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Meet the lawyer

Max Marenbon

Max Marenbon

University: University of Oxford
Degree: Classics
Year of call: 2020
Position: Barrister

What attracted you to a career in law?

At university I spent much of my time acting and theatre directing, with the intention of pursuing a career in theatre, but ultimately decided that it wasn’t the right path for me. I therefore decided to convert to law because, as a humanities student, I could use the skills I had picked up during my undergraduate degree – such as reading and making sense of difficult documents, and then writing persuasively about them. As a lawyer you get to do that in a more practical, commercial context.

Why barrister not solicitor?

Not only did I think about becoming a solicitor, but I actually did so. During my law conversion course, I completed a vacation scheme at a law firm, during which I was offered a training contract. Given how much I enjoyed the work and how nice my future colleagues were, accepting the training contract was a no-brainer. Before starting my training contract, I took an LLM at Cambridge specialising in commercial law, and then worked at the Law Commission – a statutory independent body responsible for reforming and modernising the law.

I learned a lot during my training contract, but the experience helped me to realise that I really wanted to do more advocacy. I was working closely with counsel at times; being in court and seeing them perform their roles in front of the judge confirmed to me that this was the job I really wanted to do.

After qualification I was extremely lucky to be offered the opportunity to spend a year at the Supreme Court as a judicial assistant. I learned an enormous amount from working closely with the Justices and in particular Lord Wilson, to whom I was allocated. The following year I started my pupillage at Serle Court.

What are the key differences between training as a solicitor and barrister?

As a trainee solicitor, you would expect to gain experience of dealmaking and advisory work as well as litigation, whereas pupil barristers focus on litigation. Furthermore, as you would expect, the tasks carried out by litigation solicitors and barristers are different (although they can overlap) and this filters through to the trainees or pupils who are shadowing them. Trainee litigation solicitors can expect to have more involvement with matters at the pre-action stage and with the ‘big picture’ management of large-scale litigation, whereas pupil barristers are more likely to focus on the intricate detail of a specific piece of research or legal drafting.

Barristers’ chambers tend to be smaller than law firms so you are likely to have only one or two fellow pupils, but this can also mean there is more of a chance to get to know people of all ages and levels of seniority across chambers.

How did you decide where to apply to?

Given my previous career and academic background, I knew that I was interested in company law, insolvency and commercial litigation. But I also enjoyed being able to act for individuals and families as well as large corporations.

For access to such a range of practice areas, Serle Court was an obvious choice. I was also attracted by the prospect of running my own cases early on, which can be harder to achieve at sets that focus purely on big-ticket commercial litigation.

What sort of work did you get involved with?

I sat with four different supervisors during pupillage, each for three months. Three of them practised in more commercial areas of the law – company law, commercial litigation, civil fraud and insolvency, while one of them practised in more traditional chancery work – charity and property law.

Every pupil at Serle Court gets the same first three supervisors so that it’s the same people assessing you for the purposes of the tenancy decision. There’s more flexibility around your fourth supervisor in terms of your preferred practice area.

I worked on a very interesting case during pupillage called Ridley v Dubai Islamic Bank, under the supervision of Matthew Morrison. In Dubai you can be imprisoned for owing a debt that you haven’t repaid.  At the creditor’s request, our client was imprisoned for a debt of hundreds of millions of pounds. We asked the High Court in England to order the creditor to have our client released, on the basis that under an English law Restructuring Agreement, the creditor had given up its ability to have him imprisoned. It was an interesting interaction between business law and human rights.

My day-to-day work on this case involved researching difficult or interesting legal points and helping to draft the skeleton argument for hearings. Because of the unusual nature of the case, I even helped the client put together some publicity materials to try and boost the profile of his case in the media.

A more typical case that I was involved in during pupillage was Revenue and Customs Commissioners v IGE USA Investments Limited. In that case, we were acting for HMRC who made allegations of fraud against General Electric (a US conglomerate) in relation to a transaction GE undertook almost 20 years ago. There was $1billion of tax at stake.

I drafted sections of skeleton argument and undertook legal research, and attended various hearings with my supervisor Gareth Tilley and our leading counsel, Philip Jones QC. It was great to work with our instructing solicitors in the Government Legal Service – they treated me as another member of the team. After securing tenancy, I was formally instructed on the case and it went to the Court of Appeal. I worked on our successful application for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, but the case settled soon after permission was granted.

What do you most/least enjoy about your career and why?

I most enjoy appearing as an advocate in court – especially if I can come up with novel legal arguments and persuade the judge of the merits of our case.

I also enjoy the freedom that comes with self-employment, which gives me a great deal of autonomy in relation to how, when and where I work. The flipside is that because you are self-employed, you rarely have someone to delegate to unless you’re quite senior. This is very different from working at a law firm as part of a big team, and it means you can sometimes be incredibly busy.

What skills/strengths do you need to be a successful barrister?

You need to be able to absorb large amounts of information quickly and pick out the most important points. You must be also good at arguing persuasively and eloquently – verbally and in writing. I also believe that a degree of ingenuity and originality in formulating arguments is beneficial.

Throughout your career at the Bar you need to be confident – that means being backing yourself and taking responsibility for your decisions, because the buck often stops with you. And resilience is always important – you can’t take setbacks personally.

Describe the chambers in three words.

Ambitious, supportive, diverse.

What’s your signature dish?

Venison pie (the secret ingredient is a spoon of homemade blackcurrant jam). I don’t make my own puff pastry though – life is too short…