You were initially a criminal practitioner, and now you are exclusively a civil silk. How did you make that transition and what advice would you give to others looking at making a similar shift in their practice?
When I started at the Bar it was possible to aim to practise across crime, family and general civil work. That meant that I had time to work out what I wanted to do and what I might be best suited to, while conducting trials on an almost daily basis. Then it was a case of gradually changing the emphasis of my work to suit my plan. The shift toward specialisation at the Bar means that the gradual change I was able to make is far harder to achieve today. Now the risk of attempting a change and being unable to reverse the process if it is unsuccessful is much greater. Barristers who want to shift their practices have to really commit to that plan: make a rational decision about what work you can realistically aim for; consult your clerks to see if they can help because if they can’t then you won’t succeed; identify any contacts who might be able to give you a chance to show what you can do; and then invest time in learning the area in depth before you dive in. It sounds daunting because it is, but if it works it is certainly worth it.
How do you see the future landscape for your chambers?
I’ve never been attracted to the idea of a chambers with so many members that they don’t know each other, but in the modern environment we are slightly smaller than I would like at 33 members. As always the key to growth is finding the right type of people and being able to integrate them quickly so that in each practice area chambers can offer an enhanced team with a range of particular strengths. We are fortunate that we haven’t depended on public funding for many years but we are not immune from the increased competition for work that is one indirect consequence of recent changes. We have adapted to the Jackson funding reforms with an increased emphasis on astute case screening and have refined our approach to tendering for work to the public and private sectors. Also at the core of our business plan are commercial and property disputes where there is a sufficiently valuable interest at stake to make it sensible for clients to come to us for the extra edge that we can give them.
Looking back at your career of almost 30 years at the Bar, what advice would have been helpful to you at ten years’ call?
Specialise now. Although I would almost certainly have lost out on some cases I really enjoyed (and from which I learned a great deal), on balance it would probably have been a better career decision.
With the constraints on certain areas of law in relation to public funding, have you seen an increase in direct access work for your chambers?
Our exposure at Ely Place to publicly funded work has been less than 1% for some time so although we have seen an increase in direct access work and expect this trend to continue, we don’t think it is linked to the attack on public funding.
What example can you give of a notable case that you feel has helped shape your career?
While I was in pupillage I was sent to defend in a part-heard trial in the long-since defunct Marlborough Street Magistrates Court. The case wasn’t notable to anyone but the clients (who were eventually acquitted of an offence of forcing unlawful entry into the flat they shared with the complainant) but in the public gallery was Harvey Kass. Seventeen years later he was Director of Legal Services at Associated Newspapers and brought me in as junior in my first libel trial.
How do you like to spend your time outside of chambers?
Racing my children up the walls at the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, which has been fashioned out of an old quarry and has to be seen to be appreciated. It is simultaneously breathtaking and relaxing.
William McCormick QC was interviewed by Mathew Kesbey and Guy Hewetson of Hewetson Shah LLP