The Commercial Bar

In a nutshell

The Commercial Bar handles a variety of business disputes. Commercial cases are classically defined as those heard by the Commercial Court – a subsection of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court. But cases can also be heard in County Courts, by the Chancery Division or by the Technology and Construction Court (TCC).

The Commercial Bar deals with disputes in all manner of industries from construction, shipping and insurance to banking, entertainment and manufacturing. Almost all disputes are contract and/or tort claims, and the Commercial Bar remains rooted in common law. That said, domestic and European legislation is increasingly important and commercial barristers’ incomes now reflect the popularity of the English courts with overseas litigants. Cross-border issues including competition law, international public and trade law and conflicts of law are all growing in prominence.

Alternative methods of dispute resolution – usually arbitration or mediation – are also popular because of the increased likelihood of preserving commercial relationships that would otherwise be destroyed by the litigation process.

Realities of the job

  • Barristers steer solicitors and lay clients through the litigation process and advise on strategy, such as how clients can position themselves through witness statements, pleadings and pre-trial ‘interlocutory’ skirmishes.
  • Advocacy is key, but as much of it is paper-based, written skills are just as important as oral skills.
  • Commercial cases can be very fact-heavy and the evidence for a winning argument can be buried in a room full of papers. Barristers have to work closely with instructing solicitors to manage documentation.
  • Not all commercial pupils will take on their own caseload in the second six. At first, new juniors commonly handle small cases including common law matters like personal injury, employment cases, possession proceedings and winding-up or bankruptcy applications.
  • New juniors gain exposure to larger cases by assisting senior colleagues. As a ‘second junior’ they assist the ‘first junior’ and QC leading the case. They use this as an opportunity to pick up tips on cross-examining witnesses and how best to present arguments.
  • In time, a junior’s caseload increases in value and complexity. Most commercial barristers specialise by building up expertise on cases within a particular industry sector, eg shipping, insurance or entertainment.
  • Developing a practice means working long hours, often under pressure. Your service standards must be impeccable and your style user-friendly, no matter how late or disorganised the solicitor’s instruction.
  • In a good set you can make an exceedingly good living. At top commercial chambers a baby junior can earn £100,000.

Current issues

  • The Commercial Bar is booming with cases involving ever larger sums of money, ever greater levels of complexity and ever larger teams of lawyers.
  • If Brexit sees Britain exit the EU's single market it could threaten London's position as a global hub for commercial disputes; the Bar will have to work hard to continue to attract such clients. Brexit also offers opportunities as defaults caused by ratings downgrades, crashes in the swaps and currency markets, and existing contracts assuming the UK would remain in the EU could all lead to disputes.
  • With more claims being settled through mediation, only big, multi-issue cases tend to reach court, as there are so many other opportunities for dealing with smaller, less complex cases.

Some tips

  • Competition for pupillage at the Commercial Bar is fierce. A first-class degree is commonplace and you’ll need impressive references.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of non-legal work experience; commercial exposure will help you understand client perspective and motivations. Some pupils even come to the Commercial Bar after a traineeship at a City law firm.
  • Bear a set's specialities in mind when deciding where to do pupillage – shipping is very different to banking, for example.
  • Elsewhere on this website you can read more about Shipping and Construction at the Bar.