As London’s largest set and one of the biggest in the country, 39 Essex Chambers is home to over 150 barristers, including 51 silks. Past members include former Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson, Robert Jay QC who was counsel to the Leveson Inquiry into press freedom and Dame Justine Thornton QC, a high court judge. Former shadow attorney general and former director of campaign group Liberty Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti, is a door tenant.
Formerly called 39 Essex Street, the set changed its name in 2015 after moving to swanky premises at 81 Chancery Lane. This monster set also has premises in Manchester and further afield in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. From these, the set serves jurisdictions including Malaysia, China, UAE, Qatar, USA and Russia, among many others. Some members are also resident in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and South Africa.
This set is multidisciplinary and spreads itself across public and private work. Practice areas include international litigation, public law, banking & finance, clinical negligence, construction, court of protection, inquiries, environment, and several others. Clients range from NGOs and trade unions, to government departments and educational bodies.
Recent member medical cases include Susan Rodway QC, Shaman Kapoor and Emma Corkill representing 87 claimants in their civil claims for injury and losses arising out of Grenfell Tower fire, eight members being involved in the Infected Blood Inquiry, and Jenni Richards QC and Fenella Morris QC successfully appealing against a decision that only suspended a surgeon found to have marked the livers of two patients with his initials. On the financial side, Nigel Pleming QC successfully represented HMRC in a long-running dispute between News Corp UK regarding the VAT treatment of digital versions of paper editions, and Lord Dyson chaired a disciplinary tribunal investigating allegations against Deloitte and two former audit partners in which Deloitte was ordered to pay a record fine of £15 million.
In the planning, environment and property arena, five members were involved in a case regarding construction plans of a dual carriageway road tunnel at Stonehenge, and John Pugh-Smith helped secure planning approval for a new national landmark named the Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer near Birmingham. 39 Essex Chambers also operates in the bar’s growing sports law field, with Susan Rodway QC instructed to act for professional rugby union players in their actions against unions and World Rugby arising out of permanent brain damage due to concussions and sub-concussive injuries, and Colin McCaul QC’s appointment as a chair and panel member of the England Boxing National Disciplinary Panel. Members also represented the interests of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the Russian father and daughter poisoned in Salisbury and nine members are on the Equality and Human Rights Commission Panel of Counsel.
Pupils and juniors praise the “really wide range of work available” with one stating: “I’m always doing something unfamiliar. Baby juniors get lots of opportunities to assist senior juniors and QCs with really challenging work”. And there is always chance to learn new stuff. As another junior says: “If you want to do an area of work the clerks and your supervisors will go out of their way to organise that for you.” Pupils are expected to work hard during the day, but they are not expected to burn the midnight oil or work into the weekend; 39 Essex operates a “strict” 9am – 6pm rule to make sure pupils have a life outside of chambers. The set is big on wellbeing with a mental health programme including training, external 24-hour support, mentoring, buddy system, a wellbeing officer and a mental health first aider.
The set offers up to three 12-month pupillages. Recipients receive a generous £70,000 award (recently upped from £60,000). During the 12 month training year, pupils usually sit with four successive supervisors for around two months each, and will gain experience of both public and private law cases through shadowing in court, attending conferences and helping in preparing written submissions, pleadings and advices. The four seats tend to be construction and commercial, personal injury and clinical negligence, public law, and planning and environment.
In the second six, pupils can expect to be in court once or twice a week doing small claims and making interim applications in larger cases. Supervisors play a key role in the tenancy decision but pupils also completed assessed pieces of work for the ‘shadow pupillage panel’ as well as an advocacy assessment. Of the training, one former pupil says it is “the best at the bar I know of, and it continues post pupillage — we have mentors, when we start tenancy, to talk to about work or just managing life at the bar”. Another says it is “pretty brilliant” with “staged and individualised feedback” throughout the year.
The set has a reputation as one of the most approachable at the bar — an experience which seems to be shared by its pupils and juniors, earning it an impressive rating for colleagues. As one pupil attests: “Pupil supervisors are incredibly supportive and understanding that pupillage can be a stressful year. Their friendliness and time in giving feedback has been excellent. Beyond that the juniors have been wonderful sitting down with us to chat through our first cases, being on call for last minute court calls and evening sessions to prepare us for getting on our feet.” According to another, their colleagues are “some of the most wonderful people” who “couldn’t be more helpful”.
Socially, there is a lunch or drinks every friday in chambers, which “pupils are made to feel very welcome” at and, adds one pupil, “there’s always emails going around between the juniors and pupils for lunches and drinks after work”. Unsurprisingly, given the move to modern premises in Chancery Lane, with great in-house IT and other support, the set is highly rated for facilities. Its website is pretty plush too.
39 Essex Chambers recruits via the Pupillage Gateway and looks to recruit those with “intellectual” and “expressive” ability, interpersonal skills, commitment, drive, efficiency, interests in one or more of the set’s areas and interests outside the law. The set strongly recommends applicants apply, and undertake, an assessed mini-pupillage prior to applying. There is no record of the number of new tenants here – of the three pupils it takes on, offers have been made from zero up to three. Four out of the last five tenants went to Oxbridge.
The set encourages and welcomes applicants who are female, BAME, disabled, LGBTQ+, and those from other underrepresented groups. 41% of the juniors here are female. 39 Essex is signed up to Bridging the Bar mini-pupillage scheme, which seeks to increase equality of access to opportunities in law across underrepresented groups, as well as running a work experience placement in conjunction with the Sutton Trust which works to “improve access to higher education and employment opportunities for high attaining students form lower income families”.