University: University of Oxford
The commercial Bar covers a broad range of practice areas, including banking and financial services, sale of goods and shipping, insolvency, professional negligence and civil fraud, insurance/reinsurance and oil and gas law. Barristers also handle matters for commercial clients that overlap with discrete areas of law such as employment, intellectual property and competition. Although advocacy is an important skill for commercial barristers, there is also a heavy emphasis throughout pupillage on developing a full understanding of commercial law principles and honing one’s drafting skills.
After completing pupillage at Quadrant in 2019, Robert is in his third year of tenancy and is building up a practice across the breadth of chambers’ work. “I have seen a great variety of cases since I became a tenant,” he observes. “As a very junior tenant I have handled a lot of smaller value matters on my own, but at the other end of the scale I have assisted more senior members of chambers on multi-million-pound disputes in arbitrations and in court. This could be anything from a shipping dispute between shipowners and charterers, or a dispute on an international sale of goods contract, or proceedings between pharmaceutical companies. Commercial law covers the whole range of transactions between businesses.”
Having recently completed the pupillage process, Robert has experienced the transition from training to practice. “During pupillage you get helpful feedback from your supervisor on all your work, including assessments in advocacy and written assignments,” he explains. “Going into practice, suddenly you are directly responsible to your clients and you have to manage your own time and maintain your own standards. Being a barrister requires a high degree of personal responsibility and independence.”
Following the paper trail
His wide-ranging practice involves a mix of advocacy in court and time in chambers spent developing arguments by analysing the facts of cases and the relevant law, and drafting advices and correspondence. “There tends to be more paperwork involved at the commercial Bar than others such as family and crime,” he explains. “This is because the cases tend to be longer and rely more on detail – both legal and factual. You need confidence, rigour, a good memory, commitment and an ability to boil things down, whether legal analysis or factual matters.”
More teamwork than you think
Contrary to the popular belief that barristers mostly work alone, teamwork is also an important aspect of the role. “Especially in larger cases, there is likely to be a lot of liaising with your instructing solicitors, as well as the King's Counsel (KC) leading the case and other members of the counsel team,” he explains. “There are frequent discussions about the progress of the case and how to develop strategy going forward. One of the most enjoyable aspects of practising as a barrister is forming strong professional relationships with senior barristers and solicitors, as there is so much to learn from others and the Bar is quite close knit – it is a supportive profession in my experience.”
The biggest challenge is that there is no off switch because often, the decision as to how much you work is purely up to you and you want to do a good job.
In addition to honing his legal expertise, Robert has also developed “more practical skills, such as making strategic and tactical decisions on cases.” He explains that “at the outset of tenancy the responsibility for making strategic decisions in cases is one of the more daunting aspects of the job because until that point you may never have had conduct of a case before. You become more confident in those decisions with experience.”
The autonomy to make those decisions is at the core of the job’s appeal. “I enjoy independent intellectual challenges and being self-employed,” he says. “The biggest challenge is that there is no off switch because often, the decision as to how much you work is purely up to you and you want to do a good job.”
A changing world
Are there any wider issues affecting the commercial Bar that aspiring barristers should know about? “The landscape of commerce is always changing,” he says, highlighting that “the consequences of covid-19 and the lockdowns imposed as a result of it are creating various challenges for businesses. I have dealt with a number of cases where my advice has been sought as to the impact of the pandemic on contractual obligations. And as always in the law, we are to a certain extent dealing with yesterday’s problems, but there is no telling what yesterday’s problems will be the day after tomorrow.”
To face these challenges and keep up with a changing world, he believes the Bar needs to continue to modernise. “This means being ever more inclusive and diverse,” he argues, “as well as staying connected with global, political and financial developments to remain relevant and continue to be a source of legal expertise and high-quality advocacy.”
Robert signs off with some advice for future barristers: “obtaining pupillage at the Bar is becoming ever more competitive, so think carefully about where your strengths and interests lie. Being a commercial barrister is well suited to those who enjoy in-depth research into the detail and are strong communicators on paper as well as in oral advocacy. There is perhaps less time spent in court than in other areas of law, but more time delving into tricky legal problems.”