University: Melbourne University
Degree: History and chemistry
Housing/landlord and tenant law embraces 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.
Although he enjoyed the study of history and chemistry at school, Simon Atkinson realised pretty quickly during his undergraduate degree in Melbourne, Australia that the sedentary seclusion of the historian or lab-bound labours of a research chemist would not hold his attention for long outside academia. He still wanted to feed his passion for reading and analytical thinking, but was also keen to flex his argumentation muscles, and the Bar seemed like the perfect place to do so.
A born traveller (his father worked for a multinational oil company and travelled extensively during Simon’s youth), the native New Zealander decided that he would rather return to the United Kingdom, where he had spent some of his childhood, to further his legal ambitions. He undertook a two-year law degree at Trinity College, Cambridge.
“The opportunities for practising law in London are very good,” he explains. “The quality and diversity of work are second to none. Also, [the Australian state of] Victoria, where I then lived, has a fused profession; realistically you have to spend five or six years as a solicitor before going to the Bar and that really didn’t interest me. The prospect of going straight to the Bar when my law degree was over seemed much more appealing, which was another reason for coming over.”
Law of the land
A confirmed interest in land law which first emerged during his legal studies, combined with a desire to avoid being pigeonholed into a particular area too early in his career, guided Simon to apply to Wilberforce, as the set undertakes a wide variety of chancery and general commercial work. As his practice has since developed, however, property has featured increasingly prominently, to the point where it “now forms the backbone of my work”.
“A large part of that is landlord and tenant work – both commercial and residential,” explains Simon. “I really enjoy it, because with property work you get into court more frequently, and you are less commonly led by a QC on cases than in other areas. It’s pretty safe to say that there are more opportunities for a young barrister working in property to be given more autonomy – advising, pleading and advocacy – than in many other areas of chancery and commercial law.” Indeed, this year Simon appeared on his own in the Court of Appeal in a housing law matter: "The opportunity to advocate in front of three of the most distinguished legal minds in the country is one of the most memorable and challenging of my career so far."
It is definitely worth prospective members of the property Bar keeping an eye on wider economic, political and social developments, because they have a very real impact on how people deal with their property interests.
At six years’ call, Simon now finds himself in court on average once, sometimes twice, a week. The rest of his time is spent drafting papers and skeleton arguments, preparing for and attending conferences, advising, reading and researching points of law, and attending to other paperwork. He also spends quite a bit of his time on the road as many of his court appearances are outside London. “I travel quite a lot for court appearances – property work gets me out into the various county courts across England and Wales. This is because claims are usually heard in the county court nearest to the location of the property in dispute. I enjoy travelling on the train and getting out of chambers for a day!”
“I’m never bored in this job,” he adds. “There are cases you enjoy more than others and some more tedious exercises that you have to do. But no two cases are alike. You can go from lots of little cases which are on all at once, which is basically what I’m doing at the moment, to a period when you’re involved in a single big piece of litigation. You go through cycles.”
Pupils at Wilberforce rotate through pupil supervisors every two to three months so that they can experience the different areas of law in which the set practises. Simon points out that it is rare for pupils in the second six months of pupillage to spend much, if any, time on their feet, with the expectation that pupils are there to learn from their supervisors. That said, there is still plenty of live, paper-based work for them to get stuck into.
“I think I was on my feet only perhaps once or twice while I was still a pupil,” he recalls, “but you are given a variety of work – both what we call ‘dead cases’ – cases which your supervisor has previously worked on but are now finished – and live work. In my first week of pupillage I was charged with doing a first draft of an application for specific disclosure in a live matter. There is a great sense of responsibility that is put on you, because you are trusted to get the work right, but you are always given sufficient time to do so. I found that the level of responsibility increases as the year progresses. So even though you may not be on your feet, you will be working on live matters with your pupil supervisor.”
Those keen to secure pupillage at a set specialising in landlord and tenant, or property law more generally, should be able to demonstrate an awareness of how recent political and economic developments might affect the area. “Property law, and landlord and tenant law in particular, is readily affected by wider economic issues – for example, Brexit and the anticipated rise in interest rates. These issues can have a big impact on how the property market is developing,” Simon points out. “When I first started out in practice in 2011, commercial leases were coming up for their five or 10-year rent reviews in very different circumstances from those in which the leases had been originally agreed. There was therefore a lot of court litigation – mainly by tenants seeking to prevent their landlords increasing the rents payable under the lease.”
He continues: “It is definitely worth prospective members of the property Bar keeping an eye on wider economic, political and social developments, because they have a very real impact on how people deal with their property interests.”
As a final piece of advice, Simon warns that when he first came to the Bar he underestimated the sheer amount of hard work involved and the strength needed to deal with it. “You need stamina,” he insists. “Obviously, people will tell you that you need to have good academic grades and advocacy skills, both written and oral; this is absolutely true. But it's equally important to be aware that, if you’ve got a two or three-day trial or you’re in court back to back on various matters, you will frequently be working late and getting up early; you’ll be thinking about the case for days in advance, potentially; and it is very physically and mentally draining. It is very rewarding, but it is a taxing job. Because you’re self-employed, you need to have the drive and determination to put in the hours and the hard work necessary to make sure that you are prepared when you stand up on your feet. So I would say that one of the most underrated strengths at the Bar, particularly in an advocacy-heavy area like landlord and tenant, is stamina.”