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.
  • 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

October 2022

  • The Covid-19 crisis has created major disruptions to court proceedings, with many hearings taking place remotely during the crisis. On the other hand, the pandemic has potentially offered opportunities: defaults caused by the commercial havoc ensuing from the pandemic and subsequent global lockdown. In July 2021, the UK government lifted the majority of Covid-19 restrictions, meaning the courts and tribunals are returning to normal practice and are continuing with in-person hearings and trials. However, remote hearings in conjunction with in-person hearings still continue.
  • While Brexit potentially threatens London’s position as a global hub, ratings downgrades, crashes in the swaps and currency markets, and outdated contracts based on the UK being in the EU could all lead to disputes, leading to work for those in the Commercial Bar.
  • The Commercial Bar (like others) has historically been male-dominated. In recognition of this, One Essex Court launched an annual women’s mentoring scheme. Around 25 women who have the potential to join the Commercial Bar receive individual mentoring and can attend seminar days over the course of a year. Read our review of pupillage at One Essex Court to find out more about the set.
  • The English Commercial Bar is booming with cases involving ever larger sums of money, ever greater levels of complexity and ever larger teams of lawyers. It’s one of the premier locations for internal business disputes. A report compiled by Portland Litigation Consulting found that 258 cases were heard in the London Commercial Courts between 2018 and 2019, representing a 63% increase on the previous year. Portland’s Commercial Courts Report from 2022, however, has revealed that 234 cases took place in the London Commercial Courts between April 2021 and March 2022, a drop from the 292 that took place the year before. Portland predicts that this drop is likely due to the consequences of Brexit, Covid-19 and fierce international competition. It is also unclear whether this drop is temporary, or whether we should expect further decreasing numbers in the future.
  • However, we should anticipate a shift in the top users of London’s commercial courts. Portland’s Report also showed that Russia and Ukraine were among the top 10 users of these courts. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February – the report only covers data up until March 2022 – next year’s statistics should be very different.

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.