Why specialise when you could do it all?

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By The Careers Team on

Being a generalist helps to develop your advocacy skills, argues Serjeants’ Inn’s Angus Moon QC

Serjeants’ Inn’s Angus Moon QC

The unfair dismissal claim brought against Northumbria Police by its former head of legal, Denise Aubrey, helped to produce one of the most memorable tabloid headlines of recent times:

‘Loin of Duty: Police chief punched by Superintendent at BBQ over affair with top cop’s wife’

Aubrey was not directly involved in the alleged scandal at her ex-employer, but her decision to bring the claim meant that a lot of salacious details reached the public domain. The lawyer, who now works for Forrester Solicitors, argued that she was unfairly sacked after disclosing private information about the alleged affair to staff.

For Serjeants’ Inn’s Angus Moon QC, who was representing the Northumbria Police in the matter, the publicity added a layer of complexity to an already tricky case.

“We had to have a PR strategy as well as a legal strategy,” he says. “In the end it boiled down to being as open as possible. That ultimately gave us the space to concentrate on the substantive legal issues — and win.”

Moon has recently helped Northumbria Police to claw back some of the costs expended on defending the case, obtaining an unusual order requiring Aubrey to pay back £15,000 in costs. It’s the latest case in an unusually broad-based career that has seen the Cambridge graduate go against the grain and shun the trend for specialisation that has swept the bar over the last three decades.

Typically of Moon’s practice, he was instructed on the Aubrey case after excelling in a connected but distinct area, acting for health trusts in claims involving the disciplining of doctors. Many of these cases featured injunctions that prevented the disclosure of sensitive information, so there was a natural cross-over with Aubrey. Moon has another important employment case coming up this autumn in Day, which relates to whistleblowing by junior doctors. The case, in which he represents Health Education England, went to the Court of Appeal in 2017 and is listed for a final hearing of four weeks in October 2018.

Moon originally came to this line of work through his expertise in medical law, a field for which Serjeants’ Inn is highly regarded. It remains a central source of instructions. Indeed, he is currently preparing for a harrowing dispute between a patient and a hospital that recalls the recent tragic Charlie Gard, Isaiah Haastrup and Alfie Evans cases (on all of which his Serjeants’ Inn colleagues acted for key parties including in each case the hospital involved).

Separately, he is representing the NHS on a much-talked about case in which a claimant who stabbed her mother to death is seeking damages for what she contends was substandard mental health treatment prior to the killing. The case, which goes the heart of the doctrine of precedent and could impact all sorts of different areas of law, is being appealed to the Court of Appeal after the Judge backed Moon’s argument that it was barred by the doctrine of illegality (which prevents a person recovering damages for their own wrongdoing).

Other areas of expertise include high-level commercial disputes (Moon was counsel in Walford v Miles, the leading House of Lords authority on “agreements to agree”), Court of Protection matters (he was counsel instructed by the Official Solicitor in the seminal decision of An NHS Trust v A, the case involving an Iranian hunger striker), and inquiries and inquests (he acted for a doctor in the Redfern Inquiry into human tissue analysis in UK nuclear facilities established by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry).

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“Being a generalist is a little bit like speaking more than one language and means that you can offer clients more breadth,” he says, adding: “And because you are always having to deal with new scenarios, it keeps your advocacy sharp.”

Moon mentions acquaintances who left the bar altogether after hardly setting foot in court as examples of the dangers of over-specialisation. He predicts a backlash that will see “the resurgence of the common law barrister who can turn his/her hand to a wide variety of work”. One of the factors driving this movement could be the QC process, which relies on references from High Court judges — to whom less time in court means less exposure. Another is a growing interest among sets like Serjeants’ Inn in giving rookies some experience of criminal law and the intensive advocacy involved, a practice area that many barristers of Moon’s generation relished cutting their teeth on.

“The experience of doing a trial before a jury is invaluable, not least because persuading a jury is completely different to persuading a judge,” he says, recalling his early days at Serjeants’ Inn, which he joined as a pupil. “A jury needs to like an advocate in a way that a judge doesn’t. Yet warmth of personality can be important in all types of cases. Engaging a tribunal in a human way is underrated. It can certainly get you through a lot of sticky situations.”

Moon says that a memorable — and enjoyable — moment in the early phase of his career was “the look on the judge’s face when I secured an acquittal for a defendant in a case in which I sensed he may have come to a different decision about than the jury”. Certainly the sensitivity to popular sentiment he honed from these formative experiences has been useful in cases with a public dimension like Aubrey.

If there is a downside to a broad-based practice, it is the workload required in the early years, where generalists have to put in extra hours to compete with barristers who are dedicating themselves to one particular area. This can be made up for later in your career, suggests Moon, who 11 years after becoming a silk finds that he can “pick and choose much more about which cases I take on”. Now into his early 50s, he is able to spend more time with his four children and at his home in the South of France.

“The bar is actually very flexible,” he adds. “Because you are self-employed you can work the hours you choose, which is also good for barristers who work part-time and have primary carer responsibilities.”

Moon’s advice to students hoping to follow in his footsteps is to make sure their motivations are correct. A love of advocacy is key — he stresses that the joy of the job lies in persuading, citing by way of example a case in which his arguments on jurisdiction were accepted by the court to fill a lacuna in the Mental Capacity Act and subsequently adopted in statute. Confidence is similarly important. “If you are not confident that you can stand up in front of a judge in court and persuade her about something, then this is not the job for you,” he says. “At the same time, if you do have that confidence, then you couldn’t find a better career. I have never had a day of boredom as a barrister”.

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