University: University of Durham
Chancery work is split into two areas: traditional and commercial. Traditional chancery includes trusts, probate, real property and tax, while commercial chancery covers a wide range of finance and business disputes. Chancery work often has an international dimension, relating to asset tracing, cross-border insolvency and offshore trusts. Chancery barristers present cases before tribunals all the way up to Supreme Court level and draft a wide range of documentation.
Despite the Bar not always promising Dolly Parton’s nine to five, the advocacy and self-employed nature of being a barrister were two of the main reasons Paul Kerfoot was initially attracted to this career. He says: “I enjoy having control over the work I do and when I do it – being able to pick and choose my hours suits me. However, the issue with having a good practice is that it can often take over your life, and you might find yourself working longer than the standard day.” Although longer hours can be expected, Paul finds that he can organise his work in a way that helps him to maintain a healthy work-life balance, which is an important factor for him personally.
As well as the autonomy that comes with being a barrister, Paul was also keen to get involved in advocacy. “I wanted to have the opportunity to progress through the courts and do the advocacy myself” – a skill that he would not necessarily have had the chance to develop had he chosen to pursue the solicitor route.
From pupillage to barrister
Reflecting on his time as a pupil at Trinity Chambers, Paul recalls the start of his pupillage being both overwhelming and exciting due to the variety of work he was exposed to. While many liken pupillage to a year-long interview, Paul was “very quickly made to feel at home” with Trinity. Looking forward, he urges chambers to ensure that pupils feel included from the start: “A modern pupillage shouldn’t feel like you’re separate from the team – pupils should get a sense that they’re going to spend a number of years within that chambers.”
Prior to his pupillage, Paul decided that he wanted to work with people within small businesses off the back of running his own business at university. Having been called to the Bar in 2018, he is now a business and property barrister, covering what is known as ‘commercial chancery work’, which often involves disputes with businesses, the structure of companies and management of commercial property. While it might sound very corporate, Paul is keen to emphasise the human aspect of his work: “You’re involved with people all the time. It’s a very personal area of law. You could come across families arguing over a will, or landlords in a dispute with tenants, so it affects peoples’ personal lives, which is what I really enjoy about the work.”
Small victories and dusty offices
Considering the cases he’s worked on over the years, Paul says that “it’s difficult to quantify a highlight because the simplest of case can have a massive impact on a client’s life”, before confirming that “even the smallest of victories are highlights” for him. When not working directly with clients, the Bar remains a very people-orientated career for Paul: “You work with a team of people in chambers, solicitors, clients, judges and experts, and start to build relationships with these people.” The image that Paul paints of his role as a barrister contrasts with the notion that most jobs in the legal profession involve sitting in an office all day, with books that have been collecting dust. As Paul outlines his day-to-day work, he highlights how far the profession has come in this sense over the past few years. “It’s much more progressive now,” he says, reinforcing the social aspect: “I really feel like I’m involved in a community.”
As with all jobs, there are aspects that are challenging and less enjoyable than others. Despite working well under pressure – an obvious benefit – Paul explains that there is a certain responsibility that comes with the nature of the job; if you get something wrong, it can have big consequences.” For candidates contemplating a career in this practice area, it’s important to identify effective ways to cope with this.
The Bar needs to recruit well
This pressure can come in all shapes and sizes – internal and external – and affects people in different ways, as we have witnessed over the past year. With the effects of Brexit and the covid-19 pandemic rippling through the business and legal worlds, Paul comments on how “well insulated” the chancery Bar is from “volatile economic and political situations.” When the UK government announced a national lockdown in March 2020, businesses were forced to temporarily close – some of which have not reopened – and many other issues arose as lockdowns were extended or reinstated. These are all important issues to consider in a commercial sense, but one thing that Paul mentions is the huge backlog of cases that was exacerbated by the pandemic.
Envisioning a future in which this backlog continues to rise, Paul considers a specific scenario: “Due to the increase in house prices as a result of the pandemic, there is likely to be more cases as more people will have more disputes because they now have more valuable assets.” Contemplating the knock-on effect of this – “the increase in cases and the backlog” – Paul imagines that “the Bar will have a lot of cases to get through in the next five years and so will need to be recruiting well across the board to deal with it.”
Having fun is important too
But what skills do aspiring barristers interested in a career at the chancery Bar require to be part of this recruitment? With no beating around the bush, Paul enforces the complex work that comes with this practice area and the need for candidates to have “a desire to be intellectually challenged.” Off the back of his warning, he adds that the process of working through the complicated work and getting to the other side “is also the most rewarding” – so the two go hand in hand. As with all areas of law, it is the lawyer’s job to digest a client’s potentially complicated issue, find the answer to their questions and be able to communicate the findings in an accessible way – so being able to distil complex legal issues into manageable and understandable answers is crucial.
Academic excellence can only get you so far. Looking back on his success, Paul emphasises how important it is for candidates to demonstrate that they have a broad set of skills that sets them apart from the rest of their cohort. “I got my pupillage not because I had the best qualifications, but because I could show that I was a well-rounded individual. You need a breadth of experience so don’t sacrifice the non-academic parts of your CV,” he advises. Aspiring barristers should immerse themselves in extracurricular opportunities, whether that’s a university society, a local sports team or book club, and use these experiences to demonstrate that they’re “versatile, grounded, have good common sense and the ability to reach and express an opinion” – skills that Paul believes candidates can hone in experience outside of the classroom.