Michael Polak

Michael Polak is President of Middle Temple Young Barristers’ Association. He practises in criminal, international, and human rights law at Church Court Chambers. He is also a Director of Justice Abroad. Michael is committed to helping the junior Bar reach their potential as well as promoting the rule of law.

Looking back to what now seems distant history, at the start of my Middle Temple Young Barristers’ Association (MTYBA) presidency in January 2020, I decided to do something which has not be done before and set out my aims for our vibrant and hardworking organisation in a plan of action. Although I was slightly worried that this would either come across as pretentious management speak, or like a small-time dictator’s missive, I decided to press ahead anyway. I was very pleased when I came up with the name for this plan of action: ‘I will call it “2020 Vision”’. I chuckled to myself. But it seems that the joke is now on me as I definitely did not see the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown coming.

That plan of action contained three main themes for MTYBA’s activities this year, to run alongside MTYBA’s usual broad range of activities to support those seeking pupillage, barristers during pupillage, and those at the start of their careers. Those themes were:

1. Inspiration, Self-Improvement, and Career Development;

2. Giving back and increasing access;

3. Supporting the Rule of Law and Lawyers Under Pressure.

Inspiration, Self-Improvement, and Career Development

The ‘Inspiration, Self-Improvement, and Career Development’ theme was broken down into four areas. The first part is the Inspirational Speaker Series, for which we currently have events lined up and ready to go for later in the year when this lockdown is over. The first event will be ‘Building a Brand and Standing out from the Crowd’ with Myles Jackman, ‘The Obscenity Lawyer’.

The second area of this theme is a Practical Skills Series, teaching essential skills, such as useful computer programmes for barristers.

The third part is our Ancillary Legal Areas Series. The aim of this is to enable junior practitioners to develop their practices by learning the legal and procedural structures for areas of law that are ancillary to their main practice areas. In this series we have already had Middle Templar and POCA expert, Colin Witcher, deliver ‘An Idiot’s Guide to POCA’ to a full house in Tasker’s, an event which was very well received. We have also been lucky enough to secure Richard Harry, Chief Executive at Sport Resolutions and former Chief Executive of the Welsh Rugby Players’ Association, to present a two-part series on the basics of sports law and a practical session on sports law arbitration. We also hope to run events on the Court of Protection and Inquest law.

The fourth area is focusing on increasing the professional networks of our members and involves networking events with a number of different organisations. One such opportunity that we were particularly excited about was an invitation for our Committee and members to attend the Associazione Italiana Giovani Avvocati (AIGA) Annual Conference in Naples in April 2020, with the European Young Bar Association Committee, to maintain European links post-Brexit. Unfortunately, this event had to be cancelled because of Covid-19. We hope to be part of something similar before the end of this year.

Giving Back and Increasing Access

This is an area which is very close to my heart and something which I believe would benefit our members and young people who need inspiration and guidance. For this, I approached the Renaissance Foundation, a fantastic organisation working with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in London. We agreed that our members could assist by acting as mentors and coaches for their ‘I Can Do It’ programme. The programme will help young people develop strategies for success by building their confidence and communication skills, with the assistance of their mentor, as well as opening their minds to the possibility of a career at the Bar. Despite not being able to meet face to face, with the hard work of our Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Emma Hughes, we have been able to hold a half day training session which included the participation of the young people online, and have our follow-up meeting with them imminently. When we are able to meet in person, we intend to run sessions at inspiring locations, such as The Royal Courts of Justice, a commercial law firm, and the Guildhall.

Supporting the Rule of Law and Lawyers in Under Pressure

The third theme covers another area which is close to my heart. It recognises the unique position of UK-based MTYBA members ,as compared to lawyers around the world and even within the Commonwealth, in being able to practise unencumbered by governmental interference and threats from the authorities. It also takes into account our power to speak out in regard to those barristers throughout the Commonwealth who need support in their times of difficulty.

The first event on this theme came about when I recently heard the news about the arrest of prominent Hong Kong barrister and ‘father of democracy in Hong Kong’, Martin Lee QC SC. This was especially shocking to me after having had lunch with Martin in January 2020 in Hong Kong. At that meeting he had explained his upcoming constitutional law challenge to the purported effort by the Chinese authorities to disapply Hong Kong’s Basic Law from parts of Hong Kong’s territories, the train terminal in this instance, which if allowed would severely limit the separate legal system provisions of the Sino–British Joint Declaration; it would mean that Hong Kong’s laws can be disapplied at Beijing’s whim anywhere within Hong Kong.

For this event, which was held online and was attended by over 100 of our members and those from the Middle Temple Students’ Association (MTSA), Mr Lee spoke on a panel with legislator and barrister, Dennis Kwok, and human rights activist and Hong Kong Watch Director, Benedict Rogers. After presenting fascinating talks on the attacks on the rule of law in Hong Kong, the speakers fielded a range of questions from participants and a lively discussion ensued. Salmaan Hassanally, Treasurer of MTYBA, has gone into more detail in his article inside this edition of The Middle Templar.

MTYBA hopes to provide support in rule of law areas to young barristers in the Commonwealth who are facing difficulties because of the political regime they fall under and develop opportunities for our members to assist.

Regular Events

Our range of regular events have also been adapted and we have been able to hold our ‘Finding Your Feet’ event for those pupils going into their second six months of pupillage, as well as a social online quiz.

Future events

Finally, although the lockdown has prevented MTYBA from doing what we enjoy the most, getting together for educational and social gatherings, it has also provided an opportunity to consider new types of events. One of these was the screening of the brilliant film Dark Waters, which tells the story of lawyer Robert Bilott’s 15-year ordeal fighting for those whose health has been severely affected by the actions of a chemical company in America. I was very pleased when Robert agreed to speak after the screening of this film which is a great example of what tenacity and commitment by a lawyer can achieve. You can read all about it in Hayley Blundell’s article.

We also plan to hold an online Iftar event with a prominent Muslim speaker, which should be enthralling.

I hope that when you read this article, you are comforted by the plans MTYBA has made that Covid-19 has not been able to stop. MTYBA will continue to work for our members. You are automatically a member of MTYBA starting at the date of your Call to the Bar by Middle Temple and continuing through to the later of seven years post-Call or seven years post-pupillage. You can receive our newsletter by connecting with us at mtyba.org.

We have been able to run this strong programme because of my hardworking committee: Treasurer, Salman Hassanally; Secretary, Hayley Blundell; Social Secretary, Ellen Crow; Communications Officer, Merlene George; Pre-Pupillage Officer, Aimee Stokes; Pupillage Officer, Jaysen Sharpe; Tenancy Officer, Shaylla Shabir; Advocacy Officer, Louisa Simpson; Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Emma Hughes; Northern Circuit Chair, Emily Landale; and Wales and Chester Circuit Representative, Tabitha Walker. I am of course indebted to my Vice President, Lauren Suding, for her support with these new initiatives and her assistance in keeping everything on track.

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