You are the first junior barrister we’ve interviewed for these Profiles. Your path to the Bar is unusual for your level of call. Before joining Quadrant Chambers you worked for the litigation team at Shell International Ltd and were judicial assistant to Sir Terence Etherton at the Court of Appeal. How has this experience helped you in forging a career at the Bar?
Those were two unique, but equally excellent experiences. When I started at Shell, I was fresh out of completing the BCL, and probably had what more experienced members of the Bar would describe as an ‘academic’ approach to law. What, however, became apparent to me very quickly at Shell was the limited interest that people in the commercial world have in the law or legal analysis. Generally speaking, all they want to know is whether they can or cannot do a particular thing in a particular situation, or whether they will win or lose a particular case in court. Of course, as extremely high functioning operators, they also want to understand why they can or cannot do something, or why they will win or lose, but in this respect, short and simple wins the day. Intricate or complex legal analysis (or as one senior barrister once described it, ‘your working out’), no matter how interesting to lawyers, is frankly more likely to annoy them than to be considered useful. I suspect most people learn this with experience at the Bar in any event, but I think my time at Shell certainly sped up the process.
Of the many things I learned being a judicial assistant at the Court of Appeal, perhaps the most relevant to my development as a barrister was getting an understanding of what judges find persuasive in, and helpful from, advocates. I was fortunate to see some great advocates, and some less great ones during my time there, and after each hearing, I had the opportunity to hear various judges’ views on what they found persuasive or particularly unimpressive. Often I would find that an advocate I had originally thought to be persuasive during the course of submissions, was in fact considered by the respective judges to fall in to the ‘less great’ category, or vice versa.
What attributes do you feel a barrister needs to have to be successful in today’s market?
As a junior, I cannot answer this with much authority, but two particular attributes come to mind. One is the all-encompassing ‘excellent soft skills’, and the other is clarity of thought. Both attributes respectively address the two different drivers to success at the Bar which do not always overlap: (i) the ability to do the job; and (ii) marketability. In every generation, there will be a few genuine stars in their respective practice areas – people who are, or are at least perceived to be, incredible lawyers both intellectually and as advocates. Those people will always be marketable without client care skills, but those people really are limited in number. For everybody else, I think that clients now expect such a high level of competence across the board, that they now instead place a premium on their ability to work well with their barrister, with whom they may have to work with for a lengthy period of time. It is in this respect that I think excellent soft skills are extremely important for success at the Bar.
Clarity of thought goes to the ability to do the job to the required standard. The best advocates (oral and written) have the ability to deconstruct matters to simple logical steps in their own mind. Issues become easier to spot and arguments become clearer to formulate and communicate.
How has your first year in tenancy been for you?
Tenancy has actually been really good fun so far. I keep saying that I have not hated a single day…yet. While I appreciate it is unrealistic to expect that to continue forever, so far so good. The workload has been pretty relentless – which is certainly not a complaint; a few unscheduled quiet days quickly teaches one not to complain about being busy – but one of the great challenges of the year has been trying to understand better how to strike the right balance between work and life. I think I’m finally getting a hang of it.
What is the best advice you’ve been given and what advice would you give to other up and coming junior barristers?
You get an abundance of advice when you start out – mostly good, some generic, and some just plain curious. I think the best one I have received and would in turn give to other junior barristers is to make sure that you never lose an arrogance about yourself. You will have hard days when you don’t do things to quite the standard that you would otherwise want to, or where you feel that you have been unfairly beaten up by a judge, a leader or a client. Those days are inevitable and will happen to all barristers, but the one thing you must never do is to question your inherent ability to do the job because of those days. You put it down to having a bad day, learn whatever lessons there are to be learnt, and forget about it.
How do like to spend time away from chambers?
Not doing anything fulfilling or self-improving, I’m afraid. Despite a distinct inability to play any instruments, I have a keen interest in music and whenever I get a chance, I look for interesting gigs to go to. I keep threatening to train to become a jazz pianist. Apparently it is never too late.
Koye Akoni was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Tony Stephenson of Hewetson Shah LLP