39 Essex Chambers

The Legal Cheek View

39 Essex Chambers is one of the largest sets in the country, with 157 barristers operating out of offices in London and Manchester, as well as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Given the set’s size, it is perhaps unsurprising that its tenants have such a broad range of expertise. The set does pretty much everything apart from crime and family, with its greatest strengths being in personal injury, Court of Protection and community care work, professional discipline, and environment law. Other areas practised by tenants include public, commercial, and clinical negligence – to name just a few!

One of the best things about being a tenant at multidisciplinary set 39 Essex is that there is a broad range of work on offer. The set spreads itself across public and private work, and clients range from private individuals to trade unions, government departments to private companies. As well as its highly-respected domestic practice, 39 Essex serves jurisdictions such as the UAE, China, the USA, South Africa, and Qatar – very exciting! Pupils and juniors praise the “really wide range of work available” with one stating: “I’m always doing something unfamiliar”. There are continual opportunities to learn new things. 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.” We are told that there is “no pressure to specialise early”, meaning that juniors can work out what practice areas most appeal to them: “at a set with such a range of practice areas, it is possible to choose the thing that most excites you”, says one tenant at the set.

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Different practice areas naturally come with their own pros and cons. One tenant who has a construction and international arbitration practice tells us that it is “very busy, very pressured, but also very rewarding”. Court of Protection work, which is a big area for the set, is great because “you are able to help people”. Meanwhile, a tenant specialising in planning and environment law, for which 39 Essex also has a leading reputation, tells us that this area “has a great mixture of law and politics, and is usually about the future as opposed to past mistakes”.

Whichever practice areas they work in, tenants at 39 Essex tell us that their work is “consistently stimulating, raising interesting points of law and compelling factual scenarios”. Given the set’s reputation, 39 Essex often receives instructions in high-value, high-profile cases. As one tenant says, “I regularly work on the highest profile cases in my practice areas”, whilst another adds: “the work I do often makes the national news”. Previous cases have involved civil claims for injury and losses arising out of the Grenfell Tower fire, construction plans for a dual-carriageway road tunnel at Stonehenge, and domestic inquiries such as the Hillsborough Inquiry and Soham Inquiry. It certainly seems that there is “never a dull day” at 39 Essex!

Over the past year, tenants have continued to work on exciting cases. Richard Wald KC acted for the successful claimants in a wide-ranging challenge to the Environment Agency’s failure to prevent ecological harm in the Norfolk Broads; Jenni Richards KC, Catherine Dobson, and Stephanie David achieved victory for a widower who created an embryo with the eggs of his late wife in treatment with a surrogate; Christopher Staker acted as lead counsel for Myanmar in an International Court of Justice case brought against them by The Gambia, who alleged violations of the Genocide Convention; and several members of chambers acted in a High Court challenge to a runway extension at Southampton Airport.

When it comes to work-life balance, one tenant at 39 Essex tells us: “by nature of being a busy set, life boundaries get pushed, but the clerks are very sympathetic and helpful when you need time off or to pull back a bit to get respite”. We are told that the set is big on wellbeing, having a mental health programme including training, a wellbeing officer, a mental health first aider, mentoring, and a buddy system. There is also a “strict 9-6 policy for pupils”, with “most members of chambers taking pride in enforcing it if they see any pupils trying to work later than that”.

More broadly, 39 Essex is said to be a “genuinely supportive and nurturing environment”. One tenant tells us: “while it might be counterintuitive for somewhere large to be extra friendly, it is. Maybe it is that when there is such a wide diversity of people, there is no one “type””. As well as being friendly, there is an open-door policy throughout the set, meaning that if someone is stuck on a piece of work, they can pop into other tenants’ rooms and ask for help. If tenants are working remotely – as they often continue to do post-Covid – they can be contacted on one of the set’s WhatsApp groups.

Tenants at 39 Essex also enjoy socialising together. We hear that there are “regular drinks on a Friday attended by everyone from the most junior juniors all the way to the silks”. One tenant does reassure us, however, that “not going to chambers drinks is no barrier to social engagement. There are multiple ways of keeping in touch. There are also monthly chambers lunches (for staff, barristers, and pupils all together) and the occasional dinner”. Of course, Covid has had an impact, however attendance at events is “gradually improving post-pandemic”. One member told us that they are particularly looking forward to the return of the chambers cricket match!

In terms of location, 39 Essex’s London office is “borderline equivalent to a law firm in the quality of the building”. Following a move to a modern premises in Chancery Lane, 39 Essex’s London home provides a range of facilities including showers, kitchens, underground bike storage, and even a games room! Some members do, however, say that some of the charm of more traditional settings is lost – there are “no coal fires or views over Temple Gardens”, for example. This seems to be compensated for by the modern members’ rooms, which also come with “decent coffee and air conditioning”. The IT team are also said to be “awesome and incredibly responsive”, going out of their way to be helpful. Video conferencing capability is available in every conference room – again, tenants describe their facilities as being more akin to those found in a law firm than a chambers.

For those interested in applying for pupillage at 39 Essex Chambers, applications should be made through Pupillage Gateway. The set offers up to three pupillages per year, each with an award of £70,000. Shortlisted candidates will be invited to a first-round interview which will focus on a legal problem as well as situational judgement questions. Those who impress will be invited back to a more extensive second-round interview. Beforehand, they will be sent a case, which will form part of the interview discussion. Topical and application-based questions will also be posed.

39 Essex states that it looks to recruit pupils with intellectual ability, oral and written expression ability, interpersonal skills, commitment, drive, efficiency, interests in one or more of the set’s areas, and interests outside the law. The set encourages applications from under-represented groups at the bar and participates in schemes such as Bridging the Bar.

Those who successfully obtain pupillage can expect to spend their year sitting with four different pupil supervisors. Generally, pupils will have two supervisors who practice in public law and two who practice in private law. They will typically only complete work for these supervisors. During their first six, pupils will be drafting documents and helping prepare their supervisors’ cases. In the second six, they will begin to take on their own cases, typically small claims or interim applications in larger matters.

Current and past pupils describe pupillage at 39 Essex as “a key sell for chambers”. We are told that the focus is on training, with regular feedback being provided. 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 at sitting down with us to chat through our first cases and at being on call for last minute calls and evening sessions to prepare us for getting on our feet.” We hear that continual training is also provided beyond pupillage.

What The Junior Barristers Say

Jake Thorold

Your journey to pupillage

I went to a state school in London and then studied history for my undergraduate degree. I then worked in a think tank for a couple of years, working on everything from social housing to the future of work. I then decided to do a Master’s in history, but in doing so decided that the academic route wasn’t for me.

I did a couple of mini-pupillages and decided the Bar was for me. The GDL at City University followed, during which I did a few more mini-pupillages, mooted, volunteered for various legal charities and applied for pupillage – successfully, thankfully.

The pupillage application process was a difficult one, but not as scary as I thought it might be. I generally found that my interviewers were kind, even in response to my very worst answers…

39’s pupillage interview process is fairly typical: a written application followed by two rounds of interviews with panels of three. The assessment criteria are the same for each stage and include key criteria such as intellectual ability, expressive ability, interpersonal skills and commitment, drive and efficiency. The 39 Essex Chambers website has up to date information about that – see 39essex.com/recruitment/pupillage.

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The pupillage experience

Choosing which Chambers to apply for can be tricky. I decided that I wanted where I went to have a good public law practice, but I didn’t want to limit myself to that. 39 felt like a good fit because it was strong across a range of different practice areas.

Reflecting that, pupillage at 39 is split into four different seats: public, commercial and construction, planning and environmental and civil liability. You ordinarily have at least two supervisors for each seat, which I found gave me exposure to different aspects of each area. There is a lot of law to cover in a relatively short period of time though!

I found the quality of work to be really high during pupillage – pupil supervisors are all highly respected in their fields. Despite being busy I always found that my supervisors were quick to give constructive feedback. Chambers also puts on a full training series, covering a range of areas including wellbeing at the Bar, advocacy sessions and ethics.

An important part of pupillage at 39 Essex Chambers is the practising second six. You quickly get used to appearing in the small claims court a couple of times a week, which is great advocacy experience. Opportunities aren’t limited to that though: for example I was very lucky to be instructed as a junior on a week-long professional negligence case concerning an injured racehorse.

The assessment process for tenancy is transparent, with the aim being the no-one should be surprised by which way the decision goes. For each seat you receive feedback midway through the seat and then at the end, when you are assessed by your supervisors against the same six key competencies used for the pupillage process. Pupils also do two written assessments and an oral advocacy assessment, for which you also receive feedback. Towards the end of the year everything goes into a folder to the pupillage committee, who make a formal recommendation to the management board on whether you should be offered tenancy or not.

The transition from pupil to tenant

Immediately after pupillage I spent a year as a Judicial Assistant at the Supreme Court, and so have only just got back to Chambers – as a result I’m still very much learning what tenant life is all about.

I’ve been fortunate to have a very full diary so far; the bigger challenge is making sure I’m not taking on too much! In the six weeks since I’ve been back in Chambers I’ve done a number of small claims / fast track trials, been instructed on the Infected Blood Inquiry, acted pro bono to produce written submissions in a Supreme Court case and begun to develop my Court of Protection practice. The work is extremely varied, which I like.

What is your practice like now?

Again, I am really only at the very beginning of my practice but so far I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve felt fortunate to have more former pupil supervisors as informal mentors to help smooth my transition into tenancy – I do hope they realise that they’ve made a lifelong commitment in this regard.

I’m in court around two times a week on average, mostly in small claims / fast track trials or Court of Protection hearings. I’m enjoying developing the different styles of advocacy required for each area.

My workload each week varies, but it’s something I feel in control of and it has been made clear to me that it’s OK to say no to more work if I haven’t got capacity. I tend to work hard during the week but am pretty protective of my weekends.

My future ambitions are to develop my practice in public, planning and environmental law. It’s great to be somewhere where I know I’ll be well supported to do this.

What is the culture of chambers?

39 Essex is a big Chambers, but I’m always amazed at how collegiate it still manages to feel. Walking down Chancery Lane can be a long journey on some days due to all the members of Chambers you bump into!

In my short time as a tenant I’ve bothered colleagues frequently with silly questions, and have always been given the help – and patience – that I need. The clerks have also been really supportive, and I haven’t felt pressured into doing things by virtue of being one of the more junior members of Chambers.

We’re fortunate to be located in a modern building with excellent facilities right in the centre of Chancery Lanes. That means lots of bright conference rooms, showers with a towel service, table tennis, pool table and lots of great views over Lincoln’s Inn.

So far I’ve found Chambers to have a healthy social life – we have weekly Chambers drinks in the clerks room, a monthly Chambers lunch and parties at Christmas and in the summer. There’s always someone up for a celebration (or commiseration) drink after a case too.

There’s shedloads of impressive silks around the place, but no-one that I feel the need to hide from. I didn’t expect to end up at a festival with the head of Chambers during pupillage, but I’m still here and we’re off to a gig together in a few weeks so I can’t have done too much wrong…

Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers

A really important attribute to demonstrate, I think, is curiosity about the law. Chambers won’t expect you to be the finished article when you’re applying for pupillage, but they will want to see someone who is willing to learn and interested in how different areas of the law work. So try to read recent judgments, listen to legal podcasts (LawPod is great) and attend events if you can – all of these things will help.

At the same time don’t lose sight of interests outside of the law. Firstly, work isn’t everything. Secondly, Chambers want to recruit people that they are going to want to have around for the next 40-odd years. This doesn’t mean that you have to be captain of every sports team and have read War and Peace six times. Indeed, some of my best moments in pupillage interviews were when talking about my search for the best fish and chips in London – turns out barristers are really interested in that.

Finally I’d add that there really isn’t a massive rush to get pupillage. Lots of the best barristers I know have done something else first, whether that be legal or otherwise. It’s a long career and having some other experience under your belt before you begin can be a really good thing, both for securing pupillage and for settling into life as a barrister afterwards.

It’s really important to emphasise that the Bar is for everyone. There remains a lot of work to be done, but on the part of 39 Essex Chambers we want to receive applications from people from the full range of backgrounds. There’s not a set model for what makes a good barrister, and we’re committed to recognising that all sorts of different life experiences can equip someone with the skills to be an excellent barrister.

Deadlines

Pupillage

Applications open 04/01/2023
Applications close 08/02/2023

Insider Scorecard

A
Training
A*
Quality of work
A*
Colleagues
A*
Facilities
B
Work/life balance
A
Social life
A*
Legal Tech

Insider Scorecard grades range from A* to C and are derived from the Legal Cheek Junior Barrister Survey 2022-3 completed by barristers at the set.

Key Info

Juniors 106
KCs 51
Pupillages 3
Oxbridge-educated new tenants* 3/5

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

Money

Pupillage award £70,000
BPTC advance drawdown £15,000

Diversity

Female juniors 44%
Female KCs 25%
BME juniors undisclosed
BME KCs undisclosed