Life at the bar: Outside the chambers bubble

Lawyer 2B’s tame barrister explains the intricacies of practice. This issue: going on secondment is a great opportunity for a young barrister, but there are pitfalls for the unwary…

Counterintuitive as it may seem, a great many junior tenants seem to duck out of chambers almost as soon as they have arrived.

Is it because they’re all so traumatised by pupillage that they have run away to Boracay to open a beer hut on the beach? Nope. Instead, it’s usually down to them (or their clerks) having nabbed a secondment.

Like any instruction, these will vary hugely in terms of the type of work you are asked to do, the time you need to commit, and the flexibility offered to be able to accommodate your other chambers work. For example, undertaking in-house advisory work for a financial institution is likely to require more legal knowledge and client contact than a simple disclosure exercise. But they can be a great way to expand your experience and your contacts, and to add value to your practice – as long as you handle with care.

The benefits 

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of doing a secondment is the opportunity they offer to make really solid relationships with your professional and/or lay client. At the junior bar, it isn’t uncommon for the only face-to-face contact you have with your solicitor to take place in court, at trial.

Of course, your professional relationship will, in all likelihood, be built on far more than that – and, for many barristers, it doesn’t take long for repeat instructions to come in despite the relative lack of airtime. But you simply don’t get the chance to speak to your clients day after day, over a prolonged period of time. A secondment gives you the chance to forge a more lasting – or at least more insightful – relationship with your lay client, by putting you in each others’ space every day.

That physical transition also helps you get to know the company you are seconded to. As a self-employed professional, it is easy to forget about the internal structures and processes that shape corporate entities. Being on the other side of the fence, even for a brief moment, will help you understand what your client needs and what its real priorities are; a level of understanding that will help you on other cases, too.

And it isn’t just your clients who you’ll get to know. If you are on a big project which requires a fair few barristers, you can find yourself working in teams with your contemporaries – which is great fun if you, like me, knew relatively few people at the bar to begin with. The profession can at times be a relatively solitary one, and being able to share war stories with one another can be a relief, a comfort, or just downright amusing.

Take, for example, a story I heard on secondment about a junior barrister who had been out drinking on a school night, and arrived at court the next morning smelling so strongly of beer that his own client asked him to freshen up and maybe find a breath mint before going before the judge. Ouch.

And finally, the most basic upside of doing a secondment is pretty straightforward – most offer regular hours and pay. Obviously, the sort of people seeking these features from a job are perhaps less likely to come to the bar. But nevertheless, they can be appealing when you’re starting out. The transition from pupil to tenant can be a tricky one financially (depending on how your pupillage award is paid and how money-savvy you are), so some form of guaranteed income can help to bridge the gap.

Potential pitfalls

The biggest drawback of a secondment is that it eats into your potential court time. The first few years of practice are a great for getting as much court experience under your belt as possible, to avoid finding yourself at five years’ call only having done a handful of trials. It’s also the time to nurture relationships and build your client base. That is harder to do if you are spending part (or all) of your week sat in a corporate office somewhere.

The best solution is to opt for a secondment that still allows you a couple of days a week free for court work. If that isn’t possible, try to keep it short. It’s always better to do any secondment, but particularly a full-time commitment, sooner rather than later; if you have already spent time and energy building your practice, you might feel you have a lot more to lose.

And it isn’t just your instructions that you need to keep an eye on; being out of chambers means you will have less contact with your clerks and are likely to be one step behind any chambers news. Try to go in at least once a week, if only to show your face and keep on top of your paperwork. Cheques, post, accounts, chambers bills that need paying and so on are easy to overlook when they aren’t right under your nose.

Similarly, it is wise to be around to keep an eye out for any interesting cases or potential devilling work, and to attend chambers marketing events.

Personally, the most striking difference to me was the physical one. When you are in chambers, you tend to do an awful lot of running around – between courts, conferences, the inn libraries, the clerks room and so on – without even realising it. When you switch from that lifestyle to one that involves sitting in the same chair for ten hours a day, it’s easy to feel restless. Again, if you are only seconded for a few days each week, then spending the rest of the time doing chambers work will probably be enough to calm the fidget in you.

For those on a full-time project, it can be trickier – I have seen a few barristers in that position literally pacing the corridors like caged animals – but (weird lifestyle tip alert) going to the gym or to yoga a few days a week can be a good way to combat any feelings of inertia.

Overall, there is, of course, a balancing act to be done. Secondments offer great opportunities to get to know your contemporaries both at the bar and in the commercial world, and a bit of stability for those starting out. Granted, those who are drawn to the self-employed bar are likely to be those who enjoy the perhaps less predictable nature of that work. But secondments can still amount to a serious investment in your practice, in helping you better understand the business worlds inhabited by your various clients. Just don’t forget to keep up with your clerks and your court work in the meantime. 

Read all of Rachel Tandy’s blogs for Lawyer 2B.