Twenty Essex

The Legal Cheek View

First established way back in the 1930s, Twenty Essex specialises in commercial disputes with strength in shipping and commodities, public international law and international arbitration. This set of chambers boasts around 80 members, including 28 QCs, and is jointly headed up by Duncan Matthews QC and Stephen Atherton QC. The set has an impressive history of senior members moving on into the judiciary, with several members currently serving in the High Court. In 2010, the set was invited to open an annex in Singapore by the Ministry of Law and says it “has been investing in building international relationships ever since” (some lucky rookies even get to do a secondment there occasionally).

Recent cases handled by members include the ground-breaking Haliburton v Chubb Supreme Court case, one of the most important judgments concerning international arbitration in recent years, acting for an aviation company in a case in which the Italian Supreme Court confirmed pilot age restrictions are lawful for aviation companies engaged in national intelligence activities, and the high-profile case of Princess Haya and Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid al-Maktoum and their children, in which Twenty Essex barristers were brought in on the state immunity issues. A previous blockbuster case was providing an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court in a case “concerning claims for US$250 million in compensation for the alleged coerced sale of a master trove of medieval art treasures known as the ‘Welfenschatz’ during the Nazi-reign of Germany”. Member Sir Peter Gross, has been appointed by the Lord Chancellor to chair the Conservative’s highly publicised Independent Human Rights Act Review.

Combined with the set’s public international law is its maritime knowledge. Twenty Essex barristers acted on both sides of the €1billion “The Prestige” shipping dispute involving the Spanish and French state, a claim for total loss after a vessel was boarded by armed men in the Gulf of Aden, and were instructed in claims brought by Bolivia before the International Court of Justice in relation to an alleged obligation to negotiate access to the Pacific Ocean. Due to the cross-practice nature of the set’s work and new additions, Twenty Essex is now growing in areas such as climate action, civil fraud and cyber. For example, Monica Feria-Tinta acted amicus curiae in the “first world case on the Rights of Nature” before the Constitutional Court in Ecuador.

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Commenting on the work available, one member says it is “intellectually challenging but incredibly rewarding, members of chambers work on the cutting edge of private and public international law”.  Through the ability to have a diverse practice consisting of commercial law, public and public international law, members rave about the variety, meaning what is on their desks is “never dull”. One tenant says: “I get a great combination of factually interesting cases, tricky points of law, clients willing to pay and plenty of oral advocacy. We also get to have a lot of fun along the way with some great colleagues”.

With such big cases, expectedly, they don’t tend to afford huge opportunities for those at the very start of their careers. Twenty Essex rookies instead often focus on supporting senior members in much larger matters through legal research, drafting statements of cases, skeleton arguments and opinions; however there is opportunity for pupils to be instructed on their own in smaller cases during the second six.  Pupils have three supervisors over the course of the training year and are provided with a programme of advocacy training exercises. Assessment of these exercises are given in addition to overall reviews every three months with “tailored feedback on every piece of work”. One former pupil went as far as saying they would rate the training higher than ‘A’ if they could. It must be good seeing as though 80% of pupils come up to tenancy standard.

Chambers members also provide “specialised training” including sessions on remote hearing advocacy, negotiation skills, document presentation, cyber security and ethics, as well as members receiving support on practice management and business development skills. We are told help also comes from colleagues informally whereby “members go above and beyond to make themselves available to answer questions”. One former pupil tells us:“[All] the members of chambers did everything they could to assist during pupillage”.

Whilst pupillage is always a steep learning curve, Twenty Essex recognises this and has a number of initiatives in place to support pupils. This includes not expecting pupils to work late in the week, take work home or work at weekends, paying for travel expenses, permitting 23 days holiday, parental leave applying equally to pupils, and providing a buddy system. One pupil says their supervisors have “always been really careful to make sure (for example) I’m not online and replying to emails in the evening”. When it comes to real life tenancy practice, chambers is “very encouraging of work/life balance” but, as a self-employed profession, the balance usually comes down to individual choices and with such great work available, it can be hard to say no. We are however told by one member there is no pressure from clerks and both they, and chambers, are happy for members to take on only as much work which fits around other commitments. In recognition for its efforts on wellbeing, the set was awarded the Wellbeing at the Bar Certificate of Recognition by the Bar Council.

Twenty Essex personifies work hard, play hard. The set encourages socialising and organises morning tea and cake sessions, and up on the roof, there are weekly drinks which are apparently “pretty special” as well as yoga classes (when sunny!), alongside the impromptu lunches and coffees members grab together. During the pandemic, the set adapted to virtual drinks and christmas party and even a virtual murder mystery evening. “Chambers is extremely collegial”, says one member, with another adding: “I really value the support from my fellow barristers — not just my contemporaries but also those much more senior and junior than me”. The set has an open door policy with members positively encouraging others to drop by for guidance and support. One member who works part time tells the 2021-22 Legal Cheek Junior Barristers Survey they “have never felt marginalised” or “sidelined” because they do not work every day. One member says the set continues to strive to do more socially to maintain good cohesion among colleagues.

Based on the edge of the Temple area of London, just across from the Royal Courts of Justice, Twenty Essex has a “beautiful frontage” to its listed Georgian facade, with its indoors however “more like a standard chambers building”. One member says however that they “love the traditional feel” of the current digs. The chambers has “good facilities for virtual hearings and conferences, comfortable space for practitioners and employees”. We are told the set is always aiming for improvement and is taking on new premises which it is remodelling.

On hand for any predictable IT issues is the “fantastic IT team” who get back to those in need “incredibly quickly”, with one member saying they have solved every problem they have encountered. Chambers ensured members were set up to work from home during the pandemic with laptops and external monitors along with the set being “early adopters of technology like Tresorit which provides a very easy secure GDPR compliant filing and file sharing system”.

Twenty Essex were the very first chambers to use the Rare Recruitment system, which is “intended to allow a recruiter to put a candidate’s achievements into the context of the candidate’s circumstances”. To further increase equality, diversity and inclusion at the bar, the set is a partner of the Bridging the Bar mini-pupillage programme, providing experience to those from non-traditional backgrounds as well as providing placements on the Bar Placement Week in partnership with the Bar Council, and some members having provided mentoring through the Social Mobility Foundation. Twenty Essex is also a signatory to the Women in Law Pledge and states it is committed to the progress of gender equality. Along with several other chambers, the set also provided financial support during the pandemic to help fund a criminal pupillage.

If you think Twenty Essex is the place for you, then make sure to apply for mini-pupillage as applicants for pupillage are only considered if you have completed, or been offered one. The one day mini offered is jam packed full of activities and even includes an optional applications clinic. When it comes to applying for pupillage, Twenty Essex looks for those with “exceptional ability” with interest in its fields of work, whilst looking for skills beyond intelligence including “interpersonal and communication skills”.

Insider Scorecard

Quality of work
Work/life balance
Social life
Legal Tech

Insider Scorecard Grades range from A* to D and are derived from the Legal Cheek Junior Barrister Survey 2021-22 of over 600 barristers at the leading chambers in England.

Key Info

Juniors 51
QCs 28
Pupillages 2
Oxbridge-educated new tenants* 4/5

*Figure is for the five most junior members of chambers; does not include postgraduate studies.


Pupillage award £70,000
BPTC advance drawdown £25,000


Female juniors 33%
Female QCs 6%
BME juniors 8%
BME QCs 4%