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Barristers' quest for the holy grail of silk could soon be over

legal matters

The Bar has few opportunities for promotion.

Upon the completion of their pupillage, young barristers are either offered a tenancy in chambers, or not. Disappointed applicants sometimes find chambers elsewhere or move over to the other side of the profession to become solicitors and find that their working conditions improve so dramatically they wonder why they ever wanted to be a barrister in the first place. Others take up places as in-house lawyers in industry or work for the civil service.

Successful applicants rejoice in the sight of their name on the board outside chambers, have a heavy night of celebration and then wake up with a hangover to find themselves on an early morning train to Margate Magistrates Court to defend two juveniles charged with stealing socks from Marks & Spencer. From that day on, they ply their trade year after year, hoping for an improvement in the quality of the work they do; for fewer last-minute briefs that keep them in chambers until midnight;

and for a general increase in the wherewithal to pay the tax bill. Ultimately, high-flyers are invited to become High Court judges, able barristers have the option to become County Court judges, and low-flyers and the very few who earn so much as to be beyond caring, simply retire.

One potential high spot in this uneventful career path is the opportunity to become a Queen's Counsel, or to 'take silk'. Silks are appointed by the state, not the profession, and many hopefuls make the annual application in November and wait expectantly during the winter months while the Lord Chancellor makes enquiries as to the individual's suitability for this, the only kite mark of excellence available to barristers. The acquisition of the magic letters 'QC' after your name tends to improve both the quality of your case load and the patience with which a tribunal will listen to your arguments.

The names of the successful few are published in the press on Maundy Thursday. Visitors to the Inns of Court on the first day of the Trinity term find themselves unable to move for black limousines. Numerous drivers wait patiently for new silks, together with their smartly clad families, to finish posing in their regalia of full bottom wig, knickerbockers and, of course, silk stockings for impromptu snapshots in various picturesque spots in the Temple, before taking them to the House of Lords for the silk ceremony. Afterwards there is a champagne party. If you are lucky, you are invited to more than one.

At this year's ceremony, Lord Irvine, who took silk himself in 1978, made a shock announcement. The silk system has been under scrutiny in recent years. Leaving aside the London cabbie's perception that it is a Fat Cat racket to have to pay more for a QC, the silk system has its detractors even among the profession. Silk is said to distort the market. Clients feel short-changed if they don't have a QC, even if they don't need one. QC is said to be a crude mark of quality where there is no consensus as to what is meant by quality and the selection is made behind closed doors.

Once given, silk cannot be taken away, even if the barrister's standards slip, they prove not to be suited to the job or are unable successfully to market themselves in their new role. The quest for silk can drive practitioners to overwork. Disappointment can blight careers. The Office of Fair Trading recently investigated and queried whether the rank of Queen's Counsel is necessary at all.

Against this background, without notice or consultation, Lord Irvine announced at April's ceremony that all further applications for silk would be postponed while the future of the silk system was considered. Lawyers are seldom the subject of public sympathy but the announcement has thrown the profession into disarray.

As a woman in chambers who took silk this year observed, the ceremony has often been likened to a wedding day, with the limo, the fancy dress and the party. But few brides expect to be told not to throw the bouquet to the expectant crowds, as they are, in fact, among the last to get married.

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