‘The unacknowledged truth about advocacy is that it’s a sales job’

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By Sean Jones on

Casting my mind back 20 odd years to when I started out at the Bar is an uncomfortable experience. On any objective assessment I was a pompous little know-it-all, writes 11KBW’s Sean Jones QC…

I was confident I could succeed because I had never lost an argument. Or so I thought. My armoury of dispute resolution skills included a dogged intransigence, an inexhaustible energy for prolonging the argument and a facility for slyly belittling my opponents and their positions. Arguments always ended the same way: with my opponent calling me a colourful name and refusing to engage with me any further. I was left alone on the battlefield, victorious.

Except, of course, in truth I had lost the battle and the war. What it took me an embarrassingly long time to grasp is that effective advocacy does not depend on having an unshakeable confidence that you are right. It does not even depend on actually being right (though that obviously helps). It depends on being able to persuade someone else that you are right. The unacknowledged truth about advocacy is that it is a sales job. You are trying to persuade the adjudicator to buy the case you are selling. It turns out that requires a completely different skillset to the one I had been developing.

My second revelation was that it was not all about me. Though they largely have the social skills to avoid admitting it, lawyers think they are special. Barristers secretly think they are special lawyers. I spent much of my first year in practice dropping the fact I was a barrister into conversation for no readily obvious reason. I remember explaining to an assistant in a suit shop that I had to have dark suits because I needed them for court. “Yes, of course,” he said in a manner withering enough to shrink me to my appropriate size.

Clients were “my clients”. Cases were “my cases”. Wins and losses added or subtracted from my tally as “my career” progressed. Clients, I felt, simply did not understand the pressure that fighting their cases subjected me to. They were clingy, demanding and sometimes straightforwardly ungrateful. Shamefully, I did not appreciate what it was like for my clients to be facing a trial. Recognising what it took and what it meant for them to trust me to help them made me a better advocate.

A final, less welcome, realisation has been how difficult it is to achieve anything resembling a work/life balance. As a trial advocate the buck stops with you. When the judge asks you a question, you have to be able to provide an answer. You cannot say “I didn’t get to that issue because I decided to watch Mamma Mia with the kids”. Work seeps into every area of your life. I once had to do a telcon while running a marathon. You will need to set boundaries and defend them, but they won’t be where you wish they were. As one colleague put it, locking his room at gone midnight to get a taxi home, “The Bar is a bloody celibate profession”.

Sean Jones is an employment law silk at 11KBW Chambers.