Karen Maxwell

Job title

Barrister

Stone Chambers is a leading set of commercial and shipping barristers, based in London and Singapore, specialising in international commercial litigation and arbitration.


You were one of the leading juniors at the Commercial Bar before you left to have a family. What has now made you want to come back and practise again?

I’ve always thought that I would like to return to practice should circumstances permit. For the last nine years I have been at Practical Law, for most of that time as the Head of Practical Law Arbitration. Although I’ve very much enjoyed building the arbitration service, it is true to say that I’ve missed the independence and the buzz of life at the Bar, which I’ve always felt is a fantastically creative and exciting

profession. Ultimately I think I’m somewhat constitutionally unsuited to large corporate culture, and now the children are older it seemed the right time to reconsider my options. The other factor for me is the opportunity to join such a fantastic set of chambers. I admire their vision and energy, and I’m excited by their growing presence in the international arbitration sphere. Importantly they are also a thoroughly nice group of people and I am looking forward to working with and alongside them, under the leadership of the new co-heads, Vasanti and Elizabeth.

During your time at Practical Law, you have remained engaged with a vast number of law firms. How has this assisted on your return to the Bar?

Working at Practical Law necessarily involved being very deeply immersed in the law and practice of arbitration. The aim is to produce resources, guidance and updates which closely meet the needs of law firms and in-house counsel. To do that, we read and analyse every case, legislative development, consultation and piece of news. I think I’d have to admit that my knowledge of arbitration law is actually better now – both deeper and broader – than it was when I was last in practice. I’ve had the opportunity to really drill down into the detail of some fascinating areas of law, particularly investment treaty arbitration, where the issues are complex and rapidly developing. That has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the job and one I will be able to build on as I move back into practice.

I think your question identifies a further important point – a significant part of my work at Practical Law involved talking to and engaging with arbitration and litigation lawyers, benefiting from their input as contributing authors, consulting experts, speakers at events or simply as subscribers to the arbitration service. I hope this has given me an insight into, and quite a nuanced feel for, the issues that dispute lawyers are grappling with on a day-to-day level.

More generally, I think I’ve got a better grasp now of the commercial pressures and budget constraints that law firms face. Perhaps I could sum it up by saying I have a better feel for what makes the other side of the profession tick than I ever did in my first stint as a practising barrister. I’ve also managed projects that have required me to work with limited resources and to tight deadlines – I think that sort of discipline should be helpful as I return to practice.

How important is it for members of the Bar to be involved in publications and what commercial advantages are there in doing so?

It depends on the publication. Clearly there is still a place for the traditional textbook (indeed, I’m the author of one myself), and articles can be an effective way of reaching an audience. But - and this is very much a personal view - I would say that engaging with the internet and being open-minded about newer channels of communication are increasingly important. For example, some of the most interesting and stimulating discussions about arbitration law actually take place through closed listservs such as OGEMID.

My experience is that barristers are generally very good at incisive, accurate and analytical writing, and leveraging that skill to raise their profiles surely makes commercial sense.

How have you seen the development of international arbitration over the last decade and what does it hold moving forwards?

On a macro level, the last ten years have, obviously, been a period of growth for arbitration generally – both commercial and investment treaty. As one would expect from recent economic trends, much of that growth has been centred on the Far East, with Singapore emerging as a particularly successful and significant seat. On a more micro level, I would probably highlight the growing trend for arbitrator challenges and the development of codes and principles governing ethics in arbitration – both fascinating and complex topics that are likely, I think, to continue to develop in the near future. Looking forward, I would identify the effect of funding as an area where we are likely to see growing debate.

The first ECJ decision on the effect of the recast Brussels Regulation on arbitration, expected this year, will also be worth looking out for.

What advice would you give to others considering a return to the Bar?

It’s a very personal decision. I suppose I’d advise someone to start with an open mind and really think hard about what they value in their work. Practising at the Bar certainly isn’t a pre-requisite to developing an arbitration advocacy practice, for example.

What is the best advice given to you in your career to date?

It is hard to identify a single instance, as I was saved from myself so many times in the early days by kindly Silks and senior juniors. I do remember being told to hold my hands behind my back as a way of combating nerves in court... it does make it hard to turn the bundle pages, though.

Karen Maxwell was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Mathew Kesbey of Hewetson Shah LLP

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