International trade encompasses every aspect of getting things from A to B across the world. Disputes could concern bananas, coffee, grain, cocoa, oil, jewellery, livestock, concrete or works of art: in short, anything that can be bought or sold.
An international trade law barrister's work
London remains the centre of the legal world for resolution of trade disputes even when the transaction has no other English connection. Carriage of cocoa from Brazil to China may lead to disputes about the quality of the cocoa, who owns it at what stage, who finances it, who pays for delays and whether any of these are covered by insurance. A single set of papers may throw up multiple disputes involving buyers, sellers, bankers, insurers, shipowners and charterers, all to be determined by different courts or arbitral tribunals and often raising interesting questions of conflicts of law.
There is a great variety of work and you may, for example, find yourself working on a massive, multi-million dollar commercial court case that takes years to resolve whilst being instructed on a series of smaller disputes lasting anything from a few hours to a few weeks. Junior tenants divide their time between assisting silks and senior juniors on large cases and ‘diving in at the deep end’ as sole counsel on cases involving smaller sums of money but that may nevertheless turn upon difficult points of law or evidential conflicts.
Contract law is key but cases also involve tort, equity and aspects of foreign laws. On the factual side, you may find yourself gaining expertise in areas as diverse as futures and hedging (protecting against loss by making balancing or compensating contracts or transactions), cocoa production or metallurgy. There are opportunities to travel abroad to meet clients and take witness statements. Clients are often very bright, multilingual polymaths who have an understanding of some of the legal issues and take them into account as part of a trading strategy. Clever, innovative clients, all trying to beat the market, result in a steady stream of cases involving novel points of law. You may also help with structuring transactions to try to avoid disputes.
Is international trade law recession-proof?
Practising as a barrister in international trade is remarkably recession-proof, even when there is a global economic downturn. If one party in a string of contracts gets into financial difficulties the other parties are quick to resort to litigation or arbitration to protect their own interests, for example to obtain a freezing injunction or stop goods in transit.
What skills do international trade barristers need?
- Strong academic and analytical skills.
- A commercial approach.
- The ability to sift through large quantities of information for relevant material.
- Advocacy, both oral and written.
- Teamwork, including working with professionals from other disciplines.
International trade law pupillages
Pupils are likely to work from about 9.00 am to 6.00 pm but may stay later if asked to assist in a complex trial or arbitration, eg preparing chronologies or schedules and marshalling evidence for closing speeches. They will have a chance to accompany pupil supervisors and others in chambers to hearings but will not generally be instructed as an advocate in their own right until the very end of pupillage. Most of a pupil’s time will be spent drafting opinions and pleadings.
Types of law practised
- Aspects of foreign law.
SIOBÁN HEALY QC graduated in law from Brasenose College, Oxford. She qualified as a solicitor and worked in international trade at Richards Butler (as it was then known) before switching to the Bar in 1993 and becoming a tenant at 7 KING'S BENCH WALK. She took silk in 2010.