Jumping in at the deep end

Sandra Healy weighs up the pros and cons of junior barristers attending international law conferences.

In October 2010, 45 English barristers attended the International Bar Association (IBA) Annual Conference in Vancouver. I was the most junior member of the delegation, which consisted of a mix of criminal, family, general civil and commercial practitioners.

Prior to applying for funding I had received several e-mails about the Bar Council’s International CPD and legal practice development grant programme which (in conjunction with the SBAs) provides funding to barristers under seven years’ Call to attend international conferences. Initially I thought the application process would be time consuming and wondered how useful the various conferences would be for a junior barrister, but when I took a closer look at the application process I was pleasantly surprised. It transpired I was only six questions and a draft budget away from obtaining funding to attend a number of well established conferences in a variety of attractive locations around the world. Better still, the IBA Annual Conference had such a comprehensive programme that it would be possible to spend the week attending seminars dedicated to my core practice areas (including commercial dispute resolution, shipping and insurance), and meeting lawyers from around the world working in these areas.

So with two-thirds of my conference fees, travel, accommodation and basic spending on travel and food covered thanks to the Bar Council and the Commercial Bar Association (“COMBAR”) I set off for Vancouver. At that stage I had not really thought about how best to deal with the fact that I was heading to one of the biggest international gatherings of lawyers in the world (over 4,500 lawyers attended), and I did not really know anyone else that was going.

The IBA Annual Conference

The IBA is divided into various committees and sections. Throughout the Conference each section hosted a number of working sessions (which generally involved four to six speakers speaking about particular legal developments within their jurisdiction), lunches and excursions. I decided to focus my efforts on the maritime and transport, financial services (this included insurance) and arbitration sections. They provided more than enough work and social events to keep each day busy.

I found the sessions “Arbitration and Insolvency”, “Third parties in arbitration: what are the limits” and “The Rotterdam Rules – a new regime for liability for carriage of goods” particularly informative, not only because they concerned issues that I have come across in my own practice, but because, given the international flavour of the subject matter, developments in other countries are relevant to the development of English law in these areas.

Working the room

As one would expect at a conference of this scale there were a number of occasions when I walked into a social function, realised I did not know anyone and then faced the agonising decision as to whether to loiter around the edges and look busy on my Blackberry or head to the bar, get myself a drink (to make what was coming next easier) and dive right in, picking the first unsuspecting soul that did not appear engrossed in conversation with someone else. I decided at the start of the Conference that if I was going to make the most of the opportunity it was going to have to be the latter of these options and in fact I found the other attendees to be welcoming, interested in my practice and full of tips about how to get to know other people there.

The benefits

As a result of attending the Conference, I have started work on a lasting network of international contacts and I have developed new associates on home soil. The benefit of developing my network of London based solicitors speaks for itself. As for the international network, I receive an increasing number of instructions from the international offices of London based firms and English qualified solicitors working in foreign firms.

I realise now that I need not have had any doubts about the value of attending such a Conference. Not only was the Bar Council’s scheme incredibly straightforward in terms of the application process, I found the lecture content to be relevant and pitched at the right level, there were plenty of valuable marketing opportunities and the Bar Council and fellow members of COMBAR could not have been more helpful and supportive during the Conference

Sandra Healy, barrister, Stone Chambers


Financial help

A number of specialist bar associations (COMBAR, TECBAR, the Bar European Group, LCLCBA and the CBA to date) have joined forces with the Bar Council’s International Committee and the Bar Council Scholarships Trust to offer their junior members (seven years’ Call or less) financial assistance to participate in international legal events.

In 2009, the programme’s first year, two individuals took part. One spoke at an IBA Conference in the Middle East and the other took part in a Bar Council business development visit. In 2010, 11 juniors were awarded grants, and have participated in conferences, seminars and internships in Greece, Portugal, Vancouver, the USA, the United Arab Emirates and France. The International Committee, with the generous support of the Trust and various SBAs, will continue this programme in 2011. The programme is advertised through the participating SBAs networks and the Bar Council website etc. For more information contact Sarah Richardson, International Projects Officer. E-mail: SRichardson@BarCouncil.org.uk.

Making an international connection

For those who are interested, but uncertain as to how they might make the most of their time at an international law conference, read on.
Get talking: It is curiously easy to spot other lawyers outside of the office. I suspect that some of the most lasting contacts that I made at the Conference were through chance meetings before it had even kicked off. I got chatting to one London solicitor while on the flight en route to Vancouver (his highlighter and sticky tabs gave him away) and another at the bike hire shop (who was reading the terms and conditions of hire very closely). On both occasions I took a chance by asking if they were attending the Conference and this led to an exchange of contact details and my first cocktail party invites of the week.

Meaningful business card exchange: Tempting as it is to go for the smash and grab approach, it became obvious to me that if I wanted people to remember who I was, it was going to require a little more effort. I discovered that actually looking at the business card that the other person handed to me was quite a useful way of developing further conversation as it occasionally reminded me of someone I knew at the firm or a case where they had been involved in some fashion and if all else failed there was always the location of the office to discuss.

Ask questions: Each day there were working sessions in the morning and afternoon. There was always plenty of time for question and answer sessions and the atmosphere was always quite relaxed. It quickly became apparent that it was not necessary to have a killer question that went right to heart of the talk in order to contribute. General observations and suggestions for further topics of discussion were welcomed. On a few occasions I drew a comparison between developments in other jurisdictions and recent developments in English law. This had a big impact on the number of people that I got talking to after the lecture.

Gatecrash: I was instructed by the Young Lawyers’ Committee to attend as many of the cocktail parties as possible, whether I was invited or not! They explained that this was standard modus operandi – unless you have been to the Conference before the party hosts will not have your contact details and the only way to ensure you are on the invite list for the following year is to attend and leave your business card behind.

Keep going back: I am told that in order to maximise the benefit of attending international law conferences it is necessary to keep going back. I expect I will heed this advice as I have found these conferences provide a unique opportunity to learn about relevant legal developments whilst at the same time sharing your own experiences and raising your professional profile within your practice areas.

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