June 28, 2016

Snapshot: Life at the Commercial Bar

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John Robb, Essex Court

I was a pupil and am now a tenant at Essex Court Chambers, which is a relatively large set (80 or so barristers). The set specialises in commercial litigation and arbitration, but has a wide spectrum of work including public law, public international law and employment law. I became a tenant in October 2012, and since then have practised mainly in commercial and financial disputes, shipping, Chancery, and some public law. The work is extremely international: I have been involved with cases governed by Belgian law, Russian law, Syrian law and Georgian law (and cases where no one can agree which system of law should determine the answer to the dispute).

As a junior barrister at a commercial set of chambers, I am often working as a ‘junior’ on a large case, ‘led’ by a more senior barrister (usually a QC). In some cases there can be teams of three, four or more barristers; there is always a ‘team’ in the wider sense because you are working with solicitors and (often legally expert) lay clients. What that means is that I am not often standing arguing cases on my own feet. I get some experience of that by taking on smaller cases myself, or handling smaller parts of a big case (such as arguing on an interlocutory application, or cross-examining a less significant witness). But I have never found this frustrating or stifling. The work that you do as a junior barrister is often highly significant and entails a huge amount of responsibility and personal judgment. Written advocacy (which you do a lot of as a junior barrister) and oral advocacy are different facets of the same overall business of presenting and arguing a case. As a junior barrister, you are an important team member whom others are relying on, and are intimately involved in the strategic decision-making, case analysis, and construction of submissions and cross‑examination. Often you will be having the first go at writing these, with perhaps only light review by a senior QC. It is important to get first-hand experience of oral advocacy, but junior practice at the commercial Bar does allow you to spend time seeing how it’s done by some brilliant advocates around you.

One of the things I did at the very start of my practice was to co-write some articles for Westlaw Insight on shipping law. It was time-consuming and unpaid, but writing a beginners’ guide to shipping law for others was the best possible way of getting my head around a new subject. I’ve continued to use writing and research work as a way to build up my expertise in new subject areas, and in the long term it is a way of establishing a reputation in a particular field of interest.

Somehow, instructions filter down to the bottom end of Chambers, and you find yourself at the end of a telephone and email with responsibility for preparing and arguing your first case. You have to try to get the balance right between taking your own responsibility for producing accurate and strategically sensible work, and asking for advice from others where appropriate. There is no substitute for taking the time to get to the bottom of a set of papers and the relevant legal texts and cases, and you realise that once you’ve done that there is probably no one else better placed to answer the particular question at hand – although, at the same time, there is no substitute either for experience, and there are many times where a quick word with a more senior member of Chambers has steered me away from a mistake or given me a new angle on a case.

I think, looking back, that the key to making a start at the Bar (and in particular at the commercial Bar) is to be thorough and careful on each piece of work you do. Every piece of work is a learning experience, and there are always more subtleties and wrinkles to a case than initially appear. That means that you need to be cautious in estimating how long any particular task will take you, and be careful not to take on too much work – which will leave you only stressing yourself out, producing poor quality work, and letting everybody down. There can be a lot of pressure to take on ‘just one more’ task, and junior barristers are encouraged to say yes to any opportunity (and to try to help out the clerks who are looking for someone to pick up the piece of work); but ultimately, the buck stops with you to ensure that you are able to provide a good-quality service on each task that you take on. If you do manage to do this, and try to “under-promise and over-deliver”, you will find that clients (and senior members of Chambers) come back to you and there is plenty of work available. Building those relationships is both enjoyable and rewarding.

It is undoubtedly easier to say than to do, and it is true that the reality of self-employed practice is that cases don’t come neatly one after another. Cases also have a habit of expanding once they have landed on your desk. But the important thing is to try to keep on top of your workload, and be clear with every client or fellow-barrister when you will be able to complete a particular bit of work that’s expected of you.