No bar to modernisation
INTERVIEWDavid Nolan, Bar Council chairman
‘I SHOULD PUT on a tie,” says David Nolan when we meet in the Bar Council offices. It’s the last week of the summer recess and he’s gearing up to assume, officially, the duties of Bar Council chairman, which he took over this month. He tells me that although he may be in his element in a courtroom, giving media interviews is a new foray. “I’m as nervous as a kitten,” he says.
As with most barristers, it’s hard to imagine Nolan being nervous. When asked what drew him to the law, he says that as a child he was a bit precocious. “I wasn’t stuck for a word.”
Now, with close to 30 years’ experience as a member of the Bar, and almost a decade as a senior counsel, Nolan’s peers have elected him as their representative.
Nolan is keen to use his new platform as chairman to dispel some misconceptions.
“The general public perception of the Bar is entirely misleading,” he says.
It is not, he argues, a “sheltered profession”, populated with high-profile millionaires. “The vast majority of barristers are unknown and have a very ordinary level of income.”
It’s certainly the case that barristers’ fees are under pressure. The State, which is one of the largest consumers of legal services in the country, has slashed its rates in the last two to three years. For instance, in terms of legal aid, family law fees have been cut by as much as 40 per cent.
But what about the big commercial cases being heard in the courts almost every day of the week? Surely they provide extremely lucrative work?
Nolan says the top commercial cases generally involve banks, most of which are controlled by the State, or insurance companies, and neither category can afford to pay the rates of the past.
Clients in general are becoming more demanding when it comes to fees – “everything is open to negotiation”. Nolan adds that he’s never heard of a barrister who has pulled out of a case purely because a client couldn’t afford to pay their fees.
However, most members of the public will find it hard to muster up sympathy for a profession which is seen as having lined its pockets through State-funded tribunals. “That was then. This is now,” Nolan says. “That’s a thing of the past.”
He says the public impression of millionaire barristers does not reflect the present realities for most members of the Bar.
Of its 2,361 members, some 2,040 are junior counsel. Just 321 have “taken silk” and been admitted to the Inner Bar as senior counsel. And of that elite group, only a very small proportion command the sort of fees that make the headlines. Neither is it a profession of “old fuddy duddies”, he says. The majority of barristers are under 40, and some 46 per cent have less than seven years’ experience.