In a nutshell
English common law derives from the precedents set by judicial decisions rather than the contents of statutes. Most common law cases turn on principles of tort and contract and are dealt with in the Queen’s Bench Division (QBD) of the High Court and the County Courts. At the edges, common law practice blurs into both Chancery and commercial practice, yet the work undertaken in common law sets is broader still, and one of the most appealing things about a career at one of these sets is the variety of instructions available.
Employment and personal injury are the bread and butter at the junior end, and such matters are interspersed with licensing, clinical negligence, landlord and tenant issues, the winding-up of companies and bankruptcy applications, as well as small commercial and contractual disputes. Some sets will even extend their remit to inquests and criminal cases.
Realities of the job
- Traditionally common law juniors had a broad practice, but specialisation is increasingly common, especially once you're over five years' call.
- Advocacy is plentiful. Juniors can expect to be in court three days a week and second-six pupils often have their own cases. Masters’ and district judges’ appointments lead to lower-value fast-track personal injury trials then longer, higher-value, multi-track trials and Employment Tribunals.
- Outside court, the job involves research, an assessment of the merits of a case and meetings with solicitors and lay clients. The barrister will also be asked to draft statements of claim, defences and opinions.
- Dealing with the volume and variety of cases requires a good grasp of the law and the procedural rules of the court, as well as an easy facility for assimilating the facts of each case. Interpersonal skills are important. A client who has never been to court before will be very nervous and needs to be put at ease.
- At the junior end work comes in at short notice, so you need to be able to quickly digest a file of documents.
- Acting as a junior on more complex cases allows a young barrister to observe senior lawyers in court.
- The trend for mediation and arbitration of disputes and for solicitors to undertake more advocacy themselves, has reduced the amount of court work somewhat. Barristers remain involved with alternative dispute resolution, however, and while solicitor advocates frequently take on directions hearings, they are still rarely seen at trial.
- Personal injury practitioners got a boost from a change to the discount rate in March 2017. The rate was reduced from 2.5% to -0.75% which will very likely see compensation pay-outs rise by quite some margin, much to the consternation of insurers. However, further changes are now being considered in the Civil Liability Bill, following governmental concerns that injured persons are receiving larger awards than necessary. It is anticipated that the new rate will be set between 0 and 1%, reducing compensation for future losses.
- Personal injury and clin neg are not supported by legal aid. Conditional fee agreements (aka 'no-win no-fee') and third-party funding of cases are now key to helping to sustain barristers' work volume.
- Further changes as part of the Jackson reforms may be on the horizon: in a report published in July 2017 Lord Jackson recommended the introduction of fixed recoverable costs for claims of up to £100,000 on top of the fixed costs imposed on claims of up to £25,000.
- Though there are a lot of common law sets, pupillages and tenancies don’t grow on trees. Personality and oral advocacy are the skills that matter most.
- If you want to specialise, be aware that some sets want juniors to retain a broad practice several years into tenancy, while others will let you carve out a niche.