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Leading public law set Cornerstone Barristers has premises in London, Birmingham, and Cardiff. With over 60 barristers, including 14 KCs, it is one of the larger sets. A number of new tenants and associate members have recently added to the set’s strengths, while recent appointments, including Lee Parkhill and Natasha Peter as Deputy District Judges, indicate how well-regarded its members are.
While initially focused on local authority work, members of Cornerstone Barristers now take on work across a broad range of public law areas, including administrative law, housing, licensing, planning, environment, property, community care, and inquests and inquiries. One junior observes that “local authorities are sending more high profile work our way which is not just related to our specialist fields like planning and social housing”. One barrister does note though that “public authority work is [still] what we are best known for”. Cornerstone’s clients include private developers, companies, public development agencies, and central and local government.
A lot of Cornerstone Barristers’ work has a real-world impact. As one tenant says: “A planning case might lead to long term, tangible change to a town, a housing case might have life-changing consequences for the individual — there is often a lot at stake when we receive instructions which makes for stimulating work.” One junior reveals: “We work on some of the most pressing public issues of the day: discrimination and equality, access to housing, developments and planning, immigration and eligibility for public services. It’s all about the way public services are actually delivered in practice, and what’s best is that we act on both sides.”
Recent high-profile member appearances include the Post Office IT scandal and subsequent public inquiry, an examination into the largest solar farm in the UK, challenges to the government’s decision to allow an expansion of Bristol Airport, Uber’s London licensing appeal, the Shoreham air crash disaster, and advising South Lakeland Against Climate Change regarding plans for the first new deep coal mine in the UK for decades. Other notable cases have included the Grenfell Inquiry, the UK’s first “buffer zone” outside an abortion clinic, and advising the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution’s inquiry into the Clapham Common protests. Dr Christina Lienen, who has a PhD in constitutional law, is part of a legal team working to overturn a ban by a French Bar Council (the Lille Bar Council) that prohibits French lawyers from wearing the hijab or other markers of faith in court. Such varied and challenging work means that “there is rarely a boring day in the office”.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath have put Cornerstone Barristers’ expertise in high demand. “We are acting for local authorities at a time when the pressure on them has never been more acute,” explains one member. The set acted in the judicial review of the A-Level algorithm introduced during the pandemic, for example.
An insider describes the career progression at Cornerstone Barristers as tending to start with “quick summary possession hearings in the County Court” but then progressing to “pick up opportunities to broaden and deepen your practice”. The set also provides “good opportunities to undertake led work”.
The supportive nature of the set means that “Cornerstone is rightly recognised as one of the most collegiate and supportive sets of chambers at the bar”, says one proud tenant of the set, which prides itself on its open-door policy. One member tells us that having a supportive atmosphere is a specific strategic objective of the set: “Being able to pick the brains of an experienced practitioner on a key point not only makes your work better, but it also makes doing the job significantly less stressful, which is very welcome, especially when approaching new areas.” We are told that the female members of Cornerstone have their own designated WhatsApp group where they celebrate each other’s successes and offer advice.
One junior reveals that they recently “developed an autoimmune condition which meant [they] needed to go slow for a while”. Apparently “both the staff and other members of chambers have been reassuring, understanding, sympathetic, everything you can expect… and the best of all, not surprised or patronising as [they] have rebuilt [their] practice and strength”. As one happy tenant sums up, Cornerstone is apparently home to the “best bunch of people you could ever work with”.
In terms of work/life balance, one member comments that “our clerks are really open to allowing members to control our diaries and arrange our working schedules in a flexible way”. The clerking team is said to be “sensitive to members’ needs”. Aspiring barristers should not, however, forget that “this job is not for the faint hearted or the work-shy” and that “there are of course times when litigation tilts the balance more towards work”.
When it comes to the social side of chambers, one member exclaims: “Where do I start? Our numerous chambers’ charity cycling trips across the UK and France? The holidays I’ve taken abroad with friends from chambers? The weddings and housewarming parties and personal events we’ve attended together? Our chambers book club? Our Friday cocktails at Catalyst on Gray’s Inn Road? The Christmas dance parties?” We hear that there are also a number of upcoming celebrations, including for Estelle Dehon KC taking silk and Sam Fowles’ book launch. The set really lives by the work hard, play hard mantra. For those who are less active socially, there is still “always a colleague to have lunch or coffee with” and a “lively chat on WhatsApp”. One junior does, however, lament that the social side of chambers “is not as good as before Covid”.
Cornerstone takes its wider commitments seriously with more than half of its members committing an average of 50 hours pro bono each year, possessing an active corporate social responsibility committee, and being a member in the Bar Council’s newly established Sustainability Network.
In terms of the buildings, the traditional Inns of Court building which houses the set backs onto Gray’s Inn Gardens and had a substantial facelift in 2016, meaning it now “boasts a modern, client-facing, air-conditioned conference suite” and so “the building is not only comfortable for members, but inviting to clients”. Apparently, clients visiting the set describe it as “special”. Some juniors are a little less impressed by the building, however, calling it “comforting rather than impressive”. In terms of members’ rooms, a large room is specifically set aside for the newest tenants to share, which one member says “was an important feature of my first years in chambers and a setting where several friendships were cemented”. Technology-wise, “members are well connected to chambers’ IT infrastructure, both in chambers and remotely, and are supported by well-informed and helpful IT staff”, though one junior comments that “there is room for improvement”. Other facilities on offer are hot desking, a well-supplied library, and showers for those members who cycle to work.
Cornerstone Barristers offers two pupillages each year, with a generous award of £70,000. Training at the set is highly-rated. One junior comments that they “think back often to lessons learned and experiences gained during pupillage”. The learning continues into tenancy, with one member commenting that, whether leading or being led, they “have the opportunity to learn from and with [their] colleagues in Chambers and find the benefits of collaborative working invaluable”. The set facilitates continued training by laying on “a plentiful and varied programme of seminars, webinars and conferences”.
Pupils at Cornerstone sit with at least three pupil supervisors during the first nine months of pupillage, who “go above and beyond in making sure that you develop with each and every piece of work” and together cover the set’s core practice areas. One pupil reports: “Throughout my pupillage, I have received thoughtful and carefully considered feedback… supervisors are keenly invested in pupils’ development and enthusiastically celebrate pupils’ progress and achievements.” During the first six, pupils can expect to accompany their supervisors, who are “at the peak of their careers”, on trips to Planning Inquiries, the High Court, the Court of Appeal and even the Supreme Court, as well as lower courts and tribunals. In their second six, pupils will be on their feet and representing in court themselves. Decisions as to tenancy are made on the basis of the qualities of individual applicants, as well as whether there is a vacancy for a junior tenant.
Cornerstone Barristers recruits through the Pupillage Gateway. After application sifting, 20 candidates are invited to a first-round interview, which is general in nature and lasts around 15 minutes. 10 candidates will then be invited to a more extensive second-round interview, which lasts around 30 minutes and typically involves an advocacy exercise and a case analysis exercise.
Cornerstone Barristers emphasises on its website that it welcomes pupillage applications from everyone and “would particularly encourage candidates to apply from backgrounds that have not traditionally been represented at the Bar”. Indeed, in September 2021, alongside Field Court Chambers, Francis Taylor Building, Kings Chambers, and Landmark Chambers ― all other specialist Planning, Property and Public Law sets ― Cornerstone Barristers launched a mentoring scheme for underrepresented groups at the Bar. The scheme is intended to encourage individuals from groups that are not well represented at the Bar to consider becoming barristers. Cornerstone also recently joined the 10,000 Black Interns programme “in order to play [their] part in making the Bar a profession of equal representation and opportunity”.