Ex-Freshfields solicitor switches to the Bar
Anneli Howard qualified in 1999 as an associate in Freshfields’ EU litigation practice. In 2000, she became a “referendaire” at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, and nearly three years later returned to London to re-train as a barrister at Monckton Chambers. She was called to the Bar in 2002 and specialises in EU and competition law. We talked to Anneli about her career so far.
mtl: Hi Anneli, tell us why you decided to become a litigation solicitor?
Anneli: I had always planned to go to the Bar to do European law, particularly as there were two EC law specialists at my College who were very inspiring tutors, but had my head turned by solicitor advocacy. I speak several languages and wanted to work abroad, so the idea of an international law firm also appealed.
As a student, I won the FT European law prize, which included six months in the Hong Kong and Paris offices of Freshfields and was consequently offered a training contract with them. Freshfields gave me some fantastic opportunities and experience.
I spent the last six months of my training contract in Milan but in reality, it wasn’t feasible to stay there long-term, as I couldn’t plead in the Italian courts as an English qualified lawyer. Going to Brussels was another option but I found the idea of litigation more appealing. So, I returned to London, where I stayed for 15 months in the EU litigation team.
mtl: It sounds like you certainly had the international experience that you were looking for. Why did you leave?
Anneli: A number of reasons. The prime catalyst was the post at the European Court of Justice. That came out of the blue and I applied, never dreaming that I would get it. However I did, and within six months I was living in Luxembourg.
During my first 18 months of qualification, I started to have reservations about the type and breadth of work that I was doing. This had nothing to do with the law firm specifically but more to do with the solicitor working model in general. I wasn’t getting the small claims experience to cut my teeth on as I was deemed too expensive and obviously a junior associate couldn’t be trusted with multi-million pound disputes. Working for a large City law firm meant that there was little scope to work for individuals or take on less-profitable areas of work. I also felt an acute sense of frustration as every time a case got to court, it tended to be handed over to a barrister.
There was also the partnership point to consider: in litigation, it takes nine or ten years to reach partnership and there is still no guarantee even at that point. The partnership race would cut right across the time when I would want to start a family. I felt that the long working hours culture would not give me the flexibility I was looking for to juggle a family or to do other things in life. I wanted to write and teach as well as practise but, as an employee, had little control over my working hours. There was no way that the hierarchical structure of the legal profession, in place for hundreds of years, would change before I did!
My father is very entrepreneurial and has always encouraged me to run my own business. But I could hardly set up my own firm at two years PQE and in a smaller firm I would not get the same volume and quality of specialised EU cases. Consequently, I started to re-consider my original intentions of practising at the Bar once I had got some capital and experience behind me. Then the post in Luxembourg intervened which gave me some time to think about what I really wanted to do…
mtl: And how was life at the ECJ?
Anneli: It was amazing. The ECJ is a unique institution - something of a “finishing school” for European lawyers and a melting pot of different nationalities and legal backgrounds. There is a judge from each Member State and each judge has three “référendaires” or “judicial assistants” who prepare the cases for hearings and assist in drafting the judgments. The Court works in French, so all documents have to be translated and written in French so it was a very steep learning curve! The court is at the pinnacle of EU law - most of the cases before the ECJ raise issues that have never been considered before.
It was more than just an interesting working environment though; the Court was a really happy place. I made friends for life from all over Europe. The Court has a supportive familial atmosphere as everyone knows everyone. The quality of life in Luxembourg is also very high: we were not expected to work long hours and family time was highly valued. You could finish work at 6pm and be cycling along the Mosel within an hour.
I would really recommend the référendaire role to anyone seriously interested in European law. Whereas in Germany it is something that you might do for many years as a pre-cursor to being made a judge, in the UK it is perceived as quite a junior role, one that you would only do for a maximum of three years before returning to practice. I stayed for two and a half years and, as I said, this gave me some time to think.
The Judge I worked for, David Edward, was a huge source of inspiration and recommended life at the Bar. But the temptation to return to Freshfields (which had kept my job open for me) was a strong one. I applied for three pupillages and thought that if I wasn’t offered anything, it was not meant to be.
Despite receiving two offers, it was still a slightly crazy move to make at that point: I was 30, with a large mortgage, in a long-term relationship and thinking about having a family. Why would I want to uproot everything? On the other hand, if I didn’t do it then, I never would, particularly once I had become re-accustomed to the attractive salary at a City law firm. So I went for it. Everyone told me I was being “very brave” which I took to mean that I should be clinically assessed!
mtl: How did you convert to being a barrister?
Anneli: I applied for pupillage through the Bar Council OLPAS scheme which means applying a year ahead of the start date and attending mini-pupillages and interviews along with other candidates. That can be quite difficult to fit around work but gives you a better impression of the differences between various chambers. You don’t have to do it that way and, as a qualified solicitor, you can simply send your CV direct to Chambers.
Once I had accepted a pupillage, I began the conversion process by taking the advocacy and professional conduct exams, joining one of the Inns of Court and being called to the Bar. You also have to complete your dinners (which are reduced for qualified practitioners) and attend the various advocacy and training courses during pupillage.
The Bar Council looked at my experience and decided that I only needed to do a six-month pupillage, as opposed to a full year. Solicitors that have already completed the full advocacy training can avoid pupillage altogether, although I would recommend it as a vital transitional stage. You can’t leap directly into being a barrister as it requires a completely different skill set. As a qualified solicitor you have valuable client and law/management skills that provide a strong foundation but it still takes two or three years to “re-gear”.
mtl: Tell us about your pupillage…
Anneli: My pupillage was great. In some ways I was surprised by how similar some of the work was, at least on the advisory side. Trial advocacy is obviously totally different. I worked with Jon Turner, who at the time was the Standing Counsel to the Office of Fair Trading and is now a QC. We worked on fifteen cases in three months, which was more than three times the number that I had worked on as a solicitor in 2 years. As a barrister, you tend to get involved in cases at a later stage, when they are truly contentious, so there is much more momentum and a higher turn-around.
The tenancy decision was a nail-biting experience despite the fact that Monckton only takes on pupils with a view to tenancy. As I was the only pupil at that time, I was not in competition with anyone else. However, the final vote is based purely on your own performance so a rejection is hard not to take personally. Luckily I was taken on after six months and was straight into Court on the first day.
mtl: What were your fears about this route and were they justified?
Anneli: I thought that it might be a very solitary job. Although you work in a room by yourself for a lot of the time, you often work as part of a legal team and have the support of colleagues if necessary, so it really isn’t isolated.
I was also anxious about the financial implications of switching and going back to the beginning. This hasn’t been as bad as I feared. There is a time lag between doing the work and getting paid, so although you have regular outgoings, you may not get a regular salary but I am fortunate to work in a niche area where there is plenty of work to be done. Of course, I am not earning anything like the income of a partner but I have never been that motivated by money. There is of course the advantage of being paid for every hour that you work as a barrister, so you can regulate what you earn. However, you need to take into account the deductions for tax, VAT and contributions to the running of Chambers, so you are not taking home 100% of the face value of a cheque. You therefore need to have control over the financial ups and downs.
mtl: And what else have you learnt on the way?
Anneli: Being self employed has made me maximise my leadership skills – I realise that I am not very good at taking authority from other people! Being in charge appeals to me, though it was daunting at first. From day one, I’ve had to stand on my own two feet as there is no partner-figure to take ultimate responsibility. Barristers manage solicitors and clients, who in turn look to you to make the decisions, so you are always in the firing line.
When I first started, I had the “law firm mentality” of thinking that everything had to be done as a matter of urgency even if it meant staying up all night! I took on a lot of work and had no holidays for the first two years. It was a baptism of fire and it took me some time to learn to be able to say no without feeling a sense of personal failure. It has made me realise that I am not superhuman and that my professional career should not take over my whole life.
Now that I am more established, I can take breaks more or less when I want to outside of court term. You do need to build in recovery-time as the pace of work is so demanding. There is time for the theatre, travelling, hill walking and skiing and I get the flexibility to enjoy my wider interests.
For example, in 2005 I took a month off to fulfil a long-standing promise to go to Australia with my mother and last year, I took a week off for my hen party and a couple of weeks for my wedding. I have also taught at Cambridge and contributed to several books.
Saying that, it is still pretty stressful juggling the pace and intensity of the work. There are days when I would like my secretary back! There is not the same level of support as a senior assistant in a law firm who would have a junior, a trainee and a team of paralegals. I have to do everything myself from filing, photocopying, correspondence, interviewing witnesses to finalising a set of pleadings before the European Court of Justice.
Monckton is a good half-way house as it is run like a mini law firm, in the sense that we have a practice manager, a marketing team which organises seminars, conferences and talks for us, a qualified accountant for our billing and tax returns, and in-house IT staff. The clerks are a great support as well and play an important mentoring role. Once you have been called for five years, you can have a pupil, which will certainly be a help.
mtl: How would you recommend trying to get a pupillage?
Anneli: It is extremely difficult as there is a lot of high-quality talent out there. To get short-listed for a top EU or commercial set, you will need to have a first class degree and probably a Masters degree as well.
Think of a specific, niche area of law that you have a genuine interest in, for example human rights, intellectual property or environmental law and consider whether they tie in with your current experience. It would be extremely difficult to move from a City law firm into crime for example. Try to distinguish yourself from the crowd. The Bar relishes individuals so if you have done something different in your career then flag it. The best way to find out more would be to approach a barrister directly and I imagine that many would be keen to help.
mtl: What attributes do you need to be a barrister?
Anneli: You will need to be confident, with a sure sense of self. Ruthless time management is essential as you have to juggle several cases at once. You have to be quite decisive but, at the same time, quite considered as you can’t fly by the seat of your pants in this profession. You need an analytical mind and the ability to cope with lots of detail. You also need to be naturally inquisitive – never take an explanation at face value.
As a barrister you are always thrown into a scene of conflict and confrontation, which brings with it the fear of being shown up in court. However that same fear drives you to be thoroughly prepared. You need to be mentally robust as you will frequently cast mud at your opponent and you need a teflon exterior to field the response. You will undoubtedly lose at times but you mustn’t let this affect your confidence.
It is an advantage to have been a solicitor as you know what your clients want. My “solicitor skills” often help as I can act directly for in-house solicitors and I will soon be able to work for clients direct through the Bar Public Access program. Being a hybrid solicitor and barrister does not always work in practice. The ideal team is to work with a very good, pragmatic senior assistant, who has thought through the issues of the case and can arrange for the court files and correspondence to be properly prepared.
mtl: What do you think are the main benefits?
Anneli: The major advantage is autonomy: you are in control of what you want to do and what hours you work (to a certain extent). You also get immediate recognition for your work, rather than it going out in someone else’s name. You are judged purely on your own performance and get immediate feedback if you do a good job.
At the end of the day, for me, it comes down to the quality of the work and the type of clients. It is great to be able to act for all kinds of parties, from small complainants often on a pro- bono basis, to large companies as well as the government and regulators. You can play an active role in carving out tactics, strategy, law and policy in a particular area of law.
There is also the working environment to consider. The Bar is paternalistic and QCs and senior juniors will often promote you and your career without any gain for themselves. There is a human element as well. Barristers are valued for their individuality. Like in any walk of life, there are a few workaholics, but barristers tend to enjoy their outside interests and can have a family life if they want one.
mtl: What are your plans for the future?
Anneli: Crunch-time for me will be seeing how flexible the Bar is when I have children, and whether I will be able to tailor the work I do to give me some flexibility. At Monckton, we have a sophisticated IT system which enables us to work completely from home, and quite a few of my colleagues make use of this. There obviously won’t be any maternity pay, although there is support from Chambers on contributions.
mtl: Having been through a considerable change yourself, do you have any advice for our readers?
Anneli: I tried to ignore the voice that was telling me to go it alone and could probably have carried on for years without doing anything about it. Law firms are safe and you can abdicate responsibility for your own decisions as everything is provided for you. Don’t be overly concerned about the risks involved and your finances. The rewards of being self-employed massively outweigh the stresses and hassles. Although the Bar is always open to any age, going back to basics in every respect and learning all the new skills required is much harder the older you get. The more established you are in your career, the harder it is to switch and take risks. If you have an idea, go for it.
mtl: Many thanks for your time Anneli.
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Law, St Edmund Hall, Oxford University
BCL in European law, Oxford University
LPC, College of Law, Guildford
6 months in Freshfields’ Hong Kong and Paris offices
1997 – 1999
Training contract, Freshfields
Qualified into EU litigation
2000 – 2003
Référendaire to Judge David Edward, at the ECJ, Luxembourg
Called to the Bar
Pupillage for 6 months
2003 - present
Tenancy at Monckton Chambers