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Speaker's Corner with Nicholas Dowding QC of Hollis

Posted on 6 April 2022

What was your route into law?

I was called to the Bar in July 1979 and joined Falcon Chambers (then 11 Kings Bench Walk) in September 1980. Like a number of my contemporaries, I did not read law at university: instead, I was a historian, and I came to the law rather later. I opted to become a barrister rather than a solicitor, but I secretly hoped – indeed, in my heart, I knew – that I would be no good at it, leaving myself free to return to the life of relative indolence and casual jobs from whence I had come.

Who has helped you along the way?

It was, and still remains, a source of complete mystery to me how it was that I found myself busy and thriving. I think a lot of it was due to the Chambers that I was fortunate enough to join. We were led by a visionary (Ronald Bernstein QC) who saw far earlier than many of his contemporaries how important commercial property law was to become. He fostered in Chambers a culture (which continued throughout my time) of a specialist team, helping and supporting each other, which made life as a beginner much easier than it might otherwise have been. The barristers immediately above me were an extraordinarily and uniquely talented group. Three of them went on to become, respectively, the President of the Supreme Court, a Lord Justice of Appeal and a High Court judge. From them, I drew advice, help, inspiration and example. I was also lucky that there was a lot of small court work on which to cut my teeth as an advocate: we often did two or more cases a day for weeks at a time. Many of the judges were less forgiving than their modern counterparts and the learning curve was steep indeed. After dealing with the repeated expostulations and idiosyncrasies of His Honour Judge X (and on at least one occasion, his dog!) on a dark winter afternoon in some far-flung county court, later appearances in the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords/Supreme Court seemed, even on a tough day, relatively mild by comparison.

Talk us through the different stages of your career…

That same sense of having been mistaken for someone infinitely more talented remained with me when I took silk some 17 years later and found myself with an ever-increasing workload of large and heavy cases. In July 2017, I left the self-employed bar after 37 years of hectic practice and moved to Hollis as an in-house property lawyer. My move was primarily motivated by a desire to try something new and exciting. Working with the excellent and evergreen team at Hollis has been both, and I am fortunate to be able to combine a number of roles. One is advising the firm’s clients on property-law related issues. In that regard, I have been lucky enough to work on the odd matter with Mishcon de Reya, with whom I did many cases when I was a self-employed barrister, and who instructed me on my last major High Court witness action in 2017 (Minerva (Wandsworth) v Greenland Ram (London) [2017] EWHC 1457 (Ch.). Another role is assisting the firm’s surveyors on legal issues. A third is continuing to take third party-dispute resolution appointments as an independent expert, arbitrator or early neutral evaluator. I have been blessed indeed to find a second home after Chambers – and I am hugely grateful to Hollis for taking me on.

What are the biggest lessons of your career?

What have I learned? Much, but a few things stand out.

The first is to be yourself, however much you may admire others. The art of advocacy (i.e. persuasion) is a highly personal one, in which the establishment of a connection with the Tribunal is paramount. Attempts to ape others are ineffective and easily exposed. And what is true of courtroom advocacy is equally true of relationships with clients and fellow professionals. The real you, whatever its perceived inadequacies, will always be ten times more effective and successful than a fake version of someone else.

A second is that litigation is a team game. No one is more important than anyone else. Everyone depends on everyone else.

Another is that one should never be afraid to discuss difficult points with colleagues. They may provide an important insight or perspective that might otherwise have been missed. In my experience, those who walk alone are very often the least effective. No one knows everything.

A fourth is to get properly inside what is being said on the other side. It is only when you really understand the case against you – ideally being able to work it out better than the other side can themselves (because if you don’t, the judge may!) – that you can start to plan how to knock it down.

Lastly, humility and a willingness to listen and learn are essential but under-prized qualities. I discovered when I went to Hollis quite how much of what happens in real-life dilapidations work had passed me by in my previous rather rarefied life. It was a timely reminder of how little I really knew.

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