‘And now for something completely different,’ I thought to myself, to borrow a phrase from Monty Python, when deciding to qualify as a civil and commercial arbitrator.

I had been a specialist children’s law barrister for a number of years and, while I loved and enjoyed it (and still do!), I became really interested in alternative dispute resolution and its growing prominence.

So, in 2016, I decided to become an arbitrator. I am also a qualified mediator but decided to focus on arbitration; I felt more comfortable with the legal framework which underpins arbitration and its similarities with the legal profession.

Studying on a part-time basis enabled me to continue working as a barrister. I undertook the excellent Chartered Institute of Arbitrators course, which is flexible and split into various stages that can be undertaken at a pace that caters to individual circumstances. Later, I successfully embarked on the process of becoming a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators.

I chose to specialise in general civil and commercial disputes, which have fascinated me since my introduction to Donoghue v Stevenson. In my early years of practice I would often take on civil drafting as additional work. When studying the arbitration course, I found it useful to revisit the foundational principles of tort, general civil and contract law as my family practice does not involve these areas. This was not as daunting as it may sound; I found it refreshing to read up on areas that I last came across as a student many years ago.

While it is has been somewhat of a trend for retired judges and lawyers to become arbitrators, a growing number of practitioners are choosing to practise in dual areas of specialisation. This covers a wide range of areas, many non-legal, and became more prelevant over the pandemic when many barristers were confronted with a degree of unprecedented and enforced introspection.

It can be a challenge taking on a completely new career path, especially with the competing demands of life in general, a family, an existing career and work load, and being (how shall I say this?) ‘mature in years’. As experienced barristers we sometimes feel that we are not qualified to do anything else.

However, we possess a unique set of professional qualities and transferable skills that are invaluable in all walks of life. These include the ability to read and assimilate, often complicated, documents within a short period of time, the ability to decipher and grasp the relevant issues in any given situation, communication and negotiation skills and, as advocates, an ability to advance and understand how to adjudicate upon competing persuasive arguments based on the law and facts. These skills are equally applicable to being an arbitrator, which entails making a binding decision on a dispute between parties who have opted for the dispute to be resolved in this manner. Arbitrations can take place in person, remotely or by being decided on the papers in the absence of a hearing.

The dual career path: pros and cons

It is true that variety is the spice of life and I find that having two parallel careers is really interesting and rewarding. Both of my specialisations complement and invigorate the other. For example, having concentrated on an arbitration, I find that I return to a childcare law case with a renewed enthusiasm, and vice versa. It is tantamount to a semi-break.

It is a misconception that undertaking a dual career path somehow entails spreading oneself too thin and diminishes expertise. This is not always the case. It is important, however, to ensure that one devotes the time to fully preparing and keeping on top of one’s cases in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed. This can be difficult, at times, but is achievable.

My work as an arbitrator is very diverse; from deciding a dispute between an individual and a large company following a dream holiday that ended up as a nightmare, to arbitrating a dispute regarding the terms of the repayment of a loan.

A dual career is, of course, not for everyone and it is sometimes stressful when deadlines collide. The pressures can be such that it necessitates making sacrifices in other areas and spending an inordinate amount of time on a piece of work. However, this is not uncommon for many barristers and something in which many of us are well-versed.

Practical points

On a practical note, it is important to set aside a dedicated and regular period of time for career development in both specialisms. This includes ensuring that one’s profile is regularly updated, writing and commenting on articles, posts and matters of relevance, joining and participating in organisations that promote the profession, etc.

Also, it goes without saying that while building up a practice in the new specialism it is important to keep abreast of the latest developments, read up on the case law and arbitral rule changes/updates etc. It is also important to attend continued professional training webinars and seminars. Many professional organisations hold regular events which are a good opportunity to meet and socialise with fellow colleagues and gain a useful insight into the profession.

There are a number of mentoring schemes that are operated by various organisations in the profession. I have found that the arbitral community is supportive and collegiate in nature and many of the senior arbitrators are very approachable and helpful. Please do not hesitate to ask them questions and gauge their views on the various topical issues etc.

While I have never had a formal mentor, I found it invaluable when newly qualified to be able to observe some arbitrations. (Permission is required for this.)

It can sometimes be problematic juggling two careers. The main challenge for me seems to be diary clashes when an unexpected case comes in. However, it is certainly not insurmountable and in my personal experience the benefits far outweigh any difficulties.

It is important, of course, to work in an efficient manner that suits individual practices. I find it helpful to have a system in place whereby deadlines are diarised with reminders set well in advance. I also find it helpful to allot set periods of time for the completion of tasks and to effectively compartmentalise my two careers as they are so different.

Where to start

I encourage anyone who is contemplating a change of career or who seeks to take on a new challenge, in addition to their current practice, to do so. Start by doing as much research as possible. This can include speaking to people who are able to advise and assist. Once armed with the relevant information, then go ahead. It will not always be plain sailing but it is worth the effort!