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It was recently reported in The Lawyer (26 April) that the commercial bar is in a state of crisis as its work is drying up. That is, of course, partly due to streamlining effected by the civil procedure reforms, but also partly a consequence of solicitors realising they are as capable as barristers of performing the highest quality oral advocacy. It is essential that solicitor-advocates continue to get the best available advocacy training and experience because, particularly in City firms, it is solicitors who will increasingly be called upon to conduct trial advocacy in commercial cases.
The advocacy training given to lawyers working in the litigation departments of City firms is now the best advocacy training delivered anywhere in the world. Solicitors undertake compulsory advocacy training during the Legal Practice Course and the Professional Skills Course before they join a law firm. But this is just the beginning. For some years now, major City litigation departments have combined forces to tailor make training for their qualified litigators, drawing on the skills and experience of qualified US trial attorneys, qualified solicitor advocates and commercial barristers.
Lawyers who attend the courses work late into the evening, in an environment similar to that of a major commercial trial. All aspects of trial advocacy are examined and practised, from basic questioning techniques through analysis of the objectives, skills and styles of cross examination to effective opening and closing speeches. Participants are subjected to video assessment, witnesses briefed to be difficult, judges to rival the worst tormentors likely to be met in practice, evidential nightmares and ethical complexities.
Training programmes were developed on the back of these courses to enable litigators to hone their advocacy skills by staggering the stages of the training over a period of three or four years. Now some City firms are piloting a fully-integrated advocacy training programme seamlessly merged with an extensive programme of advanced litigation skills. Having attended these "optional" training courses, City litigators are well equipped to handle the compulsory assessments, both in theory and in practice, which they must currently undergo after being certified eligible to take the Higher Courts Qualification.
Complementing this training is an increased emphasis on pro bono advocacy, in which litigators undertake cases on behalf of litigants who would otherwise have no means of representation. Combined with the increasing recognition that advocacy is part of the day to day responsibility of City lawyers, this experience has enhanced the value of the work undertaken by our litigators.
Mark Humphries is a partner at Linklaters, a solicitor-advocate and chairman elect of the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates.