September 19, 2016

Chantal-Aimee Doerries QC, Atkin Chambers

(Middle Temple)

I developed an interest in the law at university, largely as a result of friends who were studying the subject. In order to decide whether to become a Chantal_MG_5830solicitor or a barrister I tried to learn as much as I could about both professions, did some work experience in a law firm, in chambers and in-house with a bank. I decided relatively quickly that I wanted to be an advocate and I was attracted to the freedom and challenge which the self-employed Bar offered.

I studied history at the University of Cambridge, at New Hall (now called Murray Edwards College) one of the two remaining all women’s colleges at Cambridge, and later did a law conversion course. I also spent one year at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA.

I practise in commercial law, with an emphasis on infrastructure, energy and construction related work. As well as domestic Court work, this area has a strong international element, which means I frequently appear in international arbitrations representing my clients. Since the beginning of my career, my practice has developed in that I have graduated from being a member of a team on bigger cases to being the leader of the team. Cases have become more international both in terms of the parties and the location of the dispute. I have become increasingly involved in representing the profession both domestically and internationally through my work with the Bar Council.

Striking a balance between my professional life and other interests is a constant challenge and I suspect that I rarely get the balance right.  My practice tends to involve longer hearings and longer periods of preparation. I try, when I can, to take time out of work in between cases, to focus on my life outside of work. Getting a work-life balance right is important though. As the Bar Council’s recent Wellbeing research showed, many members of the Bar are so focused on work that it can have an impact on your health and, inevitably, how you perform at work.

Regarding career highlights, I could mention cases that were technically complex or high profile but actually the ones that stay with me are those with a human element. This exists even in commercial work, although to a lesser extent than other areas. I have never forgotten one of my first cases, a Free Representation Unit pro bono employment tribunal case where my client had lost her job as a result of her pregnancy, and where we were able to get a good settlement on the eve of the hearing. Understanding the difference that lawyers can make for their clients, and how overwhelming the legal experience can be for those who don’t have the benefit of lawyers, is one of the things that keeps me interested in the job.

I’d like to offer the following advice: the Bar can seem intimidating but it is a meritocratic profession. The real challenges are financial, being able to afford the training in an age where most students come with university fee debt, and finding a pupillage.  As for funding, the Inns play a crucial role in providing funding for students and pupils and I would encourage all aspiring barristers to contact the four Inns and find out about the scholarships on offer. As for finding a pupillage, it has become more difficult as the number of pupillages have gone down as a result of the cuts to legal aid and as the numbers of law students has increased. If you are interested in a career at the Bar, look for opportunities to meet barristers and judges, to visit Courts and to get work experience in Chambers.