The Legal Cheek View
Blackstone Chambers is one of the sets making up what is informally known as the Bar’s Magic Circle. It consists of 62 juniors and 59 KCs — an impressive statistic! – and from October 2022 is headed up by Tom Weisselberg KC and Jane Mulcahy KC. Established more than 60 years ago, it is home to top quality barristers such as Lord Pannick KC, who became something of a household name during the Supreme Court Article 50 case (whether parliamentary approval was required before the government could set Brexit in motion). He added to his reputation as the go-to silk for history-making constitutional law cases when he acted alongside chambers colleague Tom Hickman KC in Gina Miller’s challenge to Boris Johnson’s proroguing of parliament. Other stars in the Blackstone constellation include government go-to lawyer Sir James Eadie KC, high-flyer Dinah Rose KC, and ‘the Godfather of Sports Law’, Michael Beloff KC.
Operating across a broad spectrum, Blackstone Chambers is perhaps best known as a commercial set and has a particularly strong reputation when it comes to financial services, civil fraud, and commercial dispute resolution. However, it has expanded beyond its purely commercial roots and members also have strong practices in employment and public law, as well as media law, data protection, sport law, and competition law, among others. Cases are said to be “incredibly diverse”. This wide range of work is visible even from pupillage. One former pupil tells us pupillage at Blackstone Chambers is “uniquely intellectually challenging, not least because of the range of work that we do”.
As well as being broad in nature, the work undertaken by members at Blackstone Chambers is also “cutting edge” and “often in the newspapers”. This means the work is “hugely challenging” but also often pretty juicy. Some headline grabbing cases over the past few years include acting for the Duchess of Sussex in her copyright claim against the publishers of the Mail on Sunday and Mail Online, the immigration case involving UK teenager Shamima Begum, and representing the Rugby Football Union in relation to charges brought against Barbarian players for allegedly breaching COVID-19 rules. If those aren’t blockbuster enough for you, two members acted in the copyright and contractual battle over the Star Wars franchise after a filming row broke out at a fan convention shortly before the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
Just in this past year, Robert Anderson KC has acted for the Dubai Islamic Bank in an unusual case relating to an injunction requiring the Bank to take steps to procure the claimant’s release from prison, Tim Parker has appeared in a case involving an asylum seeker held in immigration detention for more than three years, and Tom de la Mare KC and George Molyneaux have acted for five NGOs in a high-profile case involving discharges of sewage into waterbodies. It is certainly a varied mix!
With such a high calibre of work up for grabs, help is on hand from colleagues, should one require it. One member tells us: “The true distinguishing feature of Blackstone from all other top tier sets: just the most amazing people. It is really like having a professional family.” Another source, who recently arrived from another chambers, says they “felt fully welcomed and included”, and already boast a long list of senior members they can “regularly pick up the phone to for advice on difficult issues”. As one junior puts it: “Everyone wants you to do well. It’s that simple”.
When it comes to work/life balance, there are mixed views, though most barristers who say their balance is off do recognise that this is “a personal decision, not a Chambers decision”. One member offered this take: “I could have a much better work/life balance, and lots of my colleagues do. I have chosen not to, while I advance my career and explore my options.”
It isn’t all work, work, work though. Friday night drinks in Middle Temple Gardens are a regular occurrence, as well as summer parties and BBQs. One member said “there’s far more than anyone has time to attend…” We’ll try and work out if that means there’s too much social or too much work!
In terms of premises, Blackstone Chambers is located within minutes of the Royal Courts of Justice and overlooks Middle Temple Gardens. The set has recently undergone a major refurbishment – one of the most significant building projects completed by any London set – creating a “unique and contemporary new home in historic Middle Temple”. We hear “the new buildings are a 10/10”. They have been designed to integrate the set into a “single-site complex” and a “modern working environment to meet the needs of clients going forward”. A lot has also been done in recent years to improve the IT support and technology offering within Chambers.
Blackstone takes on four pupils each year, boasting a hefty award of £75,000, and a high hit-rate for offering tenancy to pupils. Pupillage at Blackstone is completely non-practising — which sadly means no top-up money in addition to the pupillage award — but pro bono and charity work is encouraged during the 12-month training period, alongside a heavy investment into in-house advocacy training. Pupils sit with four different supervisors and gain a grounding in the chambers’ core areas of commercial, public, and employment law. Pupils work solely with each supervisor — something which is somewhat unusual — and typically assist with the drafting of pleadings, skeleton arguments and advises, as well as attending conferences. Pupils are assessed through a rigorous process of written tasks and advocacy exercises. One member commenting on the training provided, says they were “trained by the best in every field” which was a “total privilege”.
Those looking to apply for pupillage should make their application through the Pupillage Gateway. Prospective pupils must complete a mini-pupillage with Blackstone Chambers, and should aim to do this before submitting their pupillage application — otherwise, it will be considered a dual application for both a mini and for pupillage. Those marking the application will focus on academic achievements, legal and non-legal employment, relevant work experience, written and oral advocacy, and written communication skills. Once all mini-pupillages have been completed, the 16 highest scoring candidates across the application and minis will be invited to a final round interview.
Blackstone Chambers states that it is fully committed to diversity and inclusion, and ensures that pupillage offers are made solely on merit. They are proud to participate in COMBAR’s Mentoring Scheme for those from under-represented groups at the Commercial Bar.
What The Junior Barristers Say
Your journey to pupillage
I grew up in California and moved to the UK to study law as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh. After university, I came to London to work as an intern and then a legal researcher at a charity which works to decriminalise homosexuality around the world through strategic litigation. Although I found the law interesting and discovered that I enjoyed advocacy by doing some debating at university, I only decided that I wanted to go to the bar after working with barristers at this charity.
I converted my Scottish law degree by taking exams in land law and trusts and equity and then went to the University of Oxford to study for a Bachelor of Civil Law (a postgraduate taught degree) and a Master of Philosophy in law (a postgraduate research degree). While at Oxford I taught public law, worked as a consultant for another legal charity, and studied for the Bar Practice Course. I then spent six months working in asylum law in Greece before going to work as the judicial assistant to the Master of the Rolls in the Court of Appeal.
I was called to the bar ten years after starting my law degree, and would thoroughly recommend taking the scenic route to pupillage. From my academic study and professional experience, I knew that I wanted to do a mix of commercial law and public law, and did mini-pupillages at a handful of chambers with expertise in those areas.
The pupillage experience
I chose to come to Blackstone because of the mix of high-quality work on offer. I knew the broad outlines of the types of law I was interested in, but I appreciated that the breadth of Blackstone’s expertise would let me try things on for size, and hopefully arrive at a varied diet of work.
Pupillage at Blackstone involves sitting with four senior juniors who each specialise in a different area of law, usually one each in commercial law, public law, employment law, and a fourth area (e.g., regulatory, competition or sport).
Pupillage at Blackstone is non-practising, so pupils don’t undertake their own paid work. Instead, pupils are immersed in their supervisor’s practice and tend to do first drafts of whatever their supervisor is working on, be it a pleading, skeleton argument, or advice. Pupils at Blackstone also complete five pieces of set work which are assessed by members of chambers other than the supervisors, as well as seven advocacy assessments. It sounds like a lot of assessment, but the focus of pupillage at Blackstone is very much on learning and development. Although the pupillage year is challenging, in that it is an introduction to the profession as well as areas of law that pupils will not have studied before, ample feedback is given throughout. I felt that the process was transparent, and that we had the chance to improve before the tenancy decision was made.
The transition from pupil to tenant
The first year of practice is inevitably a leap from pupillage. Although the core skills are ones that you learned in pupillage, much will be unfamiliar, and you can only learn how to manage your own practice by doing it.
I found the clerks an invaluable resource in practical matters like estimating the time that a piece of work might take (almost always longer than you think) and managing diaries. On matters of procedure, substantive law, or strategy, I was continually struck by the generosity of fellow members of chambers of all levels of seniority with their time.
What is your practice is like now?
Like most junior members of chambers, my practice crosses different areas of law. I work with magic circle firms on large multi-jurisdictional commercial disputes, unled matters in the County Court or the Employment Tribunal, and have a substantial pro bono public law practice where I am both led and unled. The amount of time I spend in Court varies considerably across the course of the year. Right after I joined chambers I was brought onto a 6 week hearing for an account of profits in the Commercial Court, and am regularly in the High Court for judicial reviews and in the Employment Tribunal. However, when preparing for a big trial, I might have two months where my practice is entirely paper-based.
What is the culture of chambers?
I have found chambers to be markedly collegiate. Because most people at Blackstone stay there for the rest of their professional lives, there is a real commitment to getting to know people, and creating a friendly and supportive working environment. Doors are open, and we rely on each other to ensure that our clients are getting the best advice. The nearly 1:1 ratio of silks to juniors creates a dynamic intellectual and social environment.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
The Blackstone pupillage process is very focussed on academic ability and advocacy potential. Still, it is a broad church, and there is no single “type”. As well as people who have gone from quad to quad to quad, our ranks are made up of former social workers, bankers, musicians, trade unionists.