Lewis Mooney (31): becoming a barrister ‘not for the faint hearted’

Junior counsel says access issue is a priority and for young members to be able to build their practices

Going into the Bar profession is “not for the faint hearted”, a range of challenges means “you have to think long and hard about it”, said barrister Lewis Mooney. Now aged 31, he was called to the Bar six years ago and is a member of the The Bar of Ireland council, representing the views of the junior Bar.

While happy to see from the EY report, commissioned by The Bar of Ireland, that about 60 per cent of the junior Bar had positive attitudes about their prospects of making a career in the profession, a positivity he shares, Mooney said the report makes clear the “real challenges” that exist for the profession.

These include the difficulties accessing it, developing a practice that will allow barristers earn a living into the future and addressing the attrition rate, he said.

Lots of people in the Law Library did not come from wealthy backgrounds and some have made “stellar careers” but you have to be careful about pointing to them and saying that is the access problem “sorted”, Mooney cautioned. Finance is necessary for training and for some years afterwards because there is “not an expectation of being paid”.

The access issue is a priority for the junior Bar but there is a recognition across the Bar and the council it needs to be grasped and addressed “sooner rather than later”, Mooney said. “I know people who are talented lawyers who have gone into academic and other fields and not come to the Bar because they view the current business model [of sole trader] as too great a challenge to overcome and I think that is a great shame.”

There are divergent views across the profession about the best way forward in respect of the current and future business model, and the report shows a majority of barristers, and certainly the junior Bar, are open to considering another model, he said.

“What the report does is that it starts a conversation which is definitely necessary at this stage. We need to find different ways of working in order to address the challenges that are absolutely there in terms of access to the profession and for young members being able to build their practices.”

A big issue for barristers doing civil and criminal legal aid work starting out is the gap between the work involved and the fee, as little as €25 a day District Court criminal legal aid work, Mooney said. Two thirds of criminal law barristers are leaving after six years with serious implications for access to justice in the future in terms of availability of counsel for bigger criminal trials, he said.

A concern among all barristers, is cash flow, being able to ensure you are generating enough work and, when that work is completed, that payment is received, he said.

Of the barristers surveyed, 44 per cent did not feel they had a work-life balance and achieving that balance is an issue for the junior Bar, Mooney outlined. The Covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions meant junior barristers were unable to access their peers and more senior colleagues so as to “bounce things off them” and help deal with any mental health issues that might arise.

The shift to remote hearings in some court lists is a major challenge in terms of younger barristers being able to get the training and opportunities necessary to build their careers, Mooney said. This was also a “real access to justice issue” for reasons including vulnerable clients and members of the public may experience difficulties accessing remote hearings.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times