We invite the leading lights of the property disputes world to tell us all about who they are and what they think, but to do so without running it past their PR team first. In this latest edition, we hear from barrister Caroline Shea QC of Falcon Chambers.
Taking the plunge
It is exactly 30 years ago this year that I decided to undertake the three-year training that would convert me into a barrister, and fundamentally change the course of my adult life. It’s a long period of time to review, and an interesting process to look back and tease out what has been important, what has been valuable about these years and this career, and why I have enjoyed it quite so much.
Overall, being a barrister has been a bit like being (happily) married. It was a big commitment when I started out, and it has its challenging days. But there was never any doubt in my mind that this was right for me, from that moment, in my early thirties, that I converted what had always been a vague but insistent longing into a serious ambition. That early commitment has never wavered.
Why do I love it?
It is fascinating but tricky to analyse what makes being a barrister so satisfying. Property litigation provides a combination of intellectual challenge (I am not sure there is an such thing as an “easy” case); autonomy (sometimes more theoretical than actual); variety (property law encompassing so many areas of common and statutory law); and experience across the full range of commercial, residential, and agricultural property sectors – the whole of life is here! Lord Justice Lewison once pointed out to me that everyone lives somewhere, works somewhere, is educated or plays truant from somewhere. We exist in space and time, and it is our physical and legal relationship to the places that we do our living that underpins the vast and varied subject of property law.
It’s all about the teamwork
Above all, though, it is the clients who have made the ride so interesting. I have met and worked with people from so many different stables, people and enterprises I simply would not have come across otherwise. I am not sure there is a better (professional) feeling than the bonding of a team working on a case over two, three, or more years, when the final push takes all one’s efforts and capacities, occupying every waking minute and many of the sleeping ones as well. I cannot tell you how often I have fallen asleep rehearsing submissions, or woken with a start with a key insight into a particular knotty problem. At its best, the team grows together over the life of a case, operating seamlessly and single-mindedly to bring the case to its (preferably successful) conclusion. It is a glorious, triumphant feeling, and it comes directly from the cooperation and collaboration of all participants.
Mishcon and me
I well remember my first real interaction with the property litigation team at Mishcon de Reya. I was instructed on an interim application, and I took the phone call from Mark Reading, whom I had never met before, just as I arrived at our house in Devon. He sounded very polished, very wise, and very sure of himself (I later found out he was barely out of his teens). As we introduced ourselves and talked about the hearing, I saw out of the corner of my eye my faithful old chocolate brown Labrador parting company with the contents of his stomach directly onto the kitchen floor. (He was a large dog. You do the maths.). Another few heaves (the dog’s, not mine) and I realised I would have to ‘fess up. Mark took it all in his stride, and we reconvened about half an hour later.
That random beginning led on to fighting (and losing) the application, then fighting (and winning) the trial that had to be worked up from disclosure to final hearing in less than six weeks; and from there onto many other cases.
What is it about Mishcon?
The Mishcon brand, or ethos, or culture, is strong, and quite its own creature. There’s a base layer of no stone left unturned, no opportunity overlooked. That is accompanied by a heavy dose of strategic thoroughness and direction, which acts as a sort of continuing audit on every step taken, every letter written, every move made. Underpinning it all is a compass of intellectual rigour which never takes its eye off the true north of the legal structure at the heart of the case. And finally the touchstone of the Mishcon approach is an abiding commercialism focussing on the client’s objectives, needs, wants, means, personality.
That rigour, that robustness, that single mindedness, provide the focus for every case, and it is a pleasure to work with, and a challenge to rise to. The original core practitioners, who were partly adopted and partly gathered by Daniel Levy when he arrived to build what has become the Mishcon property litigation empire some 15 years ago, were all forged in this fire. The same ethos is instilled in each subsequent generation, so that the Mishcon offering is instantly recognisable and wholly dependable. It is stimulating, instructive, and exciting to work with.
The changing landscape
I like also the fact that Mishcon is a progressive firm, and has been at the forefront of many welcome changes over recent years within the legal profession. The bar is changing too, in some ways more slowly. The bench is moving from being a backwater of unspoken presumptions, privilege and prejudice, to being in some respects ahead of the game in its attitudes to social mobility, equality, and diversity, and in its unwavering commitment to delivering justice equally to all. The wider world is also in a state of flux; there are profound, and disquieting, challenges to access to justice, the rule of law, and the role of lawyers in today’s society.
Top tips for success
Against that background my advice to young professionals is – find your voice, and use it. Do not feel you have to ape the greats, or indeed anyone. Those giants once started with just their raw material to peddle, with shabbier suits and less shiny shoes than they now sport. Be yourself, apply yourself, know that everyone feels like an imposter at some stages, in some ways. Above all be curious, and learn from your colleagues and clients. The ultimate prize is success at trial, and that is all in the teamwork. It is that teamwork that will bring the happiest days, the funn(i)est memories, and the most professional satisfaction. It is a sort of alchemy, and there is nothing quite like it.