to be honest with themselves – and an honestly-reported Brier Score would be a far more helpful indicator of quality than the occasional silly boasts one reads that someone is the ‘best barrister’ in their field.