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Barristers' practice areas

Civil law

Carmine Conte

Blackstone Chambers

Chambers: Blackstone Chambers
Location: London
University: University of Melbourne and University of Oxford
Degree: Law and Arts (Politics)

Civil law involves relations between persons, and between persons and organisations. It encompasses a very broad range of legal issues, including those relating to contract, tort, trusts, companies and wills. It also covers disputes that range from employment to professional negligence, and from education to property.

Having started his legal career as a solicitor in Australia, surprisingly it wasn’t the British weather that drew Carmine to London, but rather its reputation as a legal hub and centre for international commercial disputes. With a handful of degrees behind him, including an undergraduate law and arts (politics) degree from the University of Melbourne as well as two master's degrees and a doctorate from the University of Oxford, Carmine’s journey to the London Bar was far from traditional.

Carmine previously enjoyed a career as a solicitor in Melbourne but felt there was an element missing from his day-to-day work. His desire to be “on his feet” making submissions was a key factor motivating his decision to move to the Bar. “While a solicitor, when I attended court, I was always champing at the bit to move to the Bar table and make the oral submissions myself.”

Carmine was called to the Bar in 2017 and is currently a tenant of Blackstone Chambers, a leading commercial set in Temple, the heart of the City of London’s legal district. He describes his pupillage at Blackstone Chambers as “eye-opening”, adding: “As a solicitor, I had briefed and worked alongside many barristers, and had studied various aspects of the law for many years. So, I thought I appreciated what the job required. However, I never quite properly understood the demands of being a pupil, or a junior tenant, until I undertook the roles myself. It is one of those cases in life where nothing can substitute for experience.”

Life as a commercial law barrister: always broad, never bored

As a commercial law barrister, Carmine’s workload can be divided into two broad categories – advice and litigation. But what does each actually involve?

“Advice work involves giving an opinion. So, an instructing solicitor will send you a set of background facts and a list of questions on which they want you to advise, and then you give your view on each question to them and the lay client (usually, in writing and in conference).” However, this type of work makes up only a small part of the job, with the lion’s share typically being litigious: “Most of the work that you do as a commercial law barrister concerns either court proceedings (both in England and abroad), known as ‘litigation’, or a form of private, alternative dispute resolution called ‘arbitration’.”

He continues: “There are many different types of cases when it comes to commercial litigation. Some start with a flurry of ‘interim proceedings’, such as an application for an injunction, a freezing order or a search order. In a commercial fraud case, for example, it is common for a matter to start with a jurisdiction challenge (which will involve one party arguing that the matter should be heard in a foreign country), or a freezing order (where one party wants to stop another party from removing assets from England, or dealing with their assets anywhere in the world).” As to the more ‘core’ type of commercial cases, Carmine explains that these “usually involve an alleged breach of contract, with a party seeking to recover any loss it has suffered from the other side”.

 "The appeal of pursuing a career in this area is that, given the diversity, you’re never bored." 

The fact that every case is different, in several ways, makes life as a commercial law barrister very appealing. “The appeal of pursuing a career in this area is that, given the diversity, you’re never bored. So, although sometimes the same issues pop up, the fact pattern in all of your cases is always different. Also, while some cases settle quickly (as businesses usually want to avoid the costs of a public trial), others can take years to resolve, as one party wants to ‘have their day in court’ and prove that they are right. Finally, you might work on some cases independently – which is rewarding because you can control the strategy and undertake all of the advocacy – while on other cases you might be part of a much larger team, working alongside more senior barristers like one or two King's Counsel (KC).” It’s this variation, Carmine says, that “always keeps the job interesting and challenging in equal measure”.

In terms of a high point in Carmine's career, he recalls a recent “tricky” case in which his client needed an urgent ‘search order’ (ie, a civil search warrant allowing solicitors to search a premises and take copies of documents) in unusual circumstances. “Search orders are normally obtained at the beginning of proceedings, involving a few solicitors searching only one premises, and a settled form of court order. This case was particularly tricky because it involved several large search parties searching multiple sites, years after the proceedings had started, and right in the middle of the pandemic (so there was no precedent order to follow).” Looking back, Carmine says: “To obtain and execute a search order in such unusual and challenging circumstances – all without a glitch – was one of my career highlights so far.”

The best and the worst of it

Most agree that advocacy lies at the heart of the job and, for Carmine, it provides the most enjoyable aspect of the profession. He recalls: “On the first day of my advocacy course at university, my lecturer opened by saying, ‘inside every excellent advocate is a frustrated thespian’. He wasn’t wrong.”  He adds: “Ultimately, everything you do as a barrister involves an exercise in persuading someone, be that a client, a judge or even someone on your own team. Whether it is in writing or orally, it takes a lot of time and effort to change someone’s point of view (especially when there is a lot at stake). It can be very exacting. However, you know that the job is right for you if, regardless of the outcome, the moment you finish your submissions you are completely exhausted, but you cannot wait to do it again.” Given this, Carmine advises aspiring barristers to “get involved in mooting to get a feel for whether you enjoy oral argument, and trying to persuade someone. Mooting offers you a flavour of what life will regularly be like for a commercial law barrister (especially when you become more senior)”.

Perhaps both a blessing and a curse, for a commercial law barrister the job is very unpredictable from one moment to the next. “The profession is equivalent to a roller-coaster at times”, he says. “If you are working on a case and some important development happens that you need to address urgently, it just has to be done. For example, while preparing for an injunction application, there is often no time for anything beyond the work it requires. That can be stressful, demanding and a little bit frustrating.” However, it does get better over time: “As you become more senior, you tend to have more control over your diary, and so you can manage your time better. But the nature of the job means that it can remain unpredictable – even for a QC – because the English legal system is an adversarial one, and so by very definition you cannot control what the other side does.”

“On the first day of my advocacy course at university, my lecturer opened by saying, ‘inside every excellent advocate is a frustrated thespian’. He wasn’t wrong.”

Making it at the Bar

Having transitioned from solicitor to barrister, and from Australia to England, Carmine recognises the highly competitive nature of the profession, particularly when wanting to practise commercial law at the highest level. “Given all the benefits of being self-employed, many people are attracted to life at the Bar (especially in London), so it is frighteningly competitive these days to get a look in,” Carmine says.

So, he offers the following advice on the four essential skills or attributes that you’ll need to succeed at the Bar: “The first – and most essential – attribute is good judgment. Clients take it for granted that you will know the law well and are across all of the facts, but what they really want is for you to identify the critical points that are going to win the case, and then present their best case on those points to the judge. The next two skills, or attributes, are more obvious: intellectual ability and industry. You must have the stamina to put in the hours necessary to get on top of the material, but then be able to analyse that material and present the key arguments in a clear and convincing way. The last skill is good temperament. To excel at the job, you need to be able to stay objective at all times, remain calm under pressure and have the strength of your own convictions when times get tough.”

So, if you enjoy a little hard work, making arguments on your feet and never knowing what might come next, following in Carmine’s footsteps might be an option worth exploring.