Beth Zheng interviews Justin Mort QC, tenant at Keating Chambers, where he specialises in high value construction disputes. Justin provides an insight into his motivation for becoming a barrister and his tips on what aspiring barristers can do to get ahead in the early stages of their career.
First of all, why did you choose to enter the legal profession and what made you decide to become a barrister?
The main draw of being a barrister at the independent bar is being self-employed: you choose how hard you work (sort of), and the direction of your career. Obviously, that requires a certain amount of commitment. I cannot now recall why I chose to enter the legal profession, although I do recall the job market for graduates being difficult when I graduated in 1992.
What key skills does a barrister require compared to those of a solicitor?
I suspect that the skills a barrister requires are no different to those required by a solicitor or at least a solicitor-advocate. In my practice area, (construction law) cases typically give rise to a mixture of legal, technical and factual issues, often swimming in a sea of material. The principal skill required of the trial advocate is correctly identifying what are the issues that are actually going to matter as efficiently as possible, and working out how you are going to win them. The main quality required is an appetite for hard work, particularly in the preparation and conduct of a trial.
What should students do if they are unsure whether law is for them or which path to go down?
Students thinking about the law should try to do one or two mini-pupillages in different practice areas and at least one placement with a law firm, even if they are entirely sure or think they are sure which route they want to go down. It is essential to keep an open mind. Students applying for pupillage probably need to have ready some sort of credible, courteous and informed explanation of why they do not want to become a solicitor in case asked. Any answer to that question will have greater credibility if the candidate has actually spent time in a law firm.
In your opinion, what are the key barriers to access to the bar? How can we overcome them?
The main barriers to entry are (1) lack of information and (2) the now enormous cost of studying for the bar. The Inns of Court do a huge amount raising and distributing scholarship funds and of course some pupillage awards contribute to the cost of studies. I believe that Keating’s pupillage award includes £21,000 towards the cost of the BPTC. There are a number of initiatives to raise awareness of the opportunities available at the Bar but no doubt we can all do more.
What experiences did you have that cemented the idea that you wanted to become a barrister?
The most positive experiences for me have been (1) being involved in cases that have developed the law of construction contracts and adjudication or arbitration, and (2) finding ways to unpick an immensely complicated case and (ideally) reduce it one side of A4.
How did you decide which Chambers to join?
2 Temple Gardens (2tg) made me an offer I couldn’t refuse at an early stage of the recruitment calendar. This was at a time when pupillage offers were made throughout the year and obviously the chambers making the offer could not wait for the applicant to see what else came up.
I loved it at 2tg. When I arrived (pre-CPR) the most junior barristers were typically doing times summons or small trials in the county court for insurers for modest fees. They are now all superstars.
2tg also had the advantage of offering both common law and commercial work. As a non-law graduate, I had convinced myself that entirely specialist chambers would be dominated by law graduates who, having studied law as a degree, would have relevant specialist expertise not available to those doing the conversion course. I quickly learnt that it does not work like that, but I know many continue to make that mistake.
What is it like working at Keating Chambers?
The chambers is extremely friendly. One of the best parts is having a large proportion of the best construction practitioners, at all levels. One comes across colleagues (and former colleagues) as opponents and tribunals the whole time. In general, the construction bar is extremely collegiate and inclusive.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career and what has been your proudest achievement?
The biggest challenge is keeping some sort of lid on work, working at weekends, working on holiday. I have yet to overcome this particular challenge.
I am always absurdly proud when I see my former pupils prospering when I read their cases in the law reports or hear comments from mutual clients. In addition, I get to lead them in cases or face them as opponents.
However, I think my proudest moment to date was winning two trials in ICI v MMT, liability (2017) and then quantum (2018). We were a small business with the leanest possible legal team, taking on a large multi-national. We won everything and indemnity costs for both trials.
Finally, what is your advice for applicants who have been unsuccessful so far?
A lot of barristers do not succeed from the outset. My application for tenancy (in my first set of chambers) was rejected but then unexpectedly revised a few weeks later. A great number of successful barristers, including many now at Keating, suffer some similar set back. So stick it out. Despite the large numbers applying for pupillage there is always a shortage of really good candidates.
Thank you to Justin for setting aside the time to be interviewed.