Conversations with a Commercial Barrister

Posted by careers consultant on 21 March 2014

Many of the recent law careers blog posts have focused on careers as a solicitor in a commercial law firm. Arguably, this is entirely appropriate, given that there will be around ten times as many training contracts as pupillages available this year. In fact, there are likely to be less than 400 pupillages available in total. Of those pupillages, only a very small number will be in sets of chambers specialising in commercial law. That said, a career at the Commercial Bar could offer a rewarding alternative to students with top academics (and I really do mean top!) and a strong interest in commercial law. I talked to Anton, a junior tenant at Essex Court Chambers, to find out more….

So Anton, please could you describe your path to the Commercial Bar?

I did several vac schemes in my 2nd year at university. They were fun but, ultimately, not for me. I didn't like the idea of being employed, unable to control my working hours, sitting behind barristers in Court etc.

At the same time, I did a few mini-pupillages, mostly at commercial sets, including Essex Court. They tend to be a lot shorter than vac schemes, but you get to sit with several members of Chambers, go to Court and cons (i.e. client meetings) with them, ask questions and work on the cases they are working on. You temporarily become part of Chambers. It's an intense but satisfying experience.

I could see that being a barrister was a lot of hard work, but - and crucially - you are working for yourself, don't have a boss, and get a lot more freedom to shape your working (and home/personal) life as you wish. Plus, you get the adrenalin of standing up on your feet in Court, having a lot of responsibility even when you're junior, and being in charge.

I chose Essex Court because it's one of the top commercial sets with a variety of work. When I say "commercial" I don't mean "corporate". We have people who do employment, banking, civil fraud, international arbitration, art law - you name it.

What was your pupillage like?

Pupillage is like a year-long interview combined with a tutorial. The first few months, at least at Essex Court, is about learning the ropes. You sit in your supervisor's room, help them with their cases, do legal research, draft documents, discuss how best to argue this or that point in Court, how to achieve the client's objectives, and so on. It's amazing how much progress people make in such a short period of time.

Then you "rotate" between a number of other members of Chambers, spending 2-3 weeks with each. Here, the emphasis is more on testing your abilities. It's a fair system: several people assess your work and it is they (not anyone else) who decide whether you should be offered tenancy.

One of the more amusing cases I did during pupillage was about cows in Bristol. The issue was whether one of the bulls named (without irony) "Tamhorn Rocket" produced semen that was below the quality stipulated under the contract. Vets with expertise in artificial insemination of cattle were called and cross-examined, and Rocket's performance was measured against the clearly virile "Pedro". It's not a typical case for Chambers, but shows the diversity of our practice.

What has work been like since being a tenant?

Varied and interesting. I have done a case about the beer market in an East African country (which involved travelling there to interview witnesses at the brewery), a fraud case where the defendants spirited away $175 million which was then traced into luxury homes in London and Geneva, Ferraris, and huge diamonds, and a case about an oil painting which was alleged to be a fake. Those are just some examples.

The hours are long, but I choose how I distribute them. For example, I don't like staying in Chambers in the evening, so I take my work home, go for a run, and carry on working at home later if I need to.

In Chambers I have my own room and I love it. The idea of sharing or (worse still) an open-plan office fills me with dread. I like having the freedom of being able to listen to any music I want whenever I want, not being distracted when I have a tight deadline, or monitored when I want to make a private call.

Despite having a room to myself, I never feel lonely: the other juniors are friendly, we frequently go out for dinner/drinks, pop in to see each other, ask for and share advice.

Do you spend much time doing advocacy in Court?

Some. The more senior you get, the more advocacy you do. That's more or less the norm at the Commercial Bar. But you are always working with other people - usually a team of solicitors, other barristers and, frequently, experts. So you should expect to be talking quite a lot, though not so much in Court, at least to begin with.

What are the main ways in which you think your job differs from that of a junior associate in a top city law firm?

Greater independence and flexibility, more challenging, less admin, and a lot more fun.

Do you have any advice for students considering a career at the Commercial Bar?

It's very competitive. It's essential to have good grades, and it helps to have experience (mini-pupillages are very important), determination and patience. If you're lukewarm about the idea, or if you don't enjoy a challenge, then it's probably not for you. But, if you do, it's a hugely fulfilling career.

Thank you Anton – that was really interesting.

Anton was interviewed by Katherine Dudnikova, Careers Consultant for Laws at Queen Mary University of London.

Topics: Jobs and Internships, employability skills, law, work experience

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