How to become a QC at a City law firm
Herbert Smith Freehills’ Matthew Weiniger QC — who’ll be speaking this evening at Legal Cheek Careers at Gray’s Inn — found that clients were reluctant to instruct solicitors in the High Court, but not in international arbitrations
I have spent my career at Herbert Smith Freehills (formerly Herbert Smith). Since my earliest experience of disputes, I always saw myself as an advocate, even if to others I was “just” a trainee, a junior associate, or someone other than a barrister.
Most people who practise in disputes at Herbert Smith Freehills do not become advocates, but some do, and two of us have become QCs solely on the basis of the advocacy we have done as solicitors. I have no doubt that we will be followed into silk by a number of our talented colleagues in the future.
I was always unsure as to whether I wanted to be a solicitor or a barrister. I knew I wanted to be an advocate, but I was always drawn to the teamwork and camaraderie of working with the same group of people on a regular basis. Although I did mini-pupillages at commercial sets, I enjoyed most my vacation scheme at Herbert Smith surrounded by highly intelligent people who were constantly challenging themselves to excel. I thus chose to be a solicitor, but never gave up the desire to be an advocate.
When I joined the disputes division as a trainee, I resolved to seize every advocacy opportunity that came my way. I was fortunate that one of my supervisors had a number of smaller cases that were bogged down in procedural issues. I picked them up, worked out ways to drive them forward, issued the relevant applications, and suggested that I should appear before the High Court Masters to present them.
This was unusual (and probably still is) for a trainee, but I was benchmarking myself against friends and former university colleagues who were appearing in the same sort of applications as junior barristers. I soon realised that there is nothing inherently scary about advocacy. The main thing is to be prepared and to think in advance of all the things that could go wrong, and prepare a response for when they do.
Once I had qualified, the firm was seeking to develop an international arbitration practice. One of the main attractions of that practice was that its leader was passionate about the benefits of solicitors doing their own advocacy in arbitration. I saw that it would be always difficult to persuade a client to instruct a solicitor (let alone a solicitor who was not a partner) in the sort of high-value, highly complex High Court trials the firm specialised in, so I thus decided that arbitration was the route for me.
I was soon appearing before some of the world’s leading arbitrators in cases all around the world, together with other members of the Herbert Smith arbitration team. As an advocate, I have never looked back. I have now argued cases on all continents (save Antarctica!) on behalf of and against states, and across a wide range of industries. Even under a number of different laws!
This is a route to advocacy that remains open. My associates argue cases with me, just as I argued cases with the partners I worked for. The arbitration group has grown from strength to strength, meaning that there are even more advocacy opportunities for its junior members. Herbert Smith Freehills remains a supportive, yet intellectually challenging place to practice, and I no longer wonder whether I made the right decision in choosing to be a solicitor over a barrister.
Matthew Weiniger QC is a solicitor-advocate and partner in Herbert Smith Freehills’ international arbitration group.