Firstly, congratulations on taking silk in this year’s list. You have had a high profile career to date; to what do you credit your success?
Such success as I have had I would put down to three things. First, good luck. Some fantastic opportunities came my way when I was just starting out and I was lucky enough to find myself working closely with solicitors who are now the major players within their firms. Second, good clerking. Our clerking team at 4 Pump Court has always given me first class advice, encouragement and support. Third, a good attitude. I realised early on that you don’t get repeat instructions because of IQ points, but because people enjoy working with you. I try to give clients what they want, when they want it. It is not always possible, but surely that should be the aim.
How do you see the continual development of international arbitration?
From the Bar’s perspective, it will continue to be a tough fight for the best work. Increasingly the top international firms have their own high quality, in-house advocates. I believe, for example, that there are five solicitor advocates within leading international law firms taking silk in this year’s list. If it wants the work, the Bar has to be able to add value for the clients, whether by bringing something special in particular areas, such as cross-examination of witnesses, or by being competitively priced, given the increasing focus by clients on overall costs. My impression is that London is still holding its own as a centre for international arbitration and that is, of course, good for both sides of the profession. The key for us all is not to be complacent, especially when it comes to controlling costs, and to be willing to innovate in areas such as disclosure and document management.
Your chambers has seen significant growth in international trade disputes – what do you see as the key trends for the future?
I suspect the Far East is going to continue to grow as a source of work as it increases its share of global trade. It is an area of the world in which English law and its practitioners are held in high regard. Many sets of chambers have seen this as an opportunity to create an overseas office and this could well continue throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Many see international instructions as a key area of expansion for the Bar.
What advice would you give to junior practitioners reading this?
I would say: make it easy for them to instruct you. Come down from your ivory tower and try to give clients what they want, not what it suits you to provide. International clients may prefer to speak to you out of UK office hours. If you are not willing to accommodate them, someone else will. Instructions from firms based outside the UK may not come in beautiful bundles tied with pink ribbon. More often they will come as emails with attachments. You need to be willing to take what you are given, or it will be given to someone else. Remember that is likely to be how the information came to your solicitors. If it is good enough for them, it should be good enough for you.
Who have been the major influences in your career?
As a junior, I was lucky enough to be led by many of the stars at the Bar, some of whom are now High Court Judges. The best thing about being led is the opportunity it provides to see the top advocates close up. I would like to think my own advocacy has been influenced by those experiences. If nothing else, they showed me how much I still had (and have) to learn. Examples include Bernard Eder QC (now Mr Justice Eder), who could take a hopeless point and polish it into a winner; Nicholas Hamblen QC (now Mr Justice Hamblen), whose clarity of thought enabled him to encapsulate for the Court in a few short sentences concepts about which the rest of his team had been confusing each other for days; Nigel Tozzi QC, whose commercial advice and strategic thinking is second to none; and Lionel Persey QC and Timothy Brenton QC, masters of one of the most challenging aspects of trial advocacy - cross-examining experts.
What is the best advice you have been given in your career?
I have always been fond of some advice I received very early in my career from Duncan Matthews QC, who was reminding me that, when all is said and done, it is the client’s case, not the barrister’s. The advice came in the form of a joke. Two silks in a robing room are discussing their approach to calling witnesses at trial. The first silk says: “I always call as many as possible.” The second silk replies: “But they will all contradict one another. I call as few as possible.” They both turn to a third silk to resolve the deadlock. “My approach is to call precisely as many or as few witnesses as my client wishes,” he says. The first two silks are agog. “But hasn’t that lost you lots of cases?” To which the third silk responds: “Oh yes indeed. It has lost me a great many cases. But, thus far, no clients…”
How do you relax?
Spending time with my family. Ironically, now that my children have reached an age at which all they really want to do is stare at screens – sending texts to their friends and playing computer games – my relaxation mostly involves interfering with theirs. But they only get one childhood and I am determined determined to enjoy some of it with them.
Sean O’Sullivan was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Mathew Kesbey of Hewetson Shah