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Speaker's corner with Jonathan Seitler QC of Wilberforce Chambers

Posted on 2 September 2021

Speaker's corner is where we invite those who work with us 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 the first of the series, we hear from Barrister Jonathan Seitler QC of Wilberforce Chambers. 

Property is in my blood and every week a new Estates Gazette was in our house when I was a child. I used to like the pictures of rolling fields in the adverts. I think I ‘get’ property people because my Dad was one.

Manchester is where I was brought up - the land of Emily Pankhurst, Oasis and Manchester City. Working in London gives me the drive of the outsider with no (significant) language barrier.

I now live in Finchley and when I tell people that, it usually kills the conversation stone dead.

My wife tells me to “stop using those courtroom tactics” in an argument. I have no clue how to do this. Litigators are notoriously difficult to live with. When I drop my voice to try to sound more reasonable, I am told that I sound sanctimonious.

Barristers in Chambers are all self-employed - we eat what we kill - and when the hunger goes, so will the workflow. There is no room for passengers. Even after 35 years I still thrill to receive a new brief because it means I have been thought better for that case than anyone else.

For my first ten years as a barrister I did criminal law, where I learned how to cross-examine in Court. You have to be methodical, bricking up all the exits first, using the witness’ own words without them realising that’s what you’re doing. 

My first instruction from Mishcon de Reya was in 1989, around the time of the merger between Victor Mishcon & Co and Bartletts de Reya. Both of those firms were full of creative people, and it quickly became apparent that the merged firm would be something very special. Often when I am instructed by solicitors, they provide the conventional thinking and I try to add the creativity. But with Mishcon de Reya, there are so many imaginative, innovative, original thinkers that it can sometimes be the other way round.

The relationship between a QC and a top law firm is collaborative without being conspiratorial. We work together so that we can each give the client a genuinely independent view. It does sometimes happen that I can do a case with Mishcon de Reya one week – during which we live entirely in each other’s pockets – and then be on the other side of the courtroom to them the week after. But that doesn’t stop us being completely 100% aligned during the first week.

Litigation is a bit like football because a) it’s all about teamwork; b) the difference between victory and defeat can turn on tiny margins - a wrong strategic decision early on, for instance; c) practice, motivation, attitude and grit are all required; and d) you can only get away with a certain number of fouls.

There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing and be nothing. In litigation when the other side are having a right go at me, I know we are making headway.

As I have got more senior, clients and contacts have increasingly called or e-mailed asking for recommendations of solicitors. I take the requests seriously and always apply the rule ‘horses for courses’.

As part of my preparation of every case, I pretend to myself that I am briefed by the other side. I then work out how to knock down what the opponent will inevitably say. It’s a long, but systematic process. 

The pandemic (see picture) has meant learning a whole new set of skills, such as remote cross-examination and consultations by Zoom. It’s been painful at times but has also shaken things up – no bad thing.

Good lawyers are ten a penny - the law is written down in textbooks and cases. What makes the difference is the ability to see an angle and the courage to hunt it down. Those things aren’t taught in books, certainly not ones you are made to read in Law School. 

As I have got older I have realised just how often age and cunning will triumph over youth and eagerness.

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