University: The University of Cambridge
Degree: Geography and law
Housing/landlord and tenant law encompasses all aspects of residential and commercial tenancies and covers issues as diverse as anti-social behaviour, disrepair, human rights, possession claims, succession and assignment. Clients might include local authorities, registered providers of social housing, private landlords and, of course, tenants.
Having discovered a passion for the built and natural environment at university, Gavin Bennison wanted to find a career in which he could put his wellies on and apply his interest in the physical and tangible aspects of the world around him.
Gavin knew that he wanted to work with “either the natural or the built environment” and sought a career at the Bar: “Before I applied for pupillage, I already knew that I only wanted to do property law or planning and environmental law. Although these areas are often thought of as quite similar in everyday life, as areas of law they’re very different and I was unsure which I would prefer.”
Taking a leap of faith, he accepted his first offer of pupillage from Falcon Chambers – a pure property set – and has no regrets.
Building a career as a property lawyer
His time as a pupil at Falcon Chambers was “genuinely enjoyable and exhilarating. Written work made up the majority of my pupillage, but I went to court quite often with my supervisors, who were quite senior so they had interesting cases, including lots of knotty points of law, which is what I had imagined I would be dealing with as a barrister. They also had slightly different practices from each other, so I experienced a variety of cases – from those involving huge multi-national hotel brands to working for private individuals about their tenancy.”
After 12 months as a pupil, Gavin secured tenancy and began his career as a property lawyer. He quickly found that cases have a much faster turnover compared to when he was a pupil: “A normal week would involve two or three hearings and two or three pieces of written work, so you’re likely to deal with between four and six different cases each week.”
Clearly passionate about his work, Gavin emphasises how crucial it is for aspiring lawyers to be commercially aware, to understand their clients’ business and to have a genuine desire to learn about their field of practice: “Your solicitors and clients expect you to be interested in the area of law and to understand the business. For example, when I do agricultural work, farmers expect me to understand farming. I didn’t grow up on a farm and so at first I had no real knowledge of how the farming industry worked, but you must be interested enough to want to learn about it.
“The basic reason I am a property lawyer is because I am interested in the background of the cases I work on. If I wasn’t a property lawyer, I wouldn’t be a lawyer at all!”
While working on his cases Gavin particularly relishes being an independent decision maker: “I enjoy the autonomy of being a barrister, as well as the independent responsibility because it makes you feel valued. I also love being self-employed and the set-up of chambers – it’s uniquely fulfilling and supportive.”
Echoing his appreciation of feeling valued as a person and the variety between clients, Gavin discusses the highlight of his career so far: “It was the fourth hearing for two tenants who were on a low income, had little money and had been treated badly by their landlord. The case started because the landlord hadn’t addressed the appalling state of their flat, so the tenants withheld four months’ rent to try to get the landlord to act, but it then sued them for the rent. “I was really proud because the arguments involved complex points of law that hadn’t really been considered before and they were difficult to deal with. We settled at the start of the fourth hearing for a large sum of money. It felt good to win for people to whom it really matters because a lot of the time you’re working with big companies. It was a high-stakes case because if we had lost, the landlord would have probably made the tenants bankrupt to pay the costs of the claim. It was really one way or the other – it was going to be life-changing in either a good or bad way for my clients.”
Investing in the Bar
It is no secret that the route to becoming a barrister is expensive and, while Gavin loves being self-employed, he understands that a career at the Bar is not financially viable for all aspiring lawyers, with many being put off by the costs and the low legal aid rates. Considering the issues that the Bar is facing, Gavin says: “The profession must push for it to be sustainably funded at the bottom end – particularly for criminal barristers and barristers who accept publicly funded instructions.”
Gavin also observes that “the Bar is ageing.” He adds: “I read that the number of barristers under five years call, which would include me, has fallen quite significantly over the past five to 10 years. The profession must work out how to encourage more talented people to consider becoming barristers.” As part of this, there is a real need to improve diversity: “Until chambers consider how they can appeal to all segments of society, including people who may come from very different backgrounds to their current members, they will not recruit the best talent. Coronavirus is also going to make people’s exam results difficult to explain and we must understand this.”
Meanwhile, in light of covid-19, Gavin emphasises that the property Bar has had to do some catching up and “adapt to changes in court practices – for example, remote working and virtual hearings”. Before the pandemic forced the UK into lockdown, he says: “When I went to court I often wouldn’t even take a laptop, I would just have pen, paper and my file”. As well as ensuring that the Bar remains up to date, Gavin talks about how covid-19 affected his practice area and explains that “property law had to adapt fundamentally during the course of the pandemic, and the government is intervening all the time. It was crucial to stay abreast of the changes as they came in and to keep clients properly advised.”
Foundations of becoming a successful lawyer
Keeping on top of changes to the law is crucial for lawyers and aspiring lawyers, but Gavin has some additional advice for those entering the profession. As well as having strong analytical ability and legal research skills, in order to succeed in becoming a barrister practising in property law he encourages applicants to “maintain a general interest in property issues that aren’t necessarily legal – for example, understanding the housing situation and why property is expensive”. Despite the independent working that comes with being a barrister, it’s also important to have “very good client management skills to develop a practice – you must be able to get on with solicitors and understand their business and their clients’ business.”
Finally, for budding barristers contemplating a career in property law Gavin suggests “trying to obtain a mini-pupillage in a chambers whose members practise in real property, landlord and tenant or housing law so you can see what it’s like in practice; take any opportunities to volunteer with a housing-related charity or similar pro bono initiative; and think about what potentially relevant experience might be available to you – it may not be immediately apparent.”