Wed, 31 Oct 2012
By Steven Reed
Media and entertainment barristers have clients in a variety of industries, including theatre, film, music, publishing, broadcasting, sport and advertising. They advise and represent clients in court and before other tribunals on matters that might include defamation, privacy and confidentiality, contract disputes, advertising standards, sponsorship, intellectual property and restraint of trade.
Steven Reed found himself studying law partly by default – “no other degree really appealed” – but he soon realised that he’d made a sound decision and began to consider his future in the profession: “I was open-minded initially, but over time it became clear that I had a greater affinity with the Bar.
My parents weren’t surprised; I’d loved arguing since I was about six years old!” Steven completed his pupillage at leading media set 5 Raymond Buildings and thoroughly enjoyed his training with some of the best practitioners in the field: “It was a fantastic and very rewarding year.” He notes, however, that media law is very specialist, which can leave ‘new’ barristers with little opportunity to get on their feet in court: “You’re more likely to be doing pleadings and advice, or being a second junior on a very large case. So you do sacrifice the chance to practise your advocacy skills at an early stage.” This in part dictated his move to No5: “I wanted to be in court more and I now do commercial and chancery work, including property, IP and insolvency, but maintain an entertainment and media practice as well.”
A common misconception is that media law is all Ryan Giggs superinjunctions and phone hacking. “It is if you’re a leading QC,” explains Steven. “But if you’re a junior barrister of a few years’ call, you will probably be doing research, and possibly not even going to court, on the big cases. You’re unlikely to get the sexy cases until you’re a senior junior – certainly not straight out of pupillage.”
Even at seven years’ call, Steven explains that the media disputes he works on are rather more modest: “For example, it often seems to be parish councillors or neighbours falling out! Maybe there’s been a leaflet through people’s doors defaming an individual, it all gets out of hand and the lawyers are called in. I have that type of media case more than any other.” In fact, regardless of seniority, these types of case are more common than the big libel cases of old: “With superinjunctions and the sheer expense of litigation, most cases settle before they ever get to trial.”
Steven estimates that he’s been to court just three times on media matters in the last few years. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some very engaging cases that come his way: “I recently acted for the boyfriend of a finalist of Britain’s Next Top Model. It was against the Daily Mirror and it settled after we issued proceedings. There was also a case which involved fake adverts on eBay that said our client had stolen the poster’s bike, and another where I was acting for one of the solicitors defamed by the website Solicitors from Hell.” In common with the general trend, both of these were resolved outside the courtroom: “The reality is that the cost of running something to trial is £100,000 minimum, so if someone can get it sorted for £10,000, that’s preferable from a commercial perspective.”
One feature of media law that requires judgement beyond the strictly legal is reputation management, as Steven explains: “In some instances, you may be better off leaving something alone rather than making a claim and finding that all of a sudden it’s on the front page of a national tabloid and millions of people are reading about it. You have to think, ‘How will things pan out – what’s the goal and what are the long-term consequences?’ A commercial approach is key.”
For obvious reasons, his recent Britain’s Next Top Model case was a highlight, but Steven has had other moments of personal satisfaction: “One was being led by a QC against Hugh Tomlinson QC in a strike-out application which went against the flow of case law. The other was during pupillage, when I acted for the Football Association in
an IP dispute that focused on ownership of the 1966 World Cup mascot. It hinged on whether goodwill still exists in something that hasn’t been used for 40 years – the answer was yes, because the mascot was so very well known.”
Steven mentions the Defamation Bill, which is going through Parliament, as something to keep an eye on: “It will codify the current law on defamation, so it’s hard to tell how great its impact will be. Another important change is the Jackson Reforms, which leave a question mark over funding. Media trials are very expensive, so there are issues of access to justice. A national newspaper with vast resources versus the man on the street – who’s likely to triumph?”
And speaking of triumph, Steven gives his view on what you will need, over and above academic ability, to prove yourself worthy of a pupillage place: “Mini-pupillages are important, but you don’t need to do loads. Take your time to develop your knowledge and interest. And be realistic – there’s no point applying to top chambers if you don’t have the CV to support it. By the same token, persevere – if you’re sure this is for you, keep going despite the inevitable rejections.” If media is your bag, then experience is essential: “Before I did pupillage, I paralegalled for a year at a TV company that was owned by Disney. Then, during pupillage, I spent time in the in-house legal departments of Channel 4 and The Times.
You don’t want to start down a specialised road without some practical experience.” For those of you daunted at the prospect of joining a profession suffused with archaic and unspoken rules of behaviour, Steven has some reassurance: “I’ve come to realise that the profession isn’t nearly as formal as it appears. Before pupillage, I thought it was all about etiquette and not speaking out of turn.
Actually, things are quite relaxed. When we’re interviewing potential pupils, we want to take on people who are interesting and who we’d want to spend time with. You’ve already hit the academic targets by the interview stage, so we’re looking for personality. Be yourself – don’t try to behave in the way you think a barrister ought to behave.”
Steven has nothing bad to say about the job: “I don’t think there is a downside to being a barrister. I work really long hours, but I can take long holidays or days off when I want to, so it balances out. It’s a massive thrill to be on your feet, getting a grilling from the judge on a particular point, with the adrenaline coursing through your body. Even better when you win! I’d say the positives massively outweigh the negatives.”
Article as appears in the Training Contract and Pupillage Handbook 2013.