Barristers and banks generally cross paths when something costly has gone wrong, or might go wrong, in relation to a transaction or product. At one end of the scale, the third-party guarantor of a small business loan may dispute their liability by questioning the validity of the guarantee. At the other, a barrister's services may be needed by an international bank caught up in a multimillion-pound trial relating to a syndicated loan or in relation to a complex regulatory investigation regarding large scale misselling of payment protection insurance.
Mark Fell took a commendable approach to choosing a subject to study at university, plumping for one he enjoyed over anything overtly vocational: "I went for philosophy because I thought it sounded interesting. I wasn’t really thinking about having to get a job at the end of it - that occurred to me some way into my degree! At that point, I looked at several options and the Bar was attractive because it combined something practical with something intellectually engaging." He goes on to explain why philosophy has more practical value than one may first imagine: "It can be a good launchpad for practice at the Bar, as there is a strong focus on rigour, argument and explaining yourself clearly in both disciplines. Legal knowledge can be acquired through a combination of the conversion course and practice, and the reality is that many practice areas involve entire swathes of legal knowledge that you won’t cover at university."
One thing that Mark was very clear on from an early stage was that it was Bar or bust. "I liked the idea of being self-employed," he explains, "although that doesn’t mean that you’re completely unconstrained - there are all sorts of pressures, not least the expectations of your clients. Nonetheless, you do have more freedom at the Bar than at a firm. The other attraction was getting the chance to do more advocacy than would be possible as a solicitor."
Mark’s barristerial career launched as a pupil at 11 Old Square, one of the constituent sets of what is now Radcliffe Chambers. He describes an enjoyable experience that was in no way as terrifying as some may believe: "I enjoyed it; it was interesting and engaging, and there was true diversity of practice areas. Of course there is an element of stressfulness and pressure to it, but I felt that they worked hard to make it a constructive and positive process. Everyone was always very nice to me!"
Called to the Bar in 2004, Mark’s specialism is in financial services and banking, but he makes the point that as a heading, that encompasses a vast range of topics. His focus is retail financial services: "That covers products where the users tend to be consumers or small businesses - for example, mortgages, credit cards, overdraft facilities and bank accounts. There is a whole array of products that consumers and small businesses use every day and that are fundamental to enabling them to operate. I specialise in the law and regulations that govern those types of product."
His clients tend to be financial institutions, regulators or the government, by way of the Attorney General’s B Panel of Counsel. "A lot of the services I provide - both advisory and litigious - relate to financial products and the way the regulatory regime works and its scope. Clients are always anxious to know when it might apply and when it doesn’t." At the litigation end of the spectrum, he has recently been representing the Financial Conduct Authority in tribunal proceedings relating to the authorisation of a debt collection business. As for advisory work, emphasising the importance of confidentiality, he cites anonymised examples of advising a financial institution on the fairness of mortgage terms and conditions and advising a bank whether its payment systems are compliant with regulations governing payment services.
Once you’re in practice, there is a lot to be said for not specialising too early. Within specific areas there is likely to be a tremendous amount of variation in types of work.
As he’d hoped when first deciding to choose law as a career, the work is intellectually engaging and interesting: "I do feel that it has met my expectations in that regard. Another good thing is that I am always really impressed by the quality of the people that I work with. The teamwork aspect is very fulfilling. A less pleasing aspect is the need to start work very early in the morning - 7:00am or earlier - which is made even harder when you’ve been woken up several times in the night by a baby! It can be quite relentless and just because you’ve had a busy week, you can’t take it easy the next week. If you’ve been instructed to do something, you just have to get on and do it!"
Mark recalls the halcyon days before the serious world of work ensnared him: "Before I started practice, I thought that I was a pretty busy person with a lot of commitments. Turns out, I wasn’t! Once you start practising, there is a quantum shift in levels of busyness. But if at the outset you really focus on the need to work actively with the clerks to manage your diary, life will be a bit more manageable. I didn’t quite appreciate how much work I needed to put into that, so it is good to understand what you’re committed to and be proactive about that." Keeping abreast of the business world generally is important and is "best done by reading the business sections of the papers, or the FT, so that you are reasonably well informed about commerce".
As anyone who knows anything about the world economy will tell you, one of the effects of the economic crisis has been a seismic shift in the regulation of banks and other financial institutions. "There has been an endless succession of changes to the regulatory regime, which has generated a lot work in this area," Mark explains. "For example, in the last year or so I’ve been very tied up with work to do with the transfer of the regulation of consumer credit products across to the FCA. There are many challenges for the industry at the moment, but also for the regulators."
When asked about challenges for the profession, Mark points to huge challenges related to public funding of legal services, suggesting these should not be ignored by those not directly taking on publicly funded work: "Although legal aid cuts and similar may not directly affect me or my chambers as a whole, I think it is very short-sighted to conclude that it is irrelevant to us. We are part of a cohesive profession and are all affected by the overall reputation of the Bar, so it is relevant to us all."
As for pupillage applications and starting practice, he suggests straddling a fine line between having a focused approach to the type of set you apply to, while also keeping an open mind to the sort of practice you might eventually enjoy and specialise in. He elaborates: "When you’re applying for pupillage, you need to identify a broad area that you’re interested in; taking a scattergun approach and applying to lots of different types of set won’t be attractive to recruiters because you won’t look committed to a particular area. That said, once you’re in practice, there is a lot to be said for not specialising too early. Within specific areas there is likely to be a tremendous amount of variation in types of work, as well as different structures of practice, different challenges and different amounts of court versus advisory work. Until you’ve done a bit of it, it’s very difficult to know what to make of it. So hone in on a broad area of law and type of set, but once you’ve done that, keep an open mind."