Arguably the place where the cats are fattest, this is the creme-de-la-creme of legal work – at least according to those involved in it. These are disputes between high worth individuals or (more exciting) companies or (so exciting it’s practically sex) banks or (you won’t want sex after you’ve done a case like this) governments. They are arguing about money – which for some reason which makes you despair of the state of education in this country, everyone spells P-R-I-N-C-I-P-L-E.
This is an area in which solicitors need barristers who specialise. Bizzarely the barristers need not specialise in advocacy but in a particular area of law – which the solicitor already claims to know perfectly well. Only the cynical would say that the specialisation is required to sooth the solicitor’s ego or justify his hourly rate. The aim is not to go to trial, but rather to ‘resolve’ the matter – either by settlement or, increasingly, by ‘alternative dispute resolution’ (please note that it is the resolution which is alternative, not the dispute – an alternative dispute normally exacerbates the problem, except for the lawyers obviously). This does not mean dressing up in your best tie-dye and playing music until the parties hug each other, though that might be worth a try. It means that another lawyer is paid to put the parties in separate rooms and ask them what they want until they simultaneously scream ‘A settlement – and PLEASE let us out’. This is called mediation.
Advantages. Your plumber will call you ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. He may even use you. There is real law involved and lots of chances to argue it. Other lawyers will regard you with envy and respect – a highly addictive combination to many. Your clerk will be able to say ‘Ms X does not sneeze for less than £500’. The business press may know your name. Historically this is the best route to the High Court bench. Lots of opportunity to be led and lots of work in front of the Master which, despite the title, is nothing to do with sado-masochism but is an awful lot more impressive than saying you’re in front of the District Judge although they are the same thing. Also, you can go into room 101.
Disadvantages. Ain’t got no soul. Money can’t buy you love (although, if you’re at the Commercial Bar, the presumption is that money can buy you, love). You are a cog in a large machine and you will never feel more important than your solicitor unless you get to the top of a very greasy pole. For every Pollock there are 500 tiddlers. Judges expect fearsome competence. Masters can be vicious (just about the only thing they have in common with sado-masochists). Room 101 is hot and stuffy. Insurance, Re-Insurance, sub-prime market, subrogation, vertical vs horiozontal internal restructuring, zzzzzzzzzzz.
This is law about ships and as such you will be part of our island’s glorious seafaring past. Note, that’s past. Sadly the uniform is still subfusc and not bell bottoms and gold buttons. There is ‘wet’ shipping which deals with what happens when we do not put the drunken sailor in the scuppers with the hosepipe on him, but instead let him stay on the bridge and drive the boat or whatever the hell you call it. And there is ‘dry’ shipping which deals with the fascinations of bills of lading, charterparties and contracts of affreightment. In other words, contract law with a boatload of funny names for things.
Occasionally someone is able to arrest a ship. This is a way of securing your client’s debt (unless anyone has a prior legal charge – I do hope you’re following all this) and you don’t even have to caution it or offer it a solicitor. On the other hand, you can’t beat the crap out of it in the back of the van either. For shipping lawyers, arresting a ship is just about the most fun anyone can have. Consequently, if shipping is for you, you’ll know.
Advantages. Your plumber will be begging to be your plumber. You get foreign travel. How to load a 100,000 ton cargo vessel can be unexpectedly interesting. There is even more law than at the Commercial bar and you get lots of private international and European law as well. When space travel becomes the next commercial paradigm you will be incredibly well-positioned. More shipping lawyers have made the House of Lords than any other kind of lawyer. A lot of the action happens relatively quickly and so there is lots of opportunity to think on your feet.
Disadvantages. The foreign travel is usually to the type of place to which we used to send gunships. The sea looks the same wherever it is. It’s a ship for Pete’s sake – how excited can you get about 600,000 tonnes of rusting metal floating in a stew of sewage? You won’t do a case on your own until you’re 35. Flags of convenience are adversely affecting the market – how keen are you to be Liberia’s ace litigator? Quite.
Public Law
This is judicial review, enquiries and stuff like that. It started off being about the Crown’s prerogative remedies aimed at protecting the citizen from the despotic acts of public authorities. The despotic acts of the Crown were allowed because, basically, if not the King would have your innards fed to the ducks whilst you watched. Now it is about protecting huge commercial enterprises from the decisions of idiotic local authorites, ensuring that councils can’t use the special needs budget redecorating the councillors’ offices and stopping the Home Office deporting illegal immigrants back to almost certain death.
It is also how the government avoids the embarrassing things that happen to it becoming even more embarrassing by enquiring into them. The principle here is that it needs a senior Judge/retired civil servant with an army of administrative help and expensive bought in legal expertise to listen to all interested parties and then say what should be done in the future. This is not so anything is actually done, but in order to deflect criticism, bore the pants off everyone who was once interested and ensure that the recommendations for change only arrive when everyone has forgotten what happened apart from the loony in the green sports jacket who has become so obsessive about it that he is entirely ignored.
Advantages. Given that government in all its forms is more bullying and cynical now than it has ever been, there’s lots of work about. It is one of the few areas where even the Treasury is politically careful about getting rid of legal aid. You genuinely have the opportunity to right wrongs. You can actually argue about matters of principle and real importance. Your professional colleagues will assume that you are clever. Enquiries can make you a media star. The barrister is almost always in the driving seat.
Disadvantages. Unless you’re the government/local authority it’s hard to win because they only have to be reasonable. The average Judge thinks that foxhunting, cold showers, beating small boys and locking people up for being disrespectful to them is reasonable – so what chance do you have? Never mind laugh a minute – it’s barely a laugh a century. You have to find the National Health (Implementation of Financial Adjustments) Adjustment Order (No 77) 2004 interesting. You may go through your entire career never having cross-examined anybody.
This evokes thoughts of dusty barristers in dusty rooms taking for ever to decide whether a charitable object is cy-pres. And that is accurate. Commercial chancery work is now indistinguishable from commercial work, except that the Judges are even more difficult. Traditional chancery work is about charities, trusts and land. You will be asked for your Opinion (capital O) on more and more abstruse matters, all turning on whether the plan shows that the tree was planted on the left side of the gatepost, or whether the Will says ‘to enjoy for her life’ or ‘to be hers for her life’.
Chancery is also very focussed on remedies. Basically you can make a trustee account for how he bought his last tube of toothpaste. This is known as ‘taking an account’ although it should be known as ‘Undertaking an exercise so anal as to be attractive only to obsessive-compulsives’. You can can also look into other people’s bank accounts even though you have never met them and their only connection with you is that they may have sold your trustee the toothpaste. This is known as ‘tracing’ although it should be known as ‘being a nosey bastard’.
Advantages. It is very traditional. Your colleagues will think you are clever. The plumber will think you are clever – especially when you spend 7 hours telling him how the drafting of his bill means that he should pay you. You will think you are clever. The work can be quietly fascinating, demanding fine drafting skills and an appreciation of the subtleties of thought and laguage. Your clients will be awe struck by you.
Disadvantages. You may never go into Court, let alone actually cross-examine. You may get hives at the very idea of going into Court. People rely on your advice and then find out that it was useless 20 years later when you are in no fit state to defend yourself. Your idea of a party will involve sherry and a quiet game of draughts. You will think that one party a year is plenty.
Human Rights
This is the trendy new area of the law, much admired by the intelligentsia (to be distinguished from the intelligent). You must understand that, until the passing of the Human Rights Act this country wasn’t bothered about protecting its citizens and all that stuff about habeaus corpus, innocent until proven guilty, prerogative remedies and equitable relief were just for show and yet another example of how the Capitalist class oppressed the workers.
Human rights involves lots of European Court of Human Rights’ cases which, unlike our cases, might have a different result if tried 5 years down the line, because standards change. That means you never actually lose. And they involve everything – from your human right to get married and flog your wedding photos to 2,000,000,000 people via one magazine rather than another, to your human right not to be kept locked up by some dodgy foreign diplomat who’s nicked your passport and wants you to be his next concubine. And, rather like the Emperor’s New Clothes, no one will say that the result would have been the same before we had Human Rights.
Advantages. Achingly trendy, this is the barrister’s only chance to be considered hip. Newspaper columnists might know your name. Your plumber will know your name. In its desperate effort to avoid being labelled racist, sexist, ageist, anti-anything ist the government will pay for the Windswept Beach Islanders to sue the European Union for trading with the Great Satan, right here in the UK. You get to name your Chambers after a Movie. You get to feel good about yourself.
Disadvantages. The Conservatives want to abolish the Act (and possibly the actual rights, although in this they differ not one whit from the Labour Party) and believe that you are the Great Satan. Today’s trend is tomorrow’s disposable. The further north you go, the more unprintable your professional colleagues’ opinion of you becomes. Your speciality does not actually exist. You are admired by the intelligentsia.