7KBW

The Legal Cheek View

“Beautiful, seventeenth century” King’s Bench Walk is lined with barristers’ chambers, each with its own specialism. Commercial clients are likely to turn into number seven, once the chambers of Lord Halsbury, and now home to almost 70 cracking commercial lawyers, including 25 KCs. The set was formed back in 1967 through the merging of 3 Pump Court and 7 King’s Bench Walk, Lord Denning having been a member of the former. Presently, the top name over the door as head of chambers, Gavin Kealey KC, is a Deputy High Court Judge in the Commercial Court. 

If the names associated with this set don’t give an idea of how highly respected it is within the commercial field, the work that its members take on should. An insider tells us it is a “broad diet of the best commercial work out there”. While operating across the full breadth of commercial law, 7KBW has particular strengths in shipping, insurance and commercial litigation. It also tackles cases involving civil fraud, professional negligence, commodities, and more. Members here have conducted work in destinations including Hong Kong, Singapore, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, and Switzerland.

Work is apparently “top rate across the board”. Eye-catching Commercial Court cases have included arguing Greek shipping law on behalf of HSBC, and litigation over luxury superyacht Palladium — note the strong nautical tang. Back on dry land, 7KBW boasts everything from three members successfully representing footballer Mamadou Sakho in securing an apology and compensation from the World Anti-Doping Agency who defamed him to members acting on both sides of pre-action matters concerning the infamous failure of Carillion, for whom KMPG were the auditors. The subject matter is clearly very varied. One junior tells us: “I learn so much about the world! Everything from food to helicopters to pipelines to animals to rugby players…!”

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More recent cases taken on by members include a team of four 7KBW barristers representing the insurers in a £1 billion claim by Stonegate Pub Company (owners of Slug and Lettuce, Be At One and more) over business interruption losses caused by COVID-19, and Rebecca Sabben-Clare KC, Benjamin Parker and Harry Wright succeeding in a seminal Supreme Court case on the “scope of duty” principle. Meanwhile, Gavin Kealey KC and Henry Moore have succeeded in striking out a £50 million Commercial Court claim on limitation grounds, and Robert Bright KC and Charles Holroyd have successfully represented the owners of two vessels who were found to be entitled to repossess the vessels after the charterer’s principal was designated as a terrorist by the US authorities. Various members have also worked on claims worth several billion dollars relating to aircraft stranded in Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. 

It’s not just the seniors acting on the exciting cases, however. Juniors tell us their work is “extremely intellectually challenging and enjoyable”. They tend to divide their time between advising and representing clients in small cases and being led by silks in more complex matters. While the pupillage is generally non-practising, there is opportunity for pupils to see and work behind the scenes on big cases. According to one pupil, “it can be the red meat of heavy arbitration one day and the rarefied manna of an appeal to the Supreme Court the next”. 

Despite their busy schedules, members at 7KBW maintain an open door policy and “there is always a friendly ear if someone has a problem”. There is a strong collegiate sense at the set, with one tenant explaining: “We all do the same type of work and so we are all pulling in the same direction.” A junior adds: “Being smaller than most of our competitors helps maintain a supportive environment.” There is a mentoring scheme for new tenants as well as for those returning from parental leave. 

Inevitably, life at the Bar doesn’t always lend itself to a perfect work/life balance. However, tenants at 7KBW generally seem happy with their lot. One member explains: “I think commercial work lends itself to a decent work life balance. There are always some pinch points, but usually that is because I have taken on more work than I ought to have.” Another, however, says “commercial law generally can be hard to manage because the cases are so big and run on for so long. It can be hard to work out when you’re going to get a good break”. Regardless, we are told “the clerks are very supportive of members and do not force members to take on work”. Another tenant, with three small children, says they usually need to have weekends free and “this is not a problem” for the set. One junior summarises: “You can be as busy as you want to be — really.” 

When members do have some down time, they may be found at the regular chambers’ tea or Friday drinks, both of which are now returning post-pandemic. There are also chambers-wide parties for important occasions and the summer and Christmas parties are well attended. The calendar may not be as full as some other sets: one tenant does confess “we are not party animals”, while another adds that “people are quite individualistic across the years”. However, when there is an event on, there is a “lovely atmosphere and everyone is friendly”.  

When it comes to the setting, 7KBW is “very impressive” externally. Situated in the heart of Temple and next to Inner Temple Gardens, there are beautiful views. Inside, we are told that the set is “gloriously Dickensian”. Several insiders admit the building needs a refurb and we hear the set is looking into this. Apparently, though, the “draughty/ramshackle” rooms inside are “part of the charm” of the set. As one junior puts it: “If you want strip lighting, minimalist furniture and corporate vibes, you may want to look elsewhere…” Another says: “I think we compensate for the old building by having the highest quality IT and tech support.” We are told there is “specialist IT help on hand where you are in chambers or at home”. 

If you’re sold on 7KBW and considering applying, you will find yourself competing for one of up to three pupillage spots per year. There is a generous award of £75,000 on offer. Aspiring pupils should make their application through the Pupillage Gateway. Candidates will be assessed on their intellectual ability, analytical ability, written and oral advocacy, temperament and interpersonal skills, and commitment to the Commercial Bar and 7KBW. Those scoring highest on the paper application will proceed to first-round interviews, with the top-ranked candidates then being called back to a final interview. 

7KBW emphasises that it particularly welcomes applications from those under-represented at the Commercial Bar and 7KBW itself. The set participates in Inner Temple’s PASS Scheme, the Bar Placement programme and a number of other schemes, such as that run by IntoUniversity and the 10,000 Black Interns Project. 

Those successful in their applications will sit with four supervisors and will assist in preparing for trials and applications, and attend court, conferences and arbitrations. As well as their supervisors, pupils will complete work for other members of Chambers, allowing them to see as great a range as possible. The pupillage tends to be non-practising, allowing pupils to focus on learning. The training is highly rated: one tenant says it is “unbelievably tough, but by the end you’ll be able to conquer any commercial problem”.

What The Junior Barristers Say

Emma Franklin

Your journey to pupillage

I studied English literature and then law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Right from the start of my legal studies, I knew that being a barrister was the route I wanted to follow and I had my sights set on the London Bar as the pinnacle of the profession. In the months after my law degree, I worked in Johannesburg as an intern at Freedom Under Law, a legal NGO which promotes the rule of law and democracy by bringing public interest litigation.

I then read for a BA in Jurisprudence (with senior status) at Oxford. I chose this route as the degree is a qualifying law degree, which would allow me to practise law in England. During this time and once I became clued up about the way the pupillage application process worked, I did as much mooting as I could fit in, and quite regularly came in to London to do mini-pupillages. In total, I did about nine minis at different sets – some assessed, some not. Seeing the day to day work that different areas of law entailed was instructive for me in deciding what type of law I’d like to pursue. It was during this process that I began to appreciate that what distinguished commercial law from, for example, public law was of the importance in commercial of written advocacy.

After Oxford, I went straight on to do the BPTC at the University of Law, during which time I was applying for pupillage. Covid threw a spanner in the works during that year, and my cohort’s Bar exams were taken online. At this point, I had returned to South Africa for what was intended to be a short stay. I ended up being there for a year. During this time, I worked as a legal researcher at the “Zondo” Commission of Inquiry into State Capture – which was an eye-opening and extremely valuable learning experience. As the most junior member of the legal team, my work was very varied: it included legal research, drafting questions for witnesses, analysing the evidence, drafting the evidence reviews and whatever else required my input. This was a perfect “practice run” for pupillage.

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The pupillage experience

My first day of pupillage was the first time I’d been to 7KBW, because I had not actually completed a mini here and my pupillage interview was done online due to the pandemic. I was drawn to Chambers because of the quality and range of work which comes through the clerks’ room, as well as for its down to earth and friendly atmosphere, which I had heard about from friends who had done minis at Chambers. My expectations were vastly exceeded on both fronts. I still pinch myself that this is where I get to be working for the next however many decades.

Despite it being a very challenging year with a steep learning curve, I thoroughly enjoyed my pupillage. I think this can be attributed to the variety of work I saw, the quality of the training I received and the support and focus on learning that my supervisors and other members provided.

As to the first point, 7KBW has historically been known for its insurance and shipping work, but in addition to those areas, I was exposed to work across the full breadth of commercial law of the highest calibre – including civil fraud and professional negligence. I was lucky enough to sit through three full trials and one arbitration during my pupillage. The highlight for me was Stonegate v MS Amlin, the Covid business interruption insurance case before Butcher J. I loved grappling with the difficult legal questions that were being fought over in this litigation and I got to see some stellar advocacy, including from our Head of Chambers, over the two-week trial.

Secondly, the emphasis on training in the pupillage year means that junior tenants are well-placed before taking on their own live work. Aside from the feedback on individual pieces of work that we were given by our four supervisors, all three pupils were given the same pieces of assessed work from silks in Chambers. Some were written advices and others were advocacy exercises which combined a courtroom simulation before a panel, followed immediately by a mock conference where we gave advice on the merits of the case we had just argued. The subject matter varied depending on what the individual silk who set the piece of work was doing at the time. I found the period in which we completed these assessments the toughest part of the year, but it provided a valuable opportunity to do work for different members of Chambers and to get feedback from the best in the business!

Finally, I felt that there was a genuine desire for the pupils to thrive at 7KBW. I was told (as I waited nervously for an advocacy assessment) that the members of the panel were rooting for me to succeed. I often knocked on the doors of members on my corridor to pick their brains and had people coming to chat and check on how I was doing regularly. I was also spontaneously taken along to hearings or involved in interesting discussions outside of the work I was doing for my individual supervisor at the time, which gave me the chance to meet other members and to see the breadth and depth of work at 7KBW. All four of my supervisors made a concerted effort to ensure my working hours were structured and reasonable – I was told to go home at 6ish and, aside from trial times or during the assessment period, I was rarely expected to work over the weekends.

Aside from this informal support, we had each been assigned mentors prior to the commencement of pupillage. My mentor was always willing to answer questions and we met up for lunches and coffees throughout the year. There are also two dedicated members of Chambers in charge of pastoral care who have no say in the tenancy decision, who kept an eye on how we were doing and became a great source of wisdom and advice.

The transition from pupil to tenant

During my fourth seat after I had been taken on as a tenant, I was given the opportunity to take on my own small matters as sole counsel. I was also briefed as a junior on bigger matters.

The tenancy transition was made far smoother by the willingness of members of Chambers to answer any and all silly questions, and to guide us on how to run our practices going forward – be that how to manage our finances or how much work to take on. I have never felt left to deal with tricky situations alone at this early stage, which has helped ease the daunting feeling that I am now working on my own.

As to the elusive work life balance, it is encouraging to note that members are able to maintain excellent and busy practices, while still having time for life outside of work and for families. Making that happen inevitably requires compromise, but having role models in Chambers who have been able to do that successfully has given me a good idea of how I would like to structure my time.

What is your practice like now?

My practice is in its infancy, but I have already had a chance to work on a wide range of interesting commercial disputes, including cases about the construction of superyachts, mis-delivery of cargo and alleged civil fraud in the context of foreign government-backed guarantees. In some cases I work as sole counsel (including smaller cases in the County Courts to provide advocacy experience), and in others I am part of a team of counsel. It is an excellent mix of work and provides great experience as I build my practice.

What is the culture of chambers?

The atmosphere of genuine openness and friendliness at Chambers is something I experienced from the minute I arrived, from all levels of seniority. This is something that I think stands 7KBW apart and makes it such a great place to come to work every day.

As pupils, we were told right from the off that we were not being pitted against one another and would be assessed only on our own merits, which helped to foster a genuine collegiality amongst the three of us. Knowing that there was an objective standard that we had to meet, rather than feeling like we were battling one another for a limited number of spots, meant that we became close as a group and I am grateful to have gone through the pupillage year with two such great fellow pupils, both of whom are now my colleagues in Chambers.

After each of our advocacy assessments, the junior members arranged drinks for us, at which we were often reassured that everyone at some point had had a nightmare assessment during pupillage and that one bad day would not be fatal to our chances of being taken on!

We were also included in events happening at Chambers throughout the year, like weekly chambers tea, the Christmas drinks and the new silks’ party, which helped us to feel part of things, even before we had been officially taken on. After our tenancy decision, we had a number of celebratory evenings, which again was a great way for us to feel welcomed and made me even more thrilled to be joining Chambers.

There is a super team of clerks who are excellent at what they do, and who are responsive to individuals’ desires to shape their workload and diaries. Nothing is too much trouble for them, and all the experiences I have had so far have illustrated the team’s willingness to make Chambers life as seamless as possible.

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

My advice is that Chambers is looking for evidence of intellectual and analytical ability, as well as advocacy skills and a genuine desire to be at the commercial Bar in general and at 7KBW in particular. It is no secret that there are lots of candidates with excellent academic records and credentials, so if you can demonstrate your personality and what sets you apart, that is always a good thing. It is not just your academic achievements that count.

Deadlines

Mini-Pupillage

Between 1 January and 30 April 2023
Applications close 01/12/2022

Pupillage

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

Mini-Pupillage

Between 1 May and 31 July 2023
Applications close 01/03/2023

Mini-Pupillage

Between 1 September and 14 December 2023
Applications close 01/07/2023

Insider Scorecard

A*
Training
A*
Quality of work
A*
Colleagues
A
Facilities
A*
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 45
KCs 25
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 £75,000
BPTC advance drawdown £25,000

Diversity

Female juniors 31%
Female KCs 16%
BME juniors 7%
BME KCs 8%