Legal Business writes many high-minded pieces focused on the finer analytical points of the legal industry. This is not one of those pieces.
In an intensively people-driven business like the law, there cannot be many more resonant and personal experiences than becoming a Queen’s Counsel (QC). Firstly, there is the trial of the arduous application process and the agonising wait to find if you have secured the favour of peers and the selection panel.
If successful, then awaits the surreal-yet-magical formal ceremony, this year held on Monday 26 February, in which the hatchling QCs are required to march to Ede & Ravenscroft to fit themselves out in the storied attire. That surreal mood was heightened this year by a ceremony in Central London occurring during a snow storm.
The 119 successful applications announced in December included two old friends, arbitrators Sophie Lamb at Latham & Watkins and Stephenson Harwood’s Louis Flannery. We sat down with the chalk-and-cheese pair to get the inside track on the realities and joys of putting those two coveted letters after your name.
LB: In the most recent round, women were more successful on average than men. Why do you think that is?
Sophie Lamb QC (SL): Positive experiences encourage others to apply. The process is exacting and overwhelming. The way your book looks in these couple of years running up to your application is vital. Having positive stories and statistics is hugely important in terms of encouraging diverse candidates in the broadest sense to apply. There is evidence generally that women tend to put themselves forward where they feel confident that they will succeed.
‘It’s your entire professional life experience in a very limited number of characters. They’ll be doing it by Twitter in five years’ time.’
Sophie Lamb QC
LB: Who did you tell first?
SL: I told my parents and my husband was with me, but it didn’t go beyond that. The initials are so coveted I didn’t want to do the slightest thing that could jeopardise it happening.
LB: Has QC always been the goal?
SL: I spent most of my professional career within law firms, but I trained as a barrister, so since the very beginning the ultimate goal was to become one of Her Majesty’s counsel learned in law. As much as being a partner in a wonderful law firm is a great privilege, as an advocate, being a QC is the ultimate endorsement.
LB: Why does it matter?
SL: That kite mark of quality and experience is genuinely recognised and valued as currency all over the world.
It’s not just a personal milestone, but also it’s one of UK plc’s great exports. The value of English law, the quality of our profession – these are things that are greatly revered across the world. So to even have the smallest connection with that is appreciated by a great many people.
LB: Were you put off by the application process?
SL: I made the mistake of looking at a form in the past. It’s a very long form – about 64 pages once you factor in the references – but it’s helpful in that it provides you with a matrix that allows you to track whether you have the right cross-mix of competencies and experiences, so that you are a genuine contender.
‘You’re in the photos of at least 100 tourists. You put your costume on in the morning and it’s like: “Really?” By the afternoon, you’re walking down Fleet Street with your wig and it’s very natural.’
Sophie Lamb QC
One of the things that’s been interesting for Louis and I, as well as others who came up through the international arbitration community is that, by and large, our referees don’t come from the same pool as those now-silks who now practice English litigation. Traditionally the committee would only have been influenced by judges and retired judges. We are bringing a new body of referees into this system, be it judges from international tribunals or academics from leading European institutions, which is making it more inclusive.
LB: Does it help to have a law firm background?
SL: I’ve grown up in a hybrid role of being both the client’s lawyer and an advocate. By necessity we only do a smaller number of cases as counsel compared to barristers because we are playing a number of roles. The book you need to present to be a contender will look different to the book of a banking silk.
What it shows is the committee recognises you can demonstrate excellence in a number of ways and the fact that you haven’t done 15 cases in two years doesn’t mean that you haven’t had the same amount of experience.
Louis Flannery QC (LF): I’ve heard of a solicitor QC who got it on eight cases. I had a coach and was told that eight is pushing it, nine is just about OK, ten’s alright, 11’s good and 12 is perfect. You have to have a matrix of 12 judicial referees, eight professional referees (which are opponents or people you’ve led), and six clients. So it’s 26 referees. Suddenly if you’ve got 19 referees the matrix doesn’t look so good.
The biggest headache of the form is just organising that matrix so that all your referees are in the right place. Their selection process is apparently random; they go for at least one of your top two in each category and then they randomly take either a J5 or P3 [J = judicial, P = professional] and then they take three more. So they take about nine for each candidate. The people they pick are completely random so you can’t stick someone down in the corner and hope they don’t get noticed. I got stiffed by a referee [for the previous year’s silk round]. What an idiot! ‘I took you out for lunch and you said you’d support my application. You lied to me, brother!’
SL: After the fact I spoke to one of my judge assessors. He said that he was so thrilled to receive an application from a solicitor-advocate. He was very alive to the fact that it was difficult for solicitors to get those right cases, and be given the sorts of endorsements the committee is looking for. I feel that he went the extra mile for me, so I do believe the system works. It could be more inclusive generally speaking, but that’s a different question.
‘Everybody said it would be such a great day and you’ll have so much fun, and we did. It was magical. I felt like Cinderella.’
Louis Flannery QC
LB: How long did it take each of you to complete the application process?
LF: Hoo! At least a hundred hours.
SL: Months, yeah.
LF: You’ve got to write an overall practice blurb, describing your practice. That’s 4,000 characters, including spaces and full stops. I made the mistake of writing 4,000 words the first time.
SL: It’s your entire professional life experience in a very limited number of characters. They’ll be doing it by Twitter in five years’ time.
LF: My J1 was a High Court judge. And I didn’t know until after I got silk that he played a major role in producing the form that was used from 2006, when he was a QC with another judge. The two of them are on the committee and they adopted a civil service-type form and transported it across.
So my J1 knew the form backwards and therefore knew what to put in it to make the application look good! Outsiders might think judges prefer barristers to solicitors, but I approached three judges and they were all enthusiastic.
LB: Do they want to support solicitors?
LF: I don’t think they’re particularly biased to either stream. Most of the Commercial Court now know that we do our advocacy in more focused applications. I couldn’t do a two-week hearing; it’s an immense burden. To run your caseload and your practice around a two-week trial, a barrister has the luxury to be on brief and shut everything else out for two weeks. I struggle on a week’s hearing.
SL: I don’t think people outside of what we do appreciate just how onerous it is to be an advocate in your cases and to be the lawyer to the client as well. After each day of hearing, the client wants to have a proper debrief. You can’t say: ‘Look, I find your concerns interesting, but I have to prepare my cross examination.’
But I genuinely think we have the advantage in those cases. We’ve developed the facts and the strategy with our clients from the beginning. No-one is more familiar with those cases than we are. We are totally in the moment in those cases by the time the hearing arises.
LB: How were you feeling the night before the ceremony?
LF: Fucking elated.
SL: Weirdly nervous, but having been so thrilled and excited the night before – I don’t know if it was the solemnity of it all – it really caught up with me. The ceremony in Westminster Hall and how important and formal and the history surrounding it all… there was a wobbly-chin moment. Not much breakfast was consumed.
‘You are told to buy white gloves that you are not allowed to wear. Woe betide you if you put them on and do a Michael Jackson!’
Louis Flannery QC
I sat next to Reza [Mohtashami, who was also appointed as a silk] from Freshfields [Bruckhaus Deringer]. We were called next to each other, so I had a friend. My name is on his letter’s patent, because the person called before you is listed in your own letter’s patent from the Queen.
LF: Every QC in history has been called after another QC. So there’s a strict order. On the day we’re each given a strict order from one to 126 and whatever number you are, your name appears on the letter’s patent of the next person. The first person on the list will have the name of the last person called from last year’s list.
In theory she calls advisers in order of seniority. She’s got to find the oldest alive silk. Someone who’s officially dead. Everybody said it would be such a great day and you’ll have so much fun, and we did. It was magical. I felt like Cinderella.
SL: You go to Ede & Ravenscroft to have your appointments to try on and see what you can hire. I was among the last in the queue – they only had one or two wigs left that were quite old. A lot of the clerks in the commercial sets rallied around and Fountain Court came up trumps in the end. One of the barristers there collects random bits of memorabilia and he had this amazing wig from some old duffer who you can do a big Wikipedia search on. He was clearly a bit of a character. I had his wig and his big wig box. It was another bizarre and special element of the day.
They don’t make enough of these costumes for women, so often you can’t hire all aspects of it; you have to pay to have them made. There should be a discussion about how to make that aspect of the ceremony more inclusive.
LB: How much does it cost?
SL: Many thousands. And that’s aside from the application process.
LF: When you first send off the form, it’s a £1,800 non-refunded fee. Then if you’re in need of a coach, like I was, that’s a couple of grand. Then you get your letter by email on 14 December. A week later you get an invoice arrive for £3,864, which is £3,000 plus VAT for the balance of the application fee, plus £264 for the letter’s patent, which is an awfully drab document with the print coming off.
SL: Was that not just because you spilt beer over it?
LF: No! It’s a disappointingly crappy document. It’s got a Starbucks angel seal, no signature or anything. Very bland. Came in a vogue-red plastic envelope too.
SL: My daughter thought that was the best bit. ‘Oh, you got a sticker from the Queen!’
‘The official photograph is the one they’ll use when I get done for some inappropriate offence committed in 1992 at the SJ Berwin Christmas party. It’s the one The Times will stick on page three. So you’ve got to look not guilty.’
Louis Flannery QC
LF: My son has taken it into school to show his friends! I know I spent north of £2,000 but south of £3,000 on the gear. And I hired some frills and spills. £295 for shoes you only wear once, unless you go to the Lord Chancellor’s for breakfast. My best friend from the age of six got made up the same day. He’s a criminal silk from Nottingham and he borrowed every single bit of his costume from someone else in chambers.
SL: There was someone whose mate was a couple [of places] behind him in the queue and they were wearing the same gown, so the man went first then came out and quickly swapped it with him!
LF: The day is superb. My flat’s on Fetter Lane, so I got the limo to pick up Anya and the children from Hampstead, parked in the Inner Temple, had some photos in the snowstorm, then we put the nanny and the children in the Savoy. We joined the procession down to the House of Lords. Tom Macey-Dare [QC] at Quadrant Chambers was in the car next to us in a lovely Rolls-Royce.
That’s the lovely thing. When you realise you’re taking ages to get to the House of Lords, you don’t realise you’re in a procession of hundreds of limos, all going in to the Lords for one purpose only. There’s this sense of 100 weddings happening at once.
SL: Everyone’s outside with their family posing, the amazing cars, the tourists are everywhere. I stayed at the One Aldwych hotel that weekend with my family, and so our car came and we had this beautiful old Daimler. By the time we came down to the car there were about ten or 15 tourists waiting to see. I assume they thought it was a wedding, but this woman dressed as a man in a weird outfit comes out! You must be in the photos of at least 100 random tourists at one point. You start off in the morning putting your costume on and it’s like: “Really?” By the afternoon, you’re walking down Fleet Street with your wig on and it’s become very natural.
LF: When you’re inside Westminster Hall, you sit in the front bit. All your family and friends are in the back bit. You get called one by one in order of seniority. I was waiting ages for you [Lamb]!
SL: It’s because you’re so young! [laughs]
LF: Jern-Fei [Ng] from Essex Court was about second to last, the bastard. The youngest come last. My best friend from school was number 13. I was 22. Your name is called up, you get your red envelope, you say: ‘I do solemnly declare’, then you walk up some stairs and you wait for the next person to come up. After about 80 more people come up, it gets crowded. After a while you start thinking: ‘Come on hurry up.’
‘I said to my mates: “We’ve got an announcement coming and we’re either going to need the champagne or we’re going to deserve it.”’
Louis Flannery QC
SL: You start wishing that you don’t have someone with seven middle names.
LF: And then there’s a group photo. You get an official photograph outside, which is the one they’ll use when I get done for some inappropriate offence committed in 1992 at the SJ Berwin Christmas party. It’s the one The Times will stick on page three. So you’ve got to look not guilty.
SL: A non-trivial number of people stumbled over their limited words in Westminster Hall, or bowed the wrong way. Her Majesty will be very disappointed to know that some of her counsel could not remember to bow left or right.
LB: You must play that moment over in your head so much that I can imagine getting it wrong on the day.
SL: Well, considering half of the words you need to remember were your own name, it was quite an achievement!
LF: It says: ‘I Louis Kruschev Flannery do so solemnly declare,’ so I memorised it and thought: ‘It’s going to look shameful if I go up with this bit of paper,’ so I left it on my chair, but a lot of people read it from the paper wrongly!
SL: The Lord Chancellor has an enormous sword.
LF: I got a call on the Friday from a clerk, who said: ‘I’m going to be staring at your arse a lot on Monday,’ because his barrister was directly behind me in the queue. The clerk goes with the barrister. He had come round, lent over and said to his barrister on the Monday ‘Project!’, and then he disappeared. My friend looked round at me and said: ‘Right, I’m going to project.’ So Clive went up to the microphone and gave it everything. The whole hall woke up.
SL: It diffused what was becoming an overwhelmingly serious moment.
‘My daughter thought that was the best bit. “Oh, you got a sticker from the Queen!”’
Sophie Lamb QC
LF: Yes, I boomed in sympathy. I even did a little dance up the stairs.
LB: Did you find it a bit silly?
LF: There’s an absurd pantomime aspect to the fact that there are 120 people in 18th century wigs and buckled shoes.
SF: It’s not silly though. It’s just highly unusual and it’s a spectacle. It’s the most amazingly-unique thing about our legal system.
LF: I don’t think they’ll do it in ten years. Because of the whole inclusivity thing, they’re going to say: ‘People literally can’t afford to take silk.’
SL: There does need to be an honest discussion about that.
LF: You are even told to buy white gloves that you are not allowed to wear. You pay your £25 for your white gloves. Woe betide you if you put them on and do a Michael Jackson!
SL: Yes, it’s treason.
LF: The pageantry is brilliant. I must have known at least a dozen people. To have my best friend in the world sitting in front of me and going through the whole day with me – it was brilliant.
The biblical snowstorm too – it was cold and then it just went bfff, then there was snow and then there was sunshine… and the fact that we [Lamb and I] bumped into each other on the steps, because Brendan, your photographer, was loitering around and I was going: ‘I don’t know where Sophie is!’ But then she turned up. Brendan came into the pub with us afterwards.
The other thing is that the family get to see the inside of a courtroom when you go back to the Rolls Building and they get to see human faces. They’re all wigs, but all the judges are beaming. There is a sense of: ‘Wow, I’m in an exclusive club.’
SL: I just remember going to sleep that evening, and lying in bed and thinking: ‘How on Earth did all that happen?’ and then having the sweetest possible dream.
LF: I got my initials on my door this morning.
SL: Mine are on my email.
LF: It was a lovely day. The whole thing was the closest a man can get to being a bride. You’re the centre of attention, you’re dressed up, your family are there…
‘The Savoy bar has made a cocktail after me. The Louis Flannery QC cocktail is a man’s drink. The head barman at the American Bar in the Savoy is godfather to my son.’
Louis Flannery QC
Afterwards we went back to the Savoy hotel for drinks and then I was in a bar until one in the morning. There’s a bar called CellarDoor, next to Sophie’s hotel, and downstairs is a burlesque bar where they have a transvestite on Monday night. I said as a joke that I’m going to go there in full garb. I’d gone there the week before to scout it out. I went with three of my closest friends and we had a blast. It was just fantastic. I was wigged up.
LB: You told your family you were going to the bar?
LF: Oh yeah. The acts are stand-up comedians who were in drag but are also good singers. It was a lovely end to the day. The singer was asking me to do a duet with her, but I was so plastered by that point. I could barely remember it.
The Savoy bar has made a cocktail after me. You can go to the Savoy American Bar and ask for a Louis Flannery QC and they will make you a cocktail. It’s whiskey, calvados, lemon juice, bitters… 9am next morning: first case as QC.
LB: You must have been feeling delicate.
LF: I sent an email at 7:30am explaining I was delayed and would need to start at 11 or 12. They probably knew I was hungover. But I got a great success at the mediation and got taken out for dinner that night.
The Louis Flannery QC cocktail is a man’s drink. The head barman at the American Bar in the Savoy is godfather to my son.
LB: Purely from the fact that he is a barman?
LF: I met him when he was just starting at The Connaught Hotel in 2008. We became good friends quickly, but then amazingly he started going out with somebody who I knew was in international arbitration. When the lawyer was quizzing me on the identity of her boyfriend, he was the last name that came to mind. The irony to all this is that out of all the women in the world, he should pick the one who had the name Margarita. You couldn’t make it up.
I must have paid for about 30 of the Louis Flannery QC cocktails to be made on Monday night for my family. They were going down a treat.
LB: How do you get a cocktail named after you?
LF: Of all the benefits of becoming a QC, that’s probably the best – if I were sitting down with my grandchildren now, I would say: ‘Listen, when I was in the game, I was alive and kicking. They made cocktails after me.’
When I got the news I blubbed like a bloody baby. I was relieved. When I didn’t get it last year, I was very angry. I had been stiffed by a referee, but also because of the negative comments. I could have explained those negative comments but was given no opportunity to do it.
This year at the interview, they asked if I had any other questions and I said: ‘Yes, is there anything negative in any of the comments I should be given the opportunity to address?’
When I got out I phoned a good friend of mine. He asked: ‘How did it go?’ and I said: ‘The only thing missing from that was three whiskies and a fireplace. I was waiting for the curveball. It never came. After about 35 minutes they said: “We’d like to carry on, but we’re running a bit behind.” It was extremely friendly.’
I knew from my coach that when you get through to the interview you’re graded A or B. You get an A to E grade when your form goes in and they collect your assessments. E is you’re out, D you’re out, C you’re out just, B is in you’re in, just, and A you’re a shoo-in. I must have been graded B last time, because I was in but only just. I felt looking back this time I must have been A because they didn’t throw anything testing at me.
On the day [the silk appointments were announced], 14 December, I’d arranged to have a long lunch with a couple of mates. I went into the restaurant on Fetter Lane at 13:30, checked the QCA [QC appointments] website and there was no update. At 3:30, I checked again and it said ‘announcement coming at 4pm’. I was thinking: I’ve got 25 minutes, I’m already a bit hammered – might as well get the fizz ready! I said to my mates: ‘We’ve got an announcement coming and we’re either going to need the champagne or we’re going to deserve it.’ At two minutes past, everyone got it in their inbox. I ended up back in the Savoy again that night.