Making the exchange
September 27, 2019
This article was originally published in September 2019 edition of The Legal 500 fivehundred magazine – Issue 09.
My route into law started with a training contract in 1994. Before then, I did a postgraduate degree and taught at a university for a few years. I decided to go into practice because academia wasn’t as interesting or rewarding as I thought it would be and even then, the system seemed to be offering students less and less and charging them more and more.
I decided to qualify as a solicitor for a few reasons. One of them was definitely money. I was a bit older than most trainees and I had more commitments. I wanted the security of a job with a monthly salary. Things are much better at the Bar now for new entrants and I wouldn’t want anyone reading this to be discouraged by the way things were 25 years ago. The other reason was that I was initially attracted by the idea of doing transactional corporate and restructuring work and didn’t see myself as a litigator.
I spent the first half of my career at what is now DLA Piper in the restructuring team. There was a mixed caseload of contentious and non-contentious work and I found litigation more enjoyable than the transactional work. I spent the last few years as a partner at a large firm doing contentious fraud insolvency work for HMRC and insolvency practitioners. I enjoyed the fee earning work and dealing with clients, but realised that I didn’t enjoy the “running the business” side of partnership, and I wasn’t particularly good at it either.
I decided to make the change to the Bar to allow me to spend more time doing what I enjoy and to get away from financial management and supervising a team. I had been thinking about it for a few years before I made the move in 2014, and that’s the only regret I have – I should have done it earlier.
Transferring to the Bar
Transferring to the Bar was surprisingly easy. If you have higher rights, which I did, you’ll normally be excused pupillage and have to do 6 qualifying sessions, which you can complete after you’ve been called. You can be called to the Bar without it affecting your status as a solicitor – you don’t have to resign from your firm or give up your practising certificate.
When I made my move, I was looking for a barristers’ chambers which had experience of solicitors transferring to the Bar. I already knew the clerks and many of the members of the commercial team at Exchange because I had been instructing them for years as a solicitor. I knew that other former solicitors had moved there and built very successful practices.
The other members and the chambers management were incredibly supportive to me when I joined. I wasn’t required to do pupillage but chambers arranged for me to spend some time following some of the more senior members around. It was really useful to me and reassured me that I had made the right decision.
Building a practice
Some of my initial practice at the Bar came from former colleagues. I was also lucky enough to have some former clients steer work to me from solicitors I didn’t know well. The clerking and management team at Exchange Chambers have superb contacts and have been able to put me forward for work which suits me.
During my time at Exchange, I’ve experienced the huge differences between partnership in a large firm and practice at the Bar. The Bar offers a combination of more flexibility and freedom at the price of far less certainty about what you’ll be doing at any given time. There’s a greater variety of work at the Bar. You don’t have the opportunity to work closely with the same people all the time, and you don’t have a team of solicitors to whom you can delegate work.
To anyone thinking about transferring, the first thing I’d recommend is getting hold of some books on advocacy and cross-examination techniques.
If you spend some time understanding techniques for preparation and appearing in court, you’ll probably overcome some of your fears and at the same time understand whether it’s the sort of work you’ll enjoy.
The other thing to do is to ask yourself what you enjoy most about being a lawyer. If it’s the client contact, working in or managing a large team and (if you’re fairly senior) having a fair degree of control over what you’re doing and when, then the Bar might not be right for you. If it’s doing the law, and if you enjoy the challenge of taking on something complicated at short notice and making it make sense, you’ll love the Bar.
Steven Fennell specialises in commercial, financial and insolvency litigation and professional negligence and regulatory matters for the legal and accountancy professions. He qualified as a solicitor in 1996, as an insolvency practitioner in 1999, and a solicitor advocate in 2013, before transferring to the Bar in 2014. He became a CEDR-accredited mediator in 2012.