General common law: area of practice (barristers)
Common law covers those areas of law that are not represented by very specialist Bars (admiralty, for example). One of the advantages of joining a common law set as a pupil is that it gives you the opportunity to try out a wide range of areas, helping you to decide on your eventual practice area.
A common law practice
Traditionally, a common law barrister would deal with a tax case on one day, for example, and a landlords and tenants dispute the next, but this concept of a truly common law practice is becoming increasingly rare. Instead, common law sets now often divide members into specialist practice groups and the majority of a barrister’s work will focus on a particular area, such as ‘employment’. Chambers have found that clients respond better to such arrangements. However, this doesn’t mean that a barrister loses the variety that a common law practice brings: to use my practice as an example, in the last week I’ve dealt with a contractual dispute about health insurance, a two-day employment dispute, another dispute in the high court, a dispute regarding school fees and a conference on the terms of an insurance policy.
In a common law practice, there is generally a high and quick turnover of cases. You’ll typically spend a lot of time in court – usually at the tribunal or county court level rather than at high court. Cases often last one or two days; the longest court case I’ve completed has lasted 20 days. A relative lack of access to the higher courts and six-month cases can make progressing your career as a junior more challenging, but the variety of work is interesting and stretches you intellectually. Plus, the satisfaction of using your advocacy skills in court never fades.
An increasing number of cases are being funded via insurance policies. With the economic downturn, more people are taking notice of the legal provision in their policies, whereas before they’d just have ticked the box on the form and forgotten about it.
The common law Bar is so broad that generally it has been unaffected by the economic downturn; while one area may be negatively affected, another, such as insolvency, increases and redresses the balance. Additionally, as noted, cases that are funded by insurance policies are still being referred to us.
As a pupil
In your first six months, your time will be spent shadowing your superviser; in your second six, you may well be starting your practice from the very first day, perhaps appearing in court for ‘smaller’ cases, such as small claims or road traffic accidents.
Types of law practised
- Everything other than some more specialist areas – admirality or tax, for example.
- An ability to instil confidence in a client immediately – the first day in court is usually the first time you will meet your client.
- A way of communicating in layman’s terms – being ethereal won’t win your client’s confidence.
- Being able to identify and understand the important facts – a lot of cases are fact-sensitive and ‘won on the facts’.
OLIVER ISAACS is a barrister at 3 PAPER BUILDINGS. Employment law constitutes the majority of his common law practice, with the remainder typically comprising of general commercial work. He read politics at Newcastle and was called to the Bar in 2000.