University: University of Oxford
Undergraduate degree: Law
Barristers specialising in this area may appear before the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights, international tribunals (ICSID, ICC and LCIA), domestic courts and other international tribunals. Matters that may be under dispute include the interpretation of treaties, state responsibility, international investment law, the environment and human rights.
Having studied public international law at undergraduate and postgraduate level and taught the subject for several years at Oxford, Jessica Wells decided that it was time to put her expertise into practice and train as a barrister. “I couldn’t see myself in a big City firm,” she explains. “It was mainly the independence and variety of the Bar that appealed to me.”
Jessica completed her pupillage at Essex Court Chambers – an experience which she describes as “rigorous, but very fair. The chambers were very supportive; we knew exactly what we had to do and when decisions were being taken.” Now a tenant at Essex Court, Jessica has developed several areas of expertise, as is the case for many barristers – but it was Essex Court’s strength in public international law which attracted her to apply there, and this area forms a significant part of her practice today.
From the start, Jessica was fortunate to be brought into several international cases with senior members of the chambers – including the opportunity to address the International Court of Justice while she was still a pupil: “That was an amazing experience, which I could never have expected to come along so early in my career.”
In 2013 Jessica had the privilege of being appointed to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s newly formed public international law panel of counsel, from which the UK government selects barristers to instruct in international cases. As such, she receives a lot of her work from the government, which has resulted in what she identifies as her undoubted career highlight to date: “I was really fortunate to be part of a team of counsel representing the UK in a case that was brought against it by the Marshall Islands, alleging that the UK and other states were in breach of their obligations relating to nuclear disarmament. We had a hearing in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in March 2016 – the opportunity to represent your own state in the ICJ is pretty special.”
Public international law is unlike some other areas of the Bar in terms of the amount of time spent in court. “For example, barristers practising in personal injury will be in court a lot of the time,” Jessica explains. In public international law, on the other hand, the scale and complexity of cases mean that “there’s less court work – there is a lot of paperwork, a lot of research, a lot of preparation for hearings.” The practice area is also incredibly varied, involving work both at home and abroad: “I work on international law cases in the domestic courts – they seem to come up more and more frequently now, as well as hearings in international tribunals, like the International Court of Justice. There’s a whole range of work; international issues can come up in all kinds of cases – for example, it could be a divorce case where someone claims immunity. They crop up in unlikely places.”
The great thing about these cases is that they often involve really big issues that have important political consequences, which makes them really exciting and interesting to be involved in, and you learn a lot about the process of government and issues which really matter.
The political uncertainties around Brexit have unsurprisingly been generating interesting legal questions. Jessica has been involved in advising a range of different bodies on the possible impact of leaving the EU, both in the domestic and international spheres. This is likely to generate work – and fascinating intellectual issues – for a good while yet.
While Jessica cites the importance of many public international cases as one of the most rewarding aspects of her job, she readily admits that it can feel like a downside at times. “The great thing about these cases is that they often involve really big issues that have important political consequences, which makes them really exciting and interesting to be involved in, and you learn a lot about the process of government and issues which really matter, like nuclear disarmament,” she explains. “The flip side of that is that it makes them quite stressful to deal with – particularly if you’re acting for a government. For instance, different departments may have different policy objectives and pressures and the case you’re working on may have implications in other areas so that has to be factored into decision making. It can be stressful, but most exciting things are challenging as well.”
Making your case
Jessica emphasises the importance of a strong academic record for those hoping to forge a career at the Bar. “Although getting a first isn’t necessarily a prerequisite, if you want to be a barrister, a good degree opens a lot of doors,” she advises. “It’s worth a bit of pain during your studies to put yourself in the best position that you can, because intellectual ability is the main criterion that everyone is looking for.” She also identifies some hallmarks of a successful barrister: “You need confidence, an interest in the law and an interest in presenting arguments well,” she explains. “A lot of it is about how you communicate, orally but also in writing – being able to make a clear case.”
Jessica is keen to emphasise the latter point as something to bear in mind when applying for a pupillage: “Remember that the application form is an example of your advocacy skills. Someone is going to be reading that form quite quickly and you want to make sure that you’ve argued your best case for why you should be taken on. You want your application to be clear, concise and readable – it’s one of the key skills that we’re looking for.”
To those with a specific interest in public international law, Jessica is encouraging: “My advice is to go for it – there’s lots of work out there for juniors who are interested in that area. Research the chambers that specialise in it, try to do a mini-pupillage to get a feel for what the work involves and keep up to date with current affairs, so you know what international issues are out there.” While the job comes with its own set of responsibilities and challenges, she has no regrets about her career choice: “I can’t think of a job I’d rather do – it’s certainly fulfilled the expectations I had.”