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What future is there for the legal profession in England and Wales? Spend a few hours at the annual barristers' conference and you will come away profoundly depressed. But read the latest thoughts of the profession's leading futurologist and you may well be inspired. 

To most people, a barrister is someone who stands up in court and prosecutes or defends people accused of criminal offences. Although the criminal bar is a relatively small part of the profession, it's probably suffering the most. Cuts in legal aid have greatly increased the attractiveness of a seat on the circuit bench, apparently known as the "purple lifeboat" after the colour of the judges' robes.

Criminal barristers for whom this is not an option are increasingly required to pay "referral fees" to the solicitors who brief them. As both the parties must surely know, paying a fee that improperly influences the choice of advocate may amount to an offence under the Bribery Act. Of course, clients may not realise why they are being represented by inadequate lawyers. But Michael Turner QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said the government was well aware that it had "enshrined a system where bribery for briefs is commonplace".

In heavy or demanding criminal cases, it is still possible for a defendant to be represented by two advocates-traditionally, a Queen's Counsel and a junior barrister. The junior used to prepare the case, interrogate some of the less contentious witnesses and take over at a moment's notice if the QC had to be called away.

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