London’s largest set and one of the biggest in the country, 39 Essex Chambers is home to over 130 barristers, including 48 silks. Among them is Justine Thornton QC, wife of former Labour leader Ed Miliband. Past members include former Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson, and Robert Jay QC, counsel to the Leveson Inquiry into press freedom and now a high court judge. 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 (82 Kings Street) and farther afield in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Members have been involved in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the Charlie Gard case, the lengthy Mau Mau litigation and were instructed to represent the interests of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the Russian father and daughter poisoned in Salisbury.
The set, which gets As for training and work in the Legal Cheek Junior Barrister Survey 2018-19, offers up to three 12-month pupillages. Recipients receive a generous £60,000, of which pupils can get their hands on £12,500 during the Bar Professional Training Course year.
During the 12 months, pupils sit with four successive supervisors and gain exposure to a wide range of cases. In their second six, they can expect to be in court once or twice a week doing small claims and interim applications. 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.
Pupils and juniors praise the “really wide range of work available” with one stating: “I’m always doing something unfamiliar. Junior 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.”
The set has a reputation as one of the most approachable at the bar – an experience that seems to be shared by its pupils and juniors, earning it A ratings for colleagues and social life. 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”.
Pupils are expected to work hard during the day, putting in a pretty standard 50-59 hours a week. But they are not expected to burn the midnight oil or work into the weekend. Every Friday there is lunch of drinks in chambers at which “pupils are made to feel very welcome” and, adds one pupil, “there always emails going around between the juniors and pupils for lunches and drinks after work”.
Unsurprisingly, given the recent move to modern premises in Chancery Lane, with great in-house IT and other support, the set gets an A* for facilities.
39 Essex Street recruits via the Pupillage Gateway and looks to recruit those with “intellectual” and “expressive” ability, strong interpersonal and interests outside the law, regardless of degree subject.