Applying to a specialist set of Chambers – by Mathias Cheung

12th Jan 2021

In this article Mathias discusses the typical practice of a barrister at a specialist set of Chambers and highlights the key considerations when applying for pupillage to such sets.

Mathias has a general commercial practice, with a specialism in construction, energy and technology disputes. Mathias obtained his LLB from King’s College, London and read for the BCL at Magdalen College, Oxford, before completing the BPTC at City Law School, London.

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What type of work do barristers at Atkin Chambers do?

Atkin Chambers is a commercial set so in that sense we are similar to quite a lot of general commercial sets at the Bar which do work relating to the commercial world and commercial transactions. However, we have a particular specialism in terms of our areas of work, which is construction disputes.

Construction disputes cover a wide spectrum of projects and cases, not just your typical building dispute but it also includes infrastructure projects, energy disputes (such as those arising from the design and construction of plants for the processing of oil, gas and renewables), and also technology related disputes (such as those relating to the design and supply of software and IT or telecommunication services). Disputes are therefore wide-ranging even within that specialism, and beyond that specialism, barristers at Atkin Chambers also cover more general commercial disputes. There are members of Chambers who do, for instance, shipbuilding work, elements of insurance law and also insolvency law, although the latter two often have some link to construction projects and the parties involved in such projects.

Key considerations when applying for a specialist Chambers

The first thing to note for those interested in applying to a specialist set of Chambers is to always remember that although the set may be niche in a sense, the practice may actually be much broader and there may be room to expand into other more general commercial areas as well.

Even the construction specialism that Atkin Chambers is particularly known for is not so specialist in the sense of the legal principles that are applied. Construction law is not as specialist as something like intellectual property law, for instance, where you have a distinct module or distinct area of law which only applies to that particular niche. Construction law involves applying general contractual and tort law principles in most cases in a particular context. In the context of construction disputes, there are particularities about these disputes because of the forms of contracts which people use, and also particular statutory requirements relating to construction projects, but by and large, it really is not that different from the legal principles that you would encounter in a more general commercial practice.

Some may be slightly deterred from applying to a specialist set like Atkin which does a lot of construction disputes because you have not studied construction law before, or because you have not been involved in a construction project before, or just by virtue of the general fact that you are not very familiar with what the construction industry is like. Those are things which you can learn on the job, both during pupillage and in your early years of tenancy – we all find ourselves learning something new about construction and engineering each time we take on a new case. Therefore, do not be afraid of considering and exploring sets which have specialist commercial practices. What Atkin Chambers is looking for is a candidate’s potential to excel in the type of work that we do.

Typical practice at a specialist construction Chambers

A junior tenant’s practice at Atkin Chambers is varied, and domestic work can be at both the County Court level and also at the High Court level (mostly in the Technology and Construction Court (TCC) but also often in the Commercial Court). A lot of work also involves international arbitrations, as members at Atkin Chambers work on disputes across the Middle East, South East Asia, Africa and the Pacific, and there is ample opportunity to develop a cross-jurisdictional practice over time.

In terms of the scale/value of the disputes which you can expect, the work ranges from small domestic disputes involving residential projects, all the way up to multi-million-pound, multi-partite disputes involving much larger high-profile projects (such as the redevelopment of Rolls Building, the Crossrail Project, the extension of Gatwick Airport, to name but a few).

There is thus a broad range in terms of the diversity of work that comes through the door, even for a junior tenant, and there is a healthy mix of work as sole counsel (where you are acting for your client on your own) and also led work (where you are being led by other more senior members of Chambers or senior barristers from other sets of Chambers).

Work split

That split obviously varies from year to year depending on what cases come through the doors, so it is not a hard and fast split for every year and for every member of Chambers. However, for most commercial barristers, there is generally a greater focus on advisory and written work than other practice areas (such as criminal or family law), and probably about 60% or 70% of time will be spent on providing written advice and preparing written submissions and pleadings. The remaining 30% to 40% will be made up of oral advocacy in court and in complex arbitrations (and sometimes complex adjudications with heavily disputed factual evidence).

This relatively heavy focus on advisory and written work is particularly the case with a construction practice, as the statutory regime under the Housing Grants Regeneration and Construction Act 1996 imposes the process of adjudication as a dispute resolution option for all construction contracts (apart from some limited exceptions such as residential projects and power plants). Parties can refer almost any disputes arising from a construction contract to an adjudication, and this is predominantly based on written submissions so you often do not need a hearing for oral evidence or oral submissions.

This is one of the reasons why when you start off as a construction junior, you may be doing more written adjudication-related work than going to court every other day. That does not mean you do not get the opportunity to do advocacy if you want to, it only means that you have a slightly different split as compared to other civil practices (for example, if you go to a common law set or a criminal set, you are more likely to be in court almost every day).

It ultimately comes down to the type of lifestyle and practice which you prefer. If you enjoy tacking intellectually stimulating cases and taking your time to build a case and formulate a strategy for your clients, and if you are open to a blend of written work and oral advocacy, then a commercial practice at a specialist construction set like Atkin Chambers may well be up your alley, and it is definitely an avenue that you should consider for your prospective pupillage applications.

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