Life as a Rugby Referee: Wayne Barnes on his Fifth World Cup

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As the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Paris tonight, hundreds of lawyers will be heading across the Channel to follow the action. One partner will actually be taking to the field.

Wayne Barnes likes symmetry. On a Thursday back in 2003, 3 Temple Gardens offered the newly-qualified barrister his first tenancy. Two days later, he refereed his first match in the Premiership, England’s top tier rugby competition.

A decade later, as he was set to head off on his honeymoon, his team at Fulcrum Chambers was instructed by ENRC on what would become one of the SFO’s most infamous investigations – an investigation it dropped just a few weeks ago. Last year, he joined Squire Patton Boggs as a partner in the investigations and sports teams, and refereed his hundredth international test match.

Now, as hundreds of UK lawyers head to France to follow the Rugby World Cup over the next seven weeks, he will be taking to the pitch for his fifth, and probably final, tournament. Barnes, who last year became the most capped international rugby referee in history, has always juggled the two careers. He believes the skill sets required for refereeing and practising law complement each other.

“You learn skills from one for the other,” he says. “Think about the advocacy you learn as a barrister and how you take that on the pitch.”

“The best example I can give is, when you go into a cell, the first time you meet your client, they’re pretty stressed. They want you to listen, they want you to be succinct, they want you to have their corner, and they want you to be pretty good at your job.”

“Before a rugby match, going into the changing room say for Australia vs New Zealand, and the captain comes up to you, you might not have met them before. They want you to listen, they want you to be succinct, and they want you to be pretty good at what you do. I think it’s one thing that I’ve probably taken from law into rugby is that ability to listen. Players want to be heard.”

The legal training helps with application on the field too. The laws of rugby are frequently criticised for being too complicated. Many joke that no one, not even referees, understands exactly how a scrum works.

In a story that many litigators will empathise with, Barnes told The Ruck website in 2021 that the hardest player he has ever refereed was All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. Much like a difficult judge, “Richie always had the knack of asking the right question at the right time…he knew the law book inside out and so when he asked a question, he often had a point.”

He is also eager to encourage the legal world to adopt sports’ review culture when cases and investigations wrap up. “I don’t think we see that a lot in law firms,” he says. “When a team loses, they don’t tend to blame anyone else – well they sometimes blame the ref – but they go, ‘let’s look at ourselves, what could we have improved?’”

The World Cup should prove challenging for referees and lawyers alike. Growing concern around head contact and concussions has resulted in rule changes requiring referees to dish out significantly harsher punishments than would have been present at Barnes’s first World Cup in 2007. Over the past decade of Six Nations tournaments,12 red cards were handed out between 2020 and 2023, while only three were given in the six years prior (all in 2014), but their ability to change the course of a match results in significant scrutiny on referees. An incident involving England captain Owen Farrell last month caused controversy when the fly-half was sent off for a high tackle. The card was later rescinded at a judicial hearing, which World Rugby’s lawyers then successfully appealed, which was subsequently successfully appealed by World Rugby’s lawyers, meaning he will miss the first two matches.

Barnes isn’t the only lawyer referee at the World Cup. Fellow veteran referee Jaco Peyper, who will referee the opening match between France and the New Zealand in Paris tonight, is an attorney in his native South Africa. Being a professional referee and having another career is rare, however. Outside Barnes and Peyper, eye doctor Ben O’Keefe is the only other referee at this World Cup with a second career.

Balancing the two careers has been tough though. “As a junior barrister reliant upon being in court, it was really difficult to juggle,” Barnes says. “You were limited on the length of cases you could do. Anything that went into a second week, or beyond the two or three days that you had expected got you into that nervous territory.”

Eight years after starting his career as a criminal barrister at 3 Temple Gardens, Barnes was part of the founding team at investigations specialists Fulcrum Chambers. While there, he represented the subjects of some of the Serious Fraud Office’s most prominent investigations, including ENRC, as well as Macmillan Publishers and French engineering company Alstom.

With a change of management at Fulcrum, he made the move to US firm Squire Patton Boggs last year, where he now works across the investigations and sports teams. Barnes won’t be drawn on exactly when he will retire from rugby, but it will likely be soon. The move to Squires is clearly part of that planning.

The US firm is keen to make moves in both investigations and sport. After launching a couple of years ago, the European arm of the firm’s government investigations and white collar team now counts four partners, including practice head Hannah Laming, who was pinched from Peters & Peters last year. Likewise, the firm’s sports and entertainment practice is now 13 strong. Led in EMEA by the firm’s UK head of litigation Stephen Sampson, it is wracking up a growing list of sporting clients, including several in football, Formula One and the International Tennis Federation.

Working across the two teams works well, Barnes suggests, as investigations into sport and governing bodies are growing. He has already worked on investigations and reviews for England Boxing and England Hockey. He won’t be drawn on whether refereeing or being a lawyer is more difficult though.

“When you’re in the middle of either, that definitely feels like the most terrible,” he says. “That’s what’s actually quite nice, they’re releases from each other.”

He doesn’t intend to leave rugby behind him, either. Like many sports, law is playing an increasing role in rugby. Just this year, litigation was launched in the High Court against World Rugby, England’s Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union, accusing the governing bodies of failing to protect them from concussion injuries. Although not involved in the case, Barnes has a keen interest in improving safety in rugby, and recently played a key role in developing rugby’s concussion protections.

“One of the areas which pricked my ears up when I was considering Squires was it is looking after the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] in the States on some concussion cases.”

For now though, his attention is on France and this World Cup. He has never refereed a World Cup final, however, and he hopes he won’t be referring this year’s game either.

“I hope England are in it, so that will rule me out! Otherwise I’ve got a one in 12 chance.”

Barnes will start his World Cup as an assistant referee in tomorrow’s match between Ireland and Romania in Bordeaux, before taking the whistle for the first time the following weekend in Nantes when Ireland take on Tonga.

*This article was originally published in The Lawyer on 8 September 2023

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