Navigating the role of the Bar Practice Course Director

Ralphed Notley


It was with some trepidation that I applied for the position of Bar Practice Course Director when it was advertised in the second half of 2022. My unease was not simply due to the additional workload that comes with the position. It was also that, if I was successful, I would be responsible for overseeing how the NSW Bar Association trains our newest recruits and prepares them to take their first steps as barristers. I admit that I was contemplating less about ‘what could go wrong?’ and more about ‘what if it all goes badly?’

This unease has not dissipated since my appointment as the new Bar Practice Course Director was announced. That is, in no small part, due to numerous colleagues at the Bar asking me the same question – why on earth did you agree to do it? (although the language used is usually more colourful than is permissible to be printed in Bar News).

The simple answer to that question is, having volunteered as an advocacy coach for the Bar Practice Course for the last few years, I wanted to become more involved in how the Bar Practice Course was run and take an active role in shaping its form and content.

I was initially motivated to volunteer as an advocacy coach because of the invaluable coaching and tutelage that I had received, as a reader in the May 2010 Bar Practice Course, from the Honourable Geoff Bellew SC, the Honourable Justice Richard Weinstein and Patrick Griffin SC. Their enthusiasm and willingness to give up their own time to help me become a better advocate left a lasting impression on me.

Being an advocacy coach is an incredibly rewarding experience. It gives you the opportunity to observe and coach small groups of readers for three to four evenings in the first and third weeks of the Bar Practice Course. There are very few readers whose advocacy does not improve, even marginally, between the beginning of the first week and the end of the third week. For many of them, the improvement is well and truly tangible. That is because the readers are able to hone their advocacy skills in a safe environment and with the benefit of constructive feedback and demonstrations by the coaches of how to do it differently and (hopefully) better.

There is always an infectious energy among the readers, which presumably comes from a mixture of nervous excitement and adrenaline, as they tackle the numerous advocacy exercises they are required to perform. It is reassuring to see how they consistently support and encourage each other, and to watch them form new friendships, in the same way that countless other barristers have done when they were readers. Those relationships are one of the reasons why the New South Wales Bar is justifiably proud of the collegiality that exists between its members.

However, advocacy coaching is only one aspect of the Bar Practice Course. There are numerous barristers, both senior counsel and junior counsel, and judges from every court, who freely give up their time to present lectures and workshops and to judge mock trials.

I have recently completed the September 2023 Bar Practice Course, which was my first Bar Practice Course as the new Director. The Course was not without its challenges, especially when the final mock trial needed to be split between the Hospital Road courts and the King Street courts as a result of the second Great Flood in the Law Courts Building. Apart from logistical issues, which included some of the trials being slightly delayed as witnesses hurried between Hospital Road and King Street, the lights in Justice White’s courtroom in the King Street courts unexpectedly went out (thankfully we did not have to resort to attempting to light the old fireplace) and Justice Kunc could only access his courtroom in the King Street courts by taking a route involving going up and down several rickety staircases and passing through the holding cells underneath the building.

However, everyone approached the day with patience and good humour and I sincerely thank all of the judicial officers who gave up their time on a Saturday to ensure that the final mock trial was a success. I also thank Bali Kaur and all of the Bar Association staff that assist with the Bar Practice Course. The Bar Practice Course has many moving parts. Without their stellar efforts behind the scenes, it would not run as smoothly as it does.

I would also like to take this opportunity to add my thanks and gratitude to Gillian Mahony SC, the outgoing Bar Practice Course Director. Gillian had been the Director since 2016. Gillian’s contribution to the education of new readers in the eight years that she had been in the role was remarkable. I was fortunate to be inducted by Gillian in what goes on behind the scenes during the May 2023 Bar Practice Course. I am very grateful for her guidance and encouragement and I hope that she will continue take my calls for advice as I navigate future Bar Practice Courses.

Finally, I would encourage any member of the Bar who is interested in participating in the Bar Practice Course, in any way, to please contact me. The Bar Practice Course simply could not exist without the many volunteers who take part in it and we always need more volunteers. Ultimately, any time you can contribute is an investment in the future of the Bar. BN

Ralphed Notley

University Chambers