Life at the Bar: In Conversation with James Green

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Interviewed by Benjamin Teng

James Green is a barrister at Level Twenty-Seven Chambers on George Street, Brisbane. He is a graduate of The University of Queensland (with degrees in Law and Economics) and a former Valedictorian of the T.C. Beirne School of Law. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk to James about life as a young barrister at the Bar.


Ben: Thanks for taking the time to meet with me James. I can imagine you’ve had a pretty busy day.

James: It’s no problem at all.

Ben: We might just start with some questions to get a bit of a background on you.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

James: I started doing law and journalism in 2004 but swapped to law and economics after the first year or so. I did an Honours year in economics. I finished those degrees in 2010, which was the same year that I did an associateship with Justice Keane. He was in the Queensland Court of Appeal when I started at the beginning of 2010 and then about a month into it he was appointed to the Federal Court as Chief Justice, and I got to go with him. I really enjoyed my time as an associate. It was a fantastic year with the luxury of being able to watch a lot of good advocates from the relative safety of the associate’s table. It’s also probably where I first started seriously considering going to the Bar.

In 2011, I went to London to start as a trainee solicitor at Linklaters. I spent 12 months working in their financial regulation and litigation groups, and then I did 6 months on secondment toLinklaters’ competition group in Brussels. After that I studied the BCL at Oxford for about 9 months. Then I came back to Brisbane and I worked at Corrs in their construction litigation group. I was called to the Bar in 2014.

Ben: So it wasn’t until the associateship with Justice Keane that you really started to consider a career at the Bar?

James: That’s right. The other opportunity I had to see court work during my university years was through the Magistrate’s Work Experience Program organised by JATL (then WATL). I thought that was a really good program. I sat in court with Magistrate Halliday up at Petrie for 10 weeks. I had the chance to see private advocates, as well as a lot of self-representation and police advocacy. But particularly as an associate, I got to see how the advocates worked every day and how their arguments ultimately translated into judgments.

Ben: You nonetheless went to Linklaters and worked there and then later Corrs before going to the Bar though. What was the thinking behind that?

James: I think it is useful before coming to the Bar to have experience as a solicitor. There are a number of reasons for that.

First, it obviously helps from an experience point of view.  Particularly coming straight from university, there is a lot to learn about how the law operates in practice. Also, knowing what to expect when you come to the Bar in terms of working with solicitors, and understanding the pressures that they work under, is (I think) really important. Knowing that solicitors have to manage their relationship with the client (and that they are trusting you with that relationship as a barrister) is also very important, and something that is useful to experience first-hand. It’s also useful to have good contacts at firms before coming to the bar, compared to coming to the bar without knowing anyone on the solicitor side of the profession.

Second, you do need some savings before going to the Bar. There are some relatively significant start-up costs. For example, the Bar course, desks and office furniture, wig and gown, text books, database subscriptions and so on, are all things you’ll need to organise yourself. And then of course you need some savings to get you through the first couple of months at the Bar because it does take a little bit of time for income to actually start coming through. You might send an invoice but it can take around 3-4 months for it to actually reach your account (and sometimes longer). So, the initial few months can be a bit tricky, but once you get through the first say 6 months, it smooths out a bit.

Ben: So for you it really was more of a calculated step towards the Bar? As opposed to trying to see if being a solicitor in a firm might, despite your then existing inclinations towards the Bar, be for you?

James: I did really enjoy my time as a solicitor, both overseas and in Brisbane. I think I could have seen myself as a solicitor long term. It was more that the opportunity to come to the Bar presented itself and I thought I may as well go for it. I don’t think there’s any “right answer” to when somebody who might already be a solicitor should go to the Bar. There are people in Chambers who have worked their way up to being partners in big firms and then have come to the Bar. Others haven’t worked in a law firm at all.

Ben: When you say that the opportunity presented itself do you mean that you were offered a readership room in chambers?

James: That’s right. So the Chambers application process for me consisted of writing to the head of the chambers with a letter or cover letter (similar to applying to a firm) saying that I was interested in coming to the Bar, and asking if they have room and when it would be available. I emailed the head of the group I am in at the moment and he was able to offer me a readership room. 

Ben: So how old were you then?

James: I was 28 at the time.

Ben: Would you say that would be on the younger side of those being called?

James: Probably about average. Thinking back to my Bar Practice Course, there were a number of people who were about my age. There were a couple of people who were younger, and a few who were older, but probably not that many. In chambers, people have come to the Bar earlier than me. But yes, around 30 seems to be one of the main times that people contemplate coming to the Bar.

Ben: That’s interesting. Maybe one last question before we move on to what life at the Bar is actually like. You mentioned earlier that you took 9 months to read for the BCL at Oxford. Can you talk us through what your reasoning behind reading for a BCL was? And have you found that it has helped you in practice?

James: There are a lot of people that do do further study before coming to the Bar. But there are also a lot of people that don’t. And there are people who do well at the Bar in both categories. Does it help? I think it can help if there is a particular area of law that you want to specialise in, but I don’t think it is really “necessary” before coming to the Bar. It might help a bit to distinguish you from others junior barristers, but again, there are other ways of doing that. Further study can also be helpful if you want to work internationally or become an academic. I think that lifestyle is another good (and legitimate!) reason to do further study – a career in the law is likely to span decades, and taking 9 months off work to ‘re-live’ the student lifestyle is an opportunity that doesn’t come up too often.

Ben: To move on to life at the Bar now: do you maybe want to start things off with why how you find the lifestyle at the Bar as opposed to the lifestyle as a solicitor in a firm? And what about the lifestyle at the Bar do you most enjoy?

James: I suppose the main thing is that a Barrister is generally a lot more in control of how they operate. Having said that, I think there’s also a bit of a misconception, that I probably bought into, that Barristers are more in control of their time (compared with solicitors working in a firm). While that’s probably true when things are quiet, or you have nothing on, when you’re busy you really have a lot less control over your time because you are subject to court dates, client requests and solicitor requests, which does mean it can be very difficult to organise your calendar. Unlike a firm where you can maybe delegate work to a junior or somebody else to take time off or go on a holiday, it’s very hard to do that at the Bar.  Often, and particularly if you are the only barrister working on a brief, your only option is to give that brief to somebody else. You will potentially get it back but more often than not it will just stay with that other person. So, you do feel the pinch a bit more when you take breaks.

I also think, generally, there is a lot more responsibility resting on your shoulders as Barrister in terms of how a case is run and presented, which cuts both ways. If you’ve managed to present a case well I think you can legitimately feel a sense of satisfaction about having done a good job. Equally, if things haven’t gone well I think it can be relatively tougher to come to terms with. And those days do happen. I suppose you are a bit more exposed to the extremes of practice at the Bar compared to working in a firm. Solicitors have tough days as well, of course, but court is a very public place for Barristers in particular. Also, a lot of the work can be very urgent, and I think that unless you are able to deal with stress or compartmentalise it somehow there is a chance that work at the Bar can sort of become all-consuming, particularly with constant applications and moving court deadlines. Deadlines and workloads can build up quite quickly.

Ben: Do you think that part of that sort of stress is caused by there being less sort of camaraderie at the Bar than what you might expect to find in firms? I guess what I really mean is that at the end of the day you are a sole practitioner?

James: Well the second bit is probably right in the sense that if something goes wrong it can be your fault or it can at least be seen to be your fault. But I don’t know if the first part is necessarily true. Particularly in chambers, I have found all of the barristers to be very friendly and are very willing to help out members of the junior Bar. There are a number of people in chambers who I feel very fortunate to be able to call upon for advice if I have questions. Most people, I think, will tell you they have been the beneficiaries of such guidance themselves when they were starting out, and I think there is a strong sense of “paying it forward” and mentoring junior barristers at the Bar.

I think solicitors generally come to barristers for a couple of reasons. One is that they want independent advice on something. Another is that they want you to make a decision on something. That can be tricky because there are often no “perfect” choices, and sometimes it is a matter of picking the least bad option. Or attempting to identify a good option that hasn’t been thought of yet. Those tasks in particular are ones that are pretty solitary in a way. You can talk to the solicitors about the issues but ultimately they have come to you to solve those issues. And that is where, particularly with tricky cases or where ethical considerations come up, going to colleagues at the Bar for advice has been very helpful.

It’s not as solitary as I thought it might be, but there are definitely those nights where, I think Justice Keane had a phrase in one of his speeches, he said: ‘your only companions in the whole world will be the beads of sweat running down your back.’[1] There have definitely been those moments. But that is just the nature of the job.

Ben: But you find that it’s all worth it?

James: Yes, definitely. I suppose that last answer may have seemed a bit negative! Maybe we should steer towards the positives, and there are many. It is a great intellectual challenge. That is something that I really enjoy.

Ben: Of course. On that note, what sorts of matters do you take?

James: It has been a mix of commercial matters, generally. I haven’t done any family or crime. I wouldn’t necessarily say no to a brief in those areas, but there does come a point where you end up gaining more experience in certain areas over others.The commercial matters I have done have mostly been a mix of insolvency and bankruptcy, general commercial contractual disputes, leasing disputes and construction disputes, and also some costs disputes, acting for the former solicitors of various parties.

Ben: You probably remember your first matter. What was the process of getting that matter? Did it get passed to you from a senior barrister, or did you get approached?

James: It’s a mix. Particularly in the first year, junior barristers sometimes do ‘devilling’ work, which is work that more senior members of the Bar will get you to do and they will pay you out of their own pocket. So usually things like research memos, or draft pleadings, or other discrete tasks. I’ve found that that source of work tends to drop off after the first year or so, and then it sort of turns more into junior briefs, which you might get because another junior can’t do that work and have suggested you instead. Alternatively, a Silk or more senior junior might have a case that they need help on, and they suggest to the solicitors that they get you involved as a junior. You slowly build up a bit of a reputation and a group of instructing solicitors, but that does take time.

As to the first bit of work that I got, it was from a senior member of chambers and it was ‘devilling’.

The first matter that I appeared on by myself was from somebody who I knew at university, who worked at a small firm. He gave me a brief to appear in Adelaide and attempt to set aside default judgment, which was a great learning experience.

Ben: Just on this train of thought, am I right in saying that you did IMLAM and Jessup while you were at UQ?

James: Yes, that’s right.

Ben: So, then and now, standing up and actually presenting to the bench, is that something that you enjoy?

James: I think more and more it is. Time on your feet, particularly as a junior, is hard to get because in commercial litigation in particular a lot of matters will settle before they go to trial.But I do like it. It does force you to be very concise and clear about what your case is. And the more you appear before the judges, the more you are able to develop a bit of rapport with them. I think that in particular is where you feel like you are adding value for the client: knowing what to do to get an outcome and knowing what questions are likely to be asked by the bench, that sort of thing.

Ben: And just to speak to the people that are doing or have done moots at university, there is obviously some disconnect between the way that advocacy in a moot is and the way that it is in court. Could you elaborate on that?

James: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that one of the biggest disconnects, and this might seem obvious, is that you don’t get any practices! It would be great if you could run a trial 15 or 16 times before different benches, and work up the perfect opening submissions or cross-examination. Obviously it’s not practical and no one is going to pay for it. In real life you’ve just go to prepare as best you can and do it right the first time.

The other big difference is the evidentiary side of things. In mooting, you are typically in the High Court or the highest court of the relevant jurisdiction and are asked to make submissions on what the law should be. Most cases in real life are disputes about the facts, where the law is relatively clear or there are only one or two key legal issues. So, I find a lot of my time is spent delving into the facts; conferencing with witnesses and so on, or working out what is admissible and what is not. That is something that you don’t see a lot of in mooting.

The third main difference is the interaction with the bench. In a moot you’ve got a confined amount of time and the judge is going to ask questions that are usually about points of law. In real life, you’ve got a judge who is more often than not very busy, has a lot of matters on their list, and wants to get the answer as quickly as possible and then move on to the next case. And that’s true in trials as well. Judges are very good at getting to the point of matters quickly, and they’ll generally just want to hear what they need to decide the case in as short and concise form as possible.

Reliance on written submissions is probably another thing that distinguishes practice from mooting. Judges will more often than not take some time to read your submissions. For instance, they might adjourn until after lunch to read them, and then come back for oral submissions. And then depending on how good your written submissions are will dictate how much more work you have to do in the oral submissions. If you’ve set it all out perfectly in your written submissions, there likely won’t be much more to do, perhaps just a few clarifications here and there. You won’t go through and present your whole case again. You will generally very much be assisting, touching on the main points and helping the judge.

Ben: So then, can you describe in a very high-level way, how you would go about preparing to appear in court?

James: The first thing is to read the brief. And read it carefully. You might have a lot of time to get through it or you might not have much time at all. But whatever time you’ve got, try and get as familiar with the matter as fast as you can.

The second thing I try to do is to identify what is missing. What is the court going to want to see to get the relief that the client wants? Often there will be at least one or two things that aren’t answered but need to be answered. That is something where a barrister can really add some value.

The next step is to get that information. So, conferencing the witnesses, looking at affidavit material or contemporaneous documents to try and put that evidence in a way that the judge will look at.

After all of that, you need to start preparing for the hearing. If it’s a trial there will be a lot of preparation with witnesses, if it’s an application you’ll need to start putting together written submissions.  Basically, you need to know what you’re going to say to the judge at the end of the trial or at an application.

Of course, you also need to be prepared to deal with whatever the other side is doing. You can never be sure when the other side might make their own application, or take some step which you need to address urgently.

Ben: Can you give us some kind of idea of what a ‘short’ period of time to prepare is? And what a ‘long’ period is?

James: The shortest period of time to prepare that I have had was probably a couple of days ago. 

Ben: Perfect!

James: I was asked to appear on an urgent interlocutory injunction to stop a landlord taking possession of leased premises, which the lessee alleged were the subject of an option to renew which had been exercised. I was asked to be involved in that injunction at 3:30pm or thereabouts and it was listed urgently at 5:30pm that same day. So, that’s the shortest.

Ben: Pretty short.

James: Pretty short! I mean I suppose in theory it could be shorter, but I don’t think by much.More often than not, you’ll have a couple of days to about a week to prepare. The standard time for an application is 3 clear days.

For trials it really depends. Some of the big commercial trials might take years of work before they actually get to court. There will be long periods where you personally aren’t doing any work on the matter. But it can also be quite quick. I was brought on to a trial once only a few weeks beforehand. There had been other people involved in the matter before then but my involvement started quite late in the piece.

Ben: How often then would you say that you find yourself in court?

James: It really depends. There would be months where I wouldn’t go to court at all. There would be weeks where I go a couple of times.

I think that civil practitioners tend to be in court less than practitioners who specialise in other areas, such as family or crime. Criminal practitioners are often in court weekly, even daily. Family practitioners often seem to be in court at least once a week.

Ben: Well those are some really great, detailed insights. We might take a step back now as we round out the interview and ask a few more general questions. What do you enjoy most about the Bar? If you were trying to sell going to the Bar to someone, what would you say?

James: I’d probably say the independence. The colleagues, both at the Bar and at the firms that instruct you, are also a great reason to come to the Bar. You do build up meaningful relationships over time with your instructing solicitors, clients and fellow barristers. I suppose some people might think that there isn’t a lot of camaraderie between barristers because you might come up against each other in court. But I’ve certainly worked on cases with a barrister on one matter, and against them on another, and remained friendly throughout.

Ben: Absolutely. Two more questions? I’m conscious of time.

James: No, no, go for it.

Ben: I know that some barristers have sort of ‘dual’ practices in the sense that they will have chambers in, for example, London, as well as here. Is that something you would ever consider doing?

James: There are barristers that practice in a number of jurisdictions. I would like to do something like that one day but it is a bit difficult from a practical perspective. I think it is hard to build up a practice in more than one jurisdiction. You might have work in a number of jurisdictions, but I think you always sort have one that is your de facto base. At the end of the day you are supposed to be in court advocating. That is the skill that you hold yourself out as having. And to do that you have to be in the same place as the court, unless you really like travelling a lot. It is hard to do them at the same time.

Ben: That’s a good point.

James: It is possible to do work in different jurisdictions, though, even while based in Brisbane.  I have done some work for a case in the Solomon Islands, for example. So there is some scope for international work. However, I do think that it is, relatively, a lot easier for a solicitor to have an international practice, compared to a barrister. Solicitors can follow their clients around the globe, and just hire a barrister or local counsel to do the necessary advocacy wherever the relevant court is, as and when the need for that work comes up.

Ben: And I guess, finally, do you have any advice for students at university who may be considering the Bar?

James: I think if you’re thinking about coming to the Bar it’s a good idea to get some experience as a solicitor first because that will help you work out what the legal profession is like.If you want to try working in-house, or working for the government, or something else like that, I think it is best to do all of those things before coming to bar. That is just because as a self-employed person you are running your own business and it’s much harder to take 6 or 12 months off to go and try something different because you still have to pay your chambers fees, your bills, and you might have no income in that time (especially if you go and study, for instance). So if you want to explore different careers (legal and non-legal), I’d generally recommend doing that first.  The more experience you have before coming to the Bar, the better because it is quite challenging.

That said, being a barrister might not be your last career step, you might go and do something completely different.

Ben: This has been fantastic. Particularly because not many students know what the Bar, especially as a young barrister, can be like.

James: It is hard to get insights because it can a fairly opaque profession for those on the outside looking in. That is partly just because at the end of the day you are a self employed small business. So there isn’t really anybody you can ‘apply to’ or expect to help you set it up. You just have to go and do it yourself.

In London, for example, there is more of a system in place to assist junior barristers, and most chambers will pay pupils a stipend for the first year. Students tend to apply for those positions at the same time that they apply for clerkships in firms. In Brisbane there isn’t really any system like that. So, unless you’re going to self-fund, it can be tough to come straight to the Bar after university. I think that’s why a lot of people (including myself) go and do other things first.

Ben: Well thank you very much James.

James: My pleasure.



[1] Justice Patrick Keane, Toast to New Silks, Australian Bar Association Dinner, High Court of Australia, Canberra, 3 February 2014:

 ‘Sometimes the position of leading counsel can be the loneliest place in the world. From time to time, you will have what the French call a "mauvais quartre d'heure" – a bad quarter of an hour – where you have had a very hard time at the hands of the court and you look down to your junior or instructing solicitor for comfort, but they assiduously avoid making eye contact, and even shift their seats away to increase the space between themselves and you. On those occasions your only companions in the whole world will be the beads of sweat running down your back.’