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Life as a barrister, by a former law firm partner

Life as a barrister, by a former law firm partner

Natalie Hickey

A client recently asked me why I left King & Wood Mallesons to go to the bar. The tone was along the lines of ‘what were you thinking?’, writes Natalie Hickey.

The client had a point. KWM is a great firm and was always good to me. I had a wonderful career running intellectual property cases, my clients were good friends and my former colleagues are extended family members.

However, I always wanted to be a barrister.

I joined the Victorian Bar two years ago. Before doing so, I had the usual covert coffees with barrister friends.

The questions below assume you are having that covert coffee with me. What is life at the bar really like? I have tried to be as honest as I can.

1. Is getting up early before court hard to do?

As an instructing solicitor, I used to wonder how counsel could get up at 3am to prepare before court. Believe me, it’s easy. The adrenaline stops you from sleeping properly. This is from the person who could never turn up to partners’ meetings on time.

2. Is being in court scary?

In court you feel at your most alive. The rush of a court experience is addictive. The brain works much faster than normal. If you have over-prepared and the judge is sympathetic, the experience is thrilling. If you are cross-examining someone and it is difficult, the experience is tense and frustrating. Yet no matter how stressful and exhausting it is, one starts looking for that rush.

3. How do you feel when you are not in court?

Sometimes it is terrific. I am meeting new clients, advising in conference or preparing pleadings or advice. The intellectual environment can be dynamic and stimulating.

However, if it goes on for too long, being in the same room starts to feel oppressive. This is when I yearn for my old team, my former secretary, internal meetings, coffee breaks with colleagues, team planning sessions and even budget meetings.

4. How are you coping financially?

Making ends meet as a junior barrister is hard. There have been sleepless nights. As a partner I was known for my champagne lifestyle and love of retail therapy.

Now it’s more about the Spumante. Alright, I still don’t drink Spumante.

I asked a successful senior barrister when the anxiety about finances goes away and he responded, “It never does”.

5. Tell me one thing you have learnt since joining the bar

Life is not black and white. Now I act for many people from all walks of life. I am constantly reminded about the richness of human experience. Some clients have ‘done the wrong thing’ but even then, their conduct can usually be explained.

6. What professional advantages do you find as a barrister over being a solicitor?

It is easier to diversify your practice. You do not need to consult your fellow partners, worry about treading on toes, contemplate your chargeable rate and consider your firm’s conflicts and alignments policy. You just ask yourself, do I want to do this work? If so, can I do it? And then you begin. Simple!

Also, advocacy is a learnt skill. Barristers can sidestep some aspects of a densely competitive legal market by having a skill set required by solicitors to meet their clients’ needs.

7. Who briefs you as a barrister?

A particular highlight has been the briefs received from previous opponents. It is really nice to work with former opponents rather than against them.

8. How do you feel about your colleagues being your competitors?

Being at the bar is like being at university. Your friends are your competitors, but the feeling is latent. Barristers are very supportive because we are all in the same boat.

Also, just like university, being a barrister is about opting in. No one forces you to do anything (except comply with the ethical rules). If you want, you can find a rich world of friendships, social groups, clubs and committees at the bar.

9. Name one surprising thing since you stopped working at a law firm

I had no idea I loved writing about sports law issues!

After I left KWM, I set up my own blog called The Social Litigator. With the freedom to write about whatever I wanted, rather than what I was paid to do, I decided to explore legal issues concerning doping allegations in Australian Rules Football. Now, over 130,000 visits later (not that I’m counting), the drop down menu of the blog features a range of sports, as well as other topical issues.

From this, I have learnt that self-determination need not be over-planned. Instead, I pursue my passions wherever they might lead. This has taken me in new professional directions.

10. Would you do it again?

Yes, I would. The timing was right for me. After almost 20 years in the one place, many would say I was overdue.

That said, if you are reading this from the comfort and security of your shared work space, with an internal meeting about to start to discuss client development opportunities, enjoy the time spent together. Your life is also a good one.

Natalie Hickey has been a barrister at the Victorian Bar since 2014. Prior to this she was a partner at King & Wood Mallesons from 2005 to 2013.


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