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Q&A with Patricia Burns, Barrister at One Essex Court

One Essex Court is a leading set of barristers' chambers, specialising in commercial disputes, founded in 1966. It currently comprises 85 full-time members, 32 of whom are silks or Queen's Counsel. One Essex Court's members include well-known silks Lord Grabiner QC and Laurence Rabinowitz QC.

Patricia Burns, a Cambridge alumna, was called to the bar in 2011 and her practice covers a broad range of commercial work, both contentious and advisory. She has substantial experience of complex, high-value litigation and alternative dispute resolution (including domestic and international arbitration and expert determination), particularly in the field of banking and finance. She has appeared in the Court of Appeal and the High Court as part of a larger team and has also acted as sole counsel in both the High Court and County Courts.

CUSWL asked Patricia some questions about life at the Bar and at One Essex Court.

1) What made you decide to pursue a career at the Bar?

For most of my time at Cambridge I thought I would train as a solicitor. But the vacation scheme I did in the summer between second and third year caused me to think again. I found it quite dull, and was surprised at how little law was involved. I then did a couple of mini-pupillages, which I enjoyed, but my decision to go the Bar was really made when I participated in the De Smith mooting competition in third year. I loved the challenge of crafting legal arguments and preparing to meet my opponent’s case.

2) Why did you choose to apply to One Essex Court?

Having decided that I wanted to practise commercial law, applying to One Essex Court was a no-brainer. It is one of the top commercial sets in the country (in October 2018 it won Chambers & Partners Commercial Litigation set of the year, as well as overall Set of the Year), and it attracts interesting and varied work from first-rate clients.

3) If you could go back to your time as a law student at Cambridge, and give your younger self some advice, what would you say?

I’d tell myself that you don’t need to have your career sorted when you graduate. I felt enormous pressure to start my legal career straight after graduating – perhaps because so many people had training contracts by the time we started third year. But there is really no need – as long as you are doing something in the intervening years (whether that is travelling, post-graduate study or an alternative career), employers/chambers won’t mind that you didn’t decide at age 21 that you wanted to work for them. It’s certainly never too late to come to the Bar (and post-graduate study can be a real advantage, though it’s not a requirement). The most important thing is to get the best degree result you possibly can, so that you don’t close any doors before you’ve decided what you want to do.

4) What are the most rewarding aspects of being a commercial barrister?

Every case is interesting in its own way. Sometimes the expert issues involved are fascinating; sometimes the legal issues are novel and challenging. Even though, as barristers, we work on our own a lot of the time, teamwork is extremely important in big cases. We work with many truly excellent firms of solicitors, and the strong relationship between barrister and solicitor that develops over a long case is very rewarding.

5) What is the best decision you have made in your career so far?

Probably my decision to accept pupillage at One Essex Court. It is a great place to work.

6) What are the most challenging parts of your profession?

Barristers put a lot of pressure on themselves, partly because they are self-employed and partly because the Bar attracts people with perfectionist tendencies. Managing that pressure can sometimes be difficult.

7) As a self-employed professional, how do you stay organised and manage your time effectively?

Everybody has a slightly different strategy, but I make lists of the things that need to be done (both work tasks and administration tasks), in order of priority, and stick them to the bottom of my computer screen. I try to take care of any admin as soon as possible after it arises, so that the amount of admin never builds up to a daunting level.

8) What motivates you in your career?

Mainly pride in my work. As a self-employed barrister, reputation is paramount, so it’s important that everything I do reflects my best work. Even if a piece of work does not have my name at the bottom, for my own peace of mind I need to know that it’s as good as I can make it.

9) What do you make of the current issues surrounding retention of women at the Bar and how do you think they should be tackled?

The problem of retaining women at the Bar is the result of a misconception that the profession of a barrister is not compatible with motherhood. That may have been true once, but it is no longer the case. At One Essex Court, we are tackling the problem by correcting the misconception. We have a generous parental leave policy (including a £40,000 interest-free loan, if desired) and a lot of experience bringing parents back to work and, if the barrister wants, facilitating part-time practice. We’re helped a great deal in this respect by the active support of our clerks’ room, which is unusually gender-balanced. No woman has left chambers in the past 15 years - we’re proud of this record, but make sure to regularly review our policies and practices to be sure that One Essex Court is doing its best to retain talent.

10) How is One Essex Court contributing to improving equality and diversity at the Bar?

One Essex Court reaches out to groups under-represented at the commercial bar in a variety of ways. For example, in collaboration with some of our instructing solicitors, we run workshops for students from disadvantaged schools and backgrounds, and for the past several years we have run panel events and open days for university students focused on life as a woman at the commercial bar. We also are mindful of our recruitment practices at the pupillage application stage: application forms are anonymised, we try to ensure that our interview panels are diverse in terms of gender, age and educational background, and each year we do a detailed statistical review to pick up any signs of bias.

One Essex Court will be hosting an event in conjunction with CUSWL next term. Keep an eye on the CUSWL Facebook page,, for further details!

Find out about pupillage and opportunities for work experience at One Essex Court at

Questions by Kathryn Handley, Vice President of CUSWL