International law: an insight into life on the road

Is it as glamorous as it sounds? We spoke to Hardwicke barrister Frederico Singarajah to find out

Fred-Hardwicke

Meeting with Frederico Singarajah at his chambers during a warm autumn afternoon — which already seems a distant memory as November ushers in winter — it was impossible not to comment on the unseasonal heat.

With the rest of the capital struggling with the humid temperatures, Singarajah seemed in his element. He’d just got back from São Paulo and was heading off to New York later on in the week. The heat didn’t bother him; he’s used to it.

A specialist in international arbitrations and commercial litigation at Hardwicke, Singarajah has made “countless” trips abroad since he was called to the bar seven years ago.

Singarajah was himself born in Brazil, moving to the United Kingdom aged 14. He has used his innate understanding of the Latin American market and his solid Portuguese and Spanish language skills to build an impressive international law practice. He has just been instructed on an arbitration involving parties in Thailand and Ghana worth US $110 million — the highest value case he has dealt with so far.

Given the multi-jurisdictional nature of his job, it’s unsurprising Singarajah spends lots of his time travelling. Speaking to Legal Cheek Careers, Singarajah tells us he feels “very privileged” to have the opportunity to visit so many different countries. That said, life on the road as an international lawyer can be “a hard slog”. He explains:

It’s not really as glamorous as it sounds; it’s a lot of working out of suitcases, in hotel rooms and on planes. When you go to these amazing places you’re not there to sightsee and have fun.

Two years ago, Singarajah visited Tokyo for a conference and booked off two days to explore the city. His sightseeing hopes were blighted when a new arbitration came in, meaning he had to spend those two days in his hotel room preparing for trial. “I would have rather been in chambers where I had all my stuff; it wasn’t ideal conditions,” he comments.

Singarajah now spends most of his time dealing with complex international arbitrations instead of conducting litigation, and in that sense his experience of the bar has not been typical.

Neither has his journey into the profession. Born into a family of keen scientists, Singarajah defied the odds and studied a politics and sociology degree at the University of Southampton.

Though he enjoyed his undergraduate studies, Singarajah found himself questioning what sort of career he could build for himself off the back of his degree. He didn’t fancy becoming a politician or a sociologist, so headed to Bournemouth University to study what’s now called the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).

Fresh-faced law graduate Singarajah later studied the Legal Practice Course (LPC) at the University of Westminster (where he now lectures part-time), before finding a training contract at a small firm called Maxwell Alves.

Then things moved on very quickly. Under regulatory rules in place at the time, he became a solicitor-advocate within six months of qualification and — six months after that — a barrister.

Making the switch from solicitor to barrister just months after qualifying is no doubt an unusual move, but Singarajah’s reasons for doing so are plenty.

As a new associate, Singarajah’s big dream was to capitalise on Brazil’s booming economy and build trade relations between the UK and Latin America. His boss wasn’t convinced by his future plans, so he felt he had to go at it alone. Continuing, he recalls:

I did some research and couldn’t find any barristers developing Brazil, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. I knew that if worse came to worst, I could go back to being a solicitor, but I had to at least try.

Many law students agonise over the solicitor/barrister distinction and which route to go down. Singarajah has done both, and makes this useful comparison:

Being a solicitor is like playing football: you’re a team player and you and the firm work together as one. As a barrister, you’re a boxer: you might get a beating from time to time but the glory is all yours.

Singarajah thinks his personality leans much more towards a career at the bar. When asked if he has any regrets about making the change, he replies: “Not a single one.”

More regrettable, Singarajah explains, is the current lack of diversity of the bar, which despite some improvements still lags behind the solicitors’ profession. “There is,” he says, “a problem with the sort of people coming to the bar. I think it’s more representative of a wider demographic of society than it used to be, but it’s somewhat selective still.”

A non-Oxbridge-educated, non-white barrister himself, we asked Singarajah whether he has any advice for aspiring advocates who come from non-traditional backgrounds. His response:

Amazing barristers come in all forms. The thing that will make you succeed at the bar is resilience and determination, and your success depends on how much your personal circumstances allow you to keep going and keep trying. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from giving the bar a go, but I would give them a transparent appraisal of the difficulties they’re likely to encounter, because selection is very tough these days.