Sophie Holcombe studied law at the University of Cardiff. She is a tenant of four years' call at Serle Court.
Sophie's interest in law kick-started when she secured a two-week placement at a solicitors' firm for school work experience. It was immediately apparent to her that "law is both intellectually stimulating and relevant to 'real life' - as is clear from the impact it has on individuals and businesses". She went on to undertake a number of mini-pupillages, which reinforced her interest further.
Six stints at various chambers were more than enough to confirm that the Bar was where Sophie's ambitions resided: "The role of a barrister provides an opportunity to analyse the difficult legal issues which can arise within a matter. Essentially, a barrister has to formulate a persuasive argument for each case and I enjoy the fact that the responsibility to do so is entirely my own. I am very much in control of my own cases and every day is completely different. It is both an exciting and demanding career."
When the time came to secure pupillage, preparation was crucial: "I knew that I wanted to go into commercial chancery practice, so I researched the reputable sets in that area and tried to get a feel for the ethos of each one. I made my decisions based on that research and only applied to chambers at which I really wanted to work." Sophie applied to around 10 sets, receiving interview offers from the majority. She recounts the requirements for such a successful haul of applications: "You will of course need a strong CV which demonstrates academic ability, but also that you are a well-rounded candidate. It is important to exhibit a real passion for law, and extra-curricular activities such as independently-organised work experience can really help with that. You must also think carefully about the answers you provide to application form questions."
Of course, the application form and covering letter are only the first hurdle to overcome on the way to obtaining pupillage. Success here will mean a potentially nerve-wracking interview to follow: "It is key to make sure that you are prepared for the interview, so that you are confident in your responses and strong in your presentation. This means that you must not only get the answers right, but that you must also be personable and appear assured in what you are saying."
Sophie finished the final stage of her pupillage at Serle Court, after spending the previous nine months at a different chambers. Her practice has come a long way since pupillage: "The areas of work to which I am exposed are the same, but I am given much more responsibility and am in much closer contact with solicitors. Working on cases with other members of chambers remains quite similar, but after completing pupillage you are given sole responsibility of lower value cases."
However, Sophie is still in the early stages of her career at the Bar, and keeps her practice suitably broad: "I do not want to rule out any particular area of law - I will probably look to specialise in a few years' time. Currently, I take general commercial chancery instructions, but I would say that there are five main areas on which I focus within that broad umbrella. These are civil fraud, trusts, IP, general contractual disputes and insolvency."
Insolvency hearings, especially, are a regular feature of working life for junior chancery barristers: "It means that, ordinarily, I appear in court twice a week. About half my time is spent on my own cases, which start with drafting the particulars of claim, advising throughout the proceedings and finally attending the hearing. The rest of the time I am led by other members of chambers on larger cases. This involves conducting legal research and providing support and assistance leading up to and during trial. In chancery and commercial work there are a lot of instances where barristers and solicitors work closely together. Even though we are responsible for our own cases, there is a lot of scope for teamwork."
The real appeal for Sophie though is the intellectually challenging nature of the role, which comes to the fore when working on complex cases involving arguing difficult legal points: "One of the highlights of my time at Serle Court so far was when I won my first strike out application. The dispute concerned ownership of property, but was complicated by issues of probate and conflicting Sri Lankan and UK wills. The client had limited funds and wanted to strike out the opposition's defence. Even though legally we were right, the complexity of the matter made me uncertain of the prospects of our strike out application. However, we were successful and obtained judgment for everything the client claimed."
Sophie sees few downsides to the lifestyle at the Bar: "The only thing that could be seen as a disadvantage is when last-minute instructions come in and I have to stay up late preparing for a court appearance - but that's part and parcel of the job, and contributes to its exciting nature."
It is notoriously difficult to succeed in forging a career at the demanding (but clearly exciting) Bar, so heed the parting advice of one who has: "Motivation and determination are very important for this role. You also need analytical ability and a real desire to meet the intellectual challenges that are placed before you - it is hard work, but it is very rewarding once you make it. If you want to have a career at the commercial Bar it helps if you are enthusiastic about problem-solving, and have obtained relevant work experience. If you are motivated enough then you have a good chance of making it."