James MacDougald

Ten Old Square

University: University of York
Degree: English literature

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.

As a student of English literature at the University of York, James MacDougald may well have wandered the labyrinthine pathways of The Waste Land or War and Peace and attempted to interpret the antiquated verse of The Canterbury Tales. He could even have struggled through the anarchic ramblings of Finnegan’s Wake or sought to find a foothold in the footnotes of Infinite Jest. Indeed, such heavyweight literary challenges to the intellect would have been fine preparation for life at the Chancery Bar.

“It is very cerebral work,” he explains. “Trust law, for example, is extremely complex and the doctrines can seem abstract and artificial, although most of them derive from quite basic principles of ownership and obligations of good faith. You spend a lot of time reading and researching case law, both very ancient and very recent, and trying to analyse difficult concepts. These are often exercises in pure thought, like solving a mathematical problem.”

Grappling with knotty problems

This is what attracted James to the profession in the first place and is still what he enjoys most about his work at the chancery Bar today. He also points out that chancery is a great testing ground for those keen to grapple with these intellectual challenges early on in their careers.

“One of the good things about practising in this area, I always tell mini-pupils, is that you actually get asked to advise on quite complex matters at an early stage in your career,” he explains. “This may be because a trust or estate has little money in it and therefore cannot justify the expense of a senior barrister, but nonetheless there could be some very knotty problems to resolve. It’s quite a steep learning curve in that respect.”

At Ten Old Square, where barristers specialise in traditional and commercial chancery work, pupils sit with a different supervisor every three months and will discuss cases, research various points of law and help them draft documents and letters – meaning that they are involved in all areas of their supervisor’s practice. In their second six, there may well be the opportunity to look after their own cases and, if instructions come in that the clerks feel are appropriate for them to deal with, some pupils could find themselves on their feet in the county courts or High Court.

James points out, however, that if young barristers hope to spend lots of time in the courtroom, chancery may not be the best option. “I go to court between once a week and once a fortnight on average,” he calculates. “You do get periods where you’re in court more often, but chancery work tends to be a lot more advice based.”

“One of the good things about practising in this area is that you actually get asked to advise on quite complex matters at an early stage in your career”

In another word of warning, he also reveals that a “traditional chancery” practice can involve quite a lot of complex tax law: “I think applicants should be aware – particularly if they want a “private client” trusts and inheritance practice – that a very big part of that is advising on capital taxes. The tax law is an entirely statutory code, albeit one that is interpreted by judges. Practising in tax involves close, attentive reading of the statutes and, although it doesn’t dominate every case, it’s nearly always a factor in trust and estate problems. If you find that a real turn-off, you may want to think twice about working in these areas.”

Skills to get you through

Those who relish the prospect of getting to grips with the legislative fine print will need a lively analytical mind and impeccable attention to detail. Professional confidence is also vital because, as we have heard, young chancery barristers will need to stand behind their advice from an early stage. Indeed, this is a quality that James considers crucial throughout a barrister’s career: “There’s an awful lot of work that involves you giving advice for which you will ultimately have to take responsibility. At first, that can be quite a startling realisation: when you first qualify and suddenly realise that the buck stops with you. In the early years it can be hard to believe that senior, experienced solicitors really want your advice, but they do, so you need to have confidence in your view.”

While James agrees that the traditional routes of preparing for the Bar, such as mooting and pro bono work, are always a good idea and provide invaluable advocacy experience, he suggests that it is also vital to get a proper handle on what chancery work actually involves. This can be gained, he suggests, by watching hearings in the High Court’s Chancery Division (most courts are open to the public) and through the careful selection of mini-pupillages.

“With mini-pupillages, it’s not about sheer volume,” he advises. “Once you’ve worked out what you are interested in, do perhaps one or two more in that area to satisfy yourself. At the stage of applying for pupillage, your academic background cannot be changed, so the best preparation is to make sure your know exactly what interests you and why, have a detailed grasp of the sort of work that goes on in that area and be able to demonstrate that interest.”

Furthermore, at interview it is important to show your familiarity with the chambers you are applying to. “You should research not just the chambers’ overall prospectus, but the individual barristers’ profiles as well,” he suggests. “In the end, we’re not a firm; we’re just an association of self-employed individuals and we all have different practices that share common themes. Looking at what individuals do will give you a better idea of the work the group does overall. Most chambers will set out their stall quite broadly, but when you scratch the surface you’ll see that the practices of individuals can be quite different in different sets.”