The Big Interview: Helen Davies QC

We sit down with top commercial silk Helen Davies QC of Brick Court Chambers to talk about her career, being a women in the profession and when and whether you should specialise.

Helen DaviesHelen Davies decided not to go to her pupillage interview at Brick Court. She'd never get in, so what was the point? She'd only got this far by luck, she thought. At school, she'd set her mind on medicine, but a history teacher noticed that Davies was good at arguing (“it wasn't a compliment”), and suggested she become a lawyer. Needing to work to put herself through university (Cambridge), she found that vac schemes were a good way to earn money. Spending time at big law firms, “I quickly realised I wasn't a corporate lawyer, although I quite liked litigation. And then I realised that the Bar option, although riskier, was the best course for me to take.” She scooped up a scholarship from Inner Temple and with “no legal connections whatsoever” bagged an interview at Brick Court. And that's when she decided not to go. That is, until a friend convinced her at the last minute to give it a try. “By then I'd written it off completely, but I think that gave me a strange sort of confidence. Turns out I completely blew them away. It just goes to show you should never underestimate yourself.”

“No barrister will tell you that they really enjoyed their pupillage!”

Needless to say, Davies got in. What are her memories of being a pupil? “No barrister will tell you that they really enjoyed their pupillage!” she jokes. “I was very quiet all the time, just listening, watching, and learning. I wish I hadn't been, and I wish someone had told me what I now always say to pupils here: it's a learning experience; no one is expecting you to be a fully-fledged barrister from the start, so try new things, make mistakes, work out why you made them, and improve.” Davies points out that these days feedback is much more openly doled out by supervisors, whereas when she was a pupil “some were good, but others never gave feedback.”

Still, she must have made a pretty good impression and acted on the feedback she did receive, because “suddenly, there I was, aged 22, a tenant at Brick Court, advising the CEOs of some of the biggest companies in the country. I wasn't predestined to end up here. I feel really lucky that I fell into it, because I love doing it now.”  

It was pretty much sink or swim for Davies as a very junior tenant, especially the time she was left alone to deal with the worldwide CEO of one of the world's largest corporations. “I was doing this fantastic case all about washing powder,” she recalls. “A certain company had put out a new washing powder containing an enzyme which my client, another major washing powder manufacturer, were convinced actually rotted cotton. For the first time in its history, our client wanted to run a negative advertising campaign. They were concerned for obvious reasons that they'd find themselves sued for malicious falsehood, so they had a team of lawyers lined up to advise them. I was the most junior member of the team, with Christopher Clarke [now an Appeal Court judge] as the senior member and Andrew Caldecott [now London's top defamation barrister] in the middle. Most of the time I was the junior in the corner feeding others information, but I remember one occasion when neither Christopher nor Andrew was available, and the CEO – who was based in the US – was demanding to talk to a barrister, and I had to get on the phone to him. I'd been in practice for less than six months, so I was grateful that he couldn't see me: I didn't want him to realise how young I was!”

Davies' early cases weren't all demanding big-time CEOs and high-profile advices. She too did her time “traipsing around the County Courts – I always ended up getting sent to Grimsby for some reason.” However, she quickly found herself “arguing cases in the High Court in front of Commercial Court judges.” But Davies realised she was still a very young gun and a year into practice she decided she needed more life experience. She obtained a Pegasus scholarship from Inner Temple and did an internship with the European Commission in Brussels.

Within Brick Court's varied expertise in commercial, public and EU law, Davies felt it was important to maintain as much variety as possible in her practice. From there on overlaps between practices bred transferrable skills for Davies and vice versa. “In 1991 – before the Competition Act was even conceived – I received some valuable advice: 'If you want to be a top competition lawyer in the future you will need to be an active litigator and know the White Book backwards.' By building up my experience on commercial trials, I was ready to start working on cases right away when the Competition Act came in in 1998: clients wanted people who knew how trials ran and could deal with witnesses. The skills I gained working on commercial cases helped me immensely when I ended up also doing competition work.”

“Be very careful about over-specialising at an early age.”

Davies emphasises the importance of keeping your practice as wide as possible, in order to navigate periods of unexpected change: “The breadth of my practice has allowed me to navigate changes in the legal landscape more easily. For example when I started out, the bread and butter of the Commercial Bar was insurance and reinsurance. I worked on Henderson v Merrett [a landmark House of Lords case in which investors sued their underwriters after unprecedented losses caused by hurricanes in the US]. But when that type of work subsided I was able to move into the growing area of EU competition law, as well as continuing to do other commercial work. So I would advise young people coming to the Bar: be very careful about over-specialising at an early age. You could find yourself focused on a single field which suddenly, because of economic circumstances, provides less work. If you don't have a broad practice, it is then hard to reinvent yourself.”

What skills does Davies think commercial barristers need compared to those working in other areas of the Bar? “Thoroughness, intellectual flexibility, and the ability to explain extremely complex concepts or evidence in simple terms,” she says. “In an area like crime you may need to explain the workings of a complex drug cartel or conspiracy to the jury, but you don't have the problems we do: some of our expert reports are full of econometrics and mathematical formulas – being able to render that comprehensible is a core skill.”

Davies is well aware that the Commercial Bar differs from other areas in another way too: the wide pay-gap separating her from colleagues at the publicly-funded Bar. Brick Court has an annual turnover north of £60 million, meaning its 85 members rake in average earnings of £750,000. And even a baby junior at the Commercial Bar can have earnings of over £100,000 in the first year of practice, while a criminal or legal aid barrister at the same level might struggle to break £20,000. Davies comments: “We are extremely lucky. I feel so fortunate not only to have found a job I love doing, but one that also does not have those pressures of pay on it.”  

The Commercial Bar's esoteric legal concepts and mathematical formulas may not be for everyone, but Davies does work in one area which has broad-based appeal: media law. “Those are the cases my teenage son shows an interest in!” she jokes, referring to the PayTV dispute in which she acted for the Premier League. “He liked it when I told him I was in a meeting and Harry Kane's boots were on the wall! It's not just my son though – media law work is just more understandable to the outside world. If I try explaining to someone that I'm doing a case for BP about a leak in a pipeline on an oil platform in the North Sea, I can just see their eyes starting to glaze over!” 

Some commercial cases do have the same human-interest appeal as media cases. We asked Davies what she learnt from her driving involvement in the massive Berezovsky v Abramovich case, and what the hardest moments were during the gruelling trial. “What it reinforced is the fact that you never know what's going to happen next. And that trial, more than any other I’ve ever done, was one where almost every day something unexpected happened. I'd literally go to court each day wondering, 'right, what's going to happen today?' The characters were so strong on both sides, and there were quite a lot of witnesses being called, particularly by Mr Berezovsky, who were also very strong characters, and who just said things no one could ever have imagined they would say. It was hard work, and we got through the case at great pace. The bundles would arrive ridiculously late each evening, and I worked seven days a week. What did I learn? Just never give up.”

“When I applied for silk I heard some people around me saying 'well you'll get it because you're a woman'.”

Davies worked on Berezovsky v Abramovich alongside Jonathan Sumption, who was head of Brick Court before becoming a Supreme Court judge. Sumption was at the centre of a media drizzle recently for his comments, deemed sexist and defeatist by some, that it would take 50 years to redress the gender balance across the legal profession. Patience, rather than quotas were required. When we ask for Davies' views on the subject, she pauses and picks her words carefully, but we have every sense that she is not courting diplomacy but being wholly sincere: “The first thing I shall say, having worked so closely with Jonathan and him having been such a great supporter of me and my career, is that I am absolutely convinced that there isn't a discriminatory thought in him.”

The conversation then shifts to Davies' own views: “His comments were driven by his belief in meritocracy which I also strongly believe in. I don't believe in quotas, because they run the very serious risk of undermining confidence in the appointment process. One of the worst things I remember experiencing was that when I applied for silk I heard some people around me saying 'well you'll get it because you're a woman'. I didn't want it because I’m a woman, I wanted it because I met the standard. If you introduce quotas you'll find similar things being said of women regardless of how justified their appointment is on merit.”

Davies specifies she hasn't talked to Sumption about his recent comments, but they've had this conversation before. Still, she admits she disagrees with his 50-year estimate for achieving parity, believing the process can gain traction through mentoring, and by recruiting more broadly for the bench, for instance by promoting people internally within the judiciary. “Ultimately,” Davies asserts, “our system of democracy depends on having a proper rule of law and having confidence in our judiciary, and I would therefore be troubled by anything that could undermine that.” 

Davies' outlook for gender equality and diversity at the Bar is optimistic. “Maybe there are a few Luddites around, but nearly everyone agrees with the concept that we need a legal profession that is more representative of society as a whole.” When Davies was appointed joint head of Brick Court in 2013, she was quoted in a press release as saying: 'I firmly believe that if there ever was a glass ceiling at the Commercial Bar, it no longer exists.' We wondered if she felt that applied to women coming into the profession now, or whether it was simply a reflection on her own success? “The latter,” she says, “which means the former is also true. In 25 years of practice I have never been treated differently by anyone at my set because I am female.”

After a little more thought Davies does come up with a tragicomic anecdote, from outside the Bar: “When I was a pupil I was working on a European merger case, and I flew to Brussels with my supervisor Nick Green, now Mr Justice Green. We were sitting at the front in business class, which was a new experience for me so I was standing there taking it all in, and because I was dressed in a smart black suit lots of businessmen kept coming up to me to give me their coat. I just said: 'you'll have to go and talk to a flight attendant'.” This rouses another memory, of a well-known sexist judge (our words, Davies opts for “a judge known for not being particularly keen on women”) who Davies appeared in front of up against another female advocate. “He just didn't know what to do!”

There is no doubt in Davies' mind that the Bar is a family-friendly profession. The press release announcing her appointment as joint head of Brick Court proudly heralded her legal achievements alongside the fact she's a mother. She reveals this was included to counteract Baroness Hale's damning comments about the profession's incompatibility with parenthood. Davies says young women flock to her at student events asking whether it's possible to do both, and it riles her. “I hope a time will come when people stop asking that question. But while the misconception is still out there, it's important to share my experience.”

“The flexibility means I've managed to combine all my varied work with being a hands-on parent and being very involved in my kids' lives.” 

The issue of remuneration comes into play here too: Davies was only able to do what she did thanks to being able to afford childcare. “It's not so straightforward in other areas of the Bar. But the problem I have with many of these statements [like Hale's] is they're so broad that they're counterproductive, and they have the potential to deter young women from entering the Bar.”

Davies believes the Bar can be a great profession for parents of young children. “The flexibility means I've managed to combine all my varied work with being a hands-on parent and being very involved in my kids' lives.” For example, she took a six-month sabbatical after the oligarchs case, and spent time travelling with her children.

Davies speaks of luck a lot. She says she was lucky to have fallen into the profession, she was lucky to land a pupillage, she was lucky to end up in an area of the Bar with great earning potential. But we get the feeling that grit, passion and talent had a lot more to do with it.



This feature was first published in September 2016.