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My career story: "I returned to the Bar after 30 years in law firms"

Written by: The Lawyer
Published on: 26 Oct 2015

My Career Story.

Nicholas Fletcher QC spent more than 30 years in law firms before returning to the Bar. He talks about how he went about it.

Why did you decide to return to the bar? What has working in a law firm taught you?

I had spent more than 30 years as an associate and a partner in international law firms in London and New York where I acted as an adviser to and advocate for clients involved in international arbitration. Over that time I was privileged to appear before many of the world’s finest and most experienced arbitrators and learned a great deal from the way in which they presided over very complex cases.

I felt that I was at the stage in my life and career where I had something to contribute as an arbitrator and that was my motivation in returning to the bar. It freed me from the conflicts that are understandably part and parcel of being a partner in a major law firm and enabled me immediately to start taking on arbitral appointments.

My law firm experience means that I am able to understand the commercial considerations which drive businesses and the pressures on clients, their advisers and advocates. I also think it very important that arbitrators are responsive to the parties and are diligent in producing their awards and as a fresh face I hope to be able to achieve that.

How difficult was the transition process? Were there any complications?

The whole experience has been a pleasure. I am very fortunate to have joined a vibrant, forward-looking and very friendly set of chambers at 4 New Square. The Bar has changed a great deal since I left for New York in 1983.

I am sure that having been called to the Bar many years ago and having completed pupillage at that time, the mechanics were easier than they might otherwise have been, but my chambers, Lincoln’s Inn and the Bar Standards Board were all exceptionally helpful.

It did take a while to locate my pupillage records from 1983 but one of my pupil supervisors (now on the High Court bench) was kind enough to vouch for me.

What are the biggest differences between your new role and your last one?

Sitting as an arbitrator is obviously very different from approaching a case as an advocate. It still requires very careful preparation and attention to detail, as well as excellent organisational skills. I no longer have to juggle management responsibilities and client relationships while trying to lead a team taking evidence, working with experts, crafting submissions and preparing to conduct the advocacy at a hearing.

However, I do have to ensure that I manage my diary so that I am able to devote the necessary time to the arbitrations on which I have been appointed. An arbitrator who is too busy to offer the parties a hearing in a reasonable time frame is of no use to anyone. To a significant extent, my work starts when the advocates have finished their job. I then sit down with my co-arbitrators to deliberate and to draft the award. It is critical to ring-fence time in the diary to do that as quickly as possible after the hearing has finished.

What are the pros and cons of working at the bar compared with in private practice?

As someone who is now principally sitting as an arbitrator, my position is rather different from someone who moves from a position as a partner and advocate within a law firm to a conventional practice at the Bar, so it is a little difficult to draw a direct comparison.

The independence of life at the Bar is obviously a great attraction and the pressures of practice management are considerably lighter.

It would be easy to say that one could miss the team spirit that exists within the arbitration practices at the major law firms, but I think the truth is that in major cases barristers are now firmly part of the wider legal team handling a particular dispute and well integrated. As an arbitrator, one is obviously and rightly further removed, but there are many colleagues in a similar position and a good few who have made a similar journey.  

What would your practical advice be to someone considering making the same move as you?

Learn to type! As one of a generation of lawyers who grew up in practice dictating correspondence and submissions, I never learned to type properly and I am now paying the price.

More seriously, if you are seeking to develop a full time career as an arbitrator, a move to the Bar has much to recommend it. The independence, economics and freedom from conflicts are all significant advantages.

An ability to network is essential. If you are seeking to develop a career as an advocate in international arbitration, both the Bar and the major international arbitration practices within the international law firms offer excellent opportunities. The main question in that case is whether you want to combine your advocacy with the broader client and case management responsibilities that life in a law firm requires.