Cornerstone Barristers

The Legal Cheek View

“Even colleagues from other chambers know us as ‘the friendly chambers’… during lockdown we’ve even walked and cycled across London to catch up with one another in the park,” says a junior at London-headquartered Cornerstone Barristers. This leading public law chambers — which is co-led by Philip Coppel QC and Tom Cosgrove QC — has additional premises in Birmingham and Cardiff. Its 58 barristers, including 15 QCs, take on a mix of public law work, much of it high-profile. It recruits two pupils each year.

Recently, a Cornerstone silk appeared via Zoom in court hearings about the Shoreham air crash disaster. Other cases include an attempt to stop nuclear power station facilities being built on an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a challenge by two NHS frontline doctors to government guidelines on the supply of PPE (personal protective equipment) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cornerstone members provide advice and representation in areas including administrative and public law, planning and environment, housing, licensing, data protection, property, Court of Protection, health and social care, commercial and regulatory law. Clients include companies, central and local government, private developers, public development agencies and individuals.

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An insider describes their career progress: “Like any chambers, you’ve got to start somewhere. At Cornerstone that tends to be with quick summary possession hearings in the County Court. However, you can quickly pick up opportunities to broaden and deepen your practice. Coming out of the very junior end of chambers I have an interesting practice spread across almost all of our areas of work and have a few loyal clients who send me some exciting, challenging work.”

Pupils sit with at least three pupil supervisors, who “take their responsibilities seriously”. There’s a good chance of tenancy ― offers have been made to all pupils in the past three years. In the words of one former pupil: “Wide range of work seen. Pupil masters were good at teaching and being there. Constructive criticism. Pupillage is a difficult year but lots of support from the baby barristers and fellow pupils as not competing against each other.”

On a daily basis, pupils can expect to work with leading barristers in their field as well as more junior members of chambers, attending a range of planning inquiries, courts and tribunals. During the second six, they will be on their feet and representing clients in court. Chambers encourages its junior members to broaden their horizons through projects and scholarships, such as by working as an advisor to the Guyanese Government.

It is possible to have a healthy work-life balance at this set, in fact, according to one barrister, “chambers is very keen to encourage, and is very good at supporting, a healthy work/life balance; and indeed it has arranged its affairs (rent structures etc) to better enable members to achieve that.” On the other hand, it is very much up to the individual. As one junior puts it: “The work is there if you want to work all the time. And if you don’t then that is OK too.” A barrister who was taking an extended period of parental leave said the clerks “have been honest that that will be a challenge for them” but were also “100% enthusiastic and supportive”.

In terms of culture, it’s a friendly place to work, “known for its collegial and supportive ethos, which underpins decisions made about both practice and chambers management,” says one rookie. “The best advocates of that will be chambers’ pupils and new tenants. Personally, I can vouch that Cornerstone Barristers fairs very favourably in this regard, when compared with other sets.”

The chambers, which backs onto Gray’s Inn gardens, had a substantial facelift in 2016 and has “modern, air-conditioned premises”, while a “smart, open-plan clerks and admin staff room has really contributed to the positive mood among our non-barrister colleagues”. Hot-desking facilities are available for those who work part-time or live a distance from London.

The set has a lively social side. Before COVID-19 struck, members regularly gathered for Friday night drinks, dinner parties, ski trips and weekends away for the annual charity bike ride. Cornerstone is also known for having a social conscience — more than half of its members work pro bono for an average 50 hours each year, and it has an active corporate social responsibility committee.

What The Junior Barristers Say

Sam Fowles began his pupillage at Cornerstone Barristers expecting that over time he would be exposed to high-profile public law matters the set is renowned for. This has proven to be true. What he didn’t anticipate, however, was just how active pupil barristers could be in shaping their own areas of specialism from the moment they walk through the door. “It was clear from the very beginning that Cornerstone was going to support you in building a unique practice,” Fowles recalls.

Fowles, who was called to the bar 2017, studied history at the University of St Andrews before going on to complete a PhD in public law at the University of London and the University of Sydney. Alongside his studies, Fowles worked as a teaching fellow for the University of Birmingham. By the time he came to study the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), he was already providing advice and consultancy to NGOs and MPs on a wide range of public policy matters, including Brexit.

His expertise was welcomed by Cornerstone Barristers. “They gave me the space to maintain all the contacts I had made, which has proven useful in terms of work further down the line,” Fowles explains.

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Pupils are assigned three supervisors for the year and spend four months working with each. They make sure that pupils effectively “manage the pressure” as they progress from drafting oral arguments right through to handling their own client base. Such support continues well into tenancy through the set’s “open door and open phone” policies, he explains.

Another feature Fowles found beneficial during his pupillage was tenants’ “openness to collaborate”. In his first week he watched his first pupil supervisor, Estelle Dehon, lead a junior barrister from another chambers in a case relating to former journalists at WikiLeaks. “That’s another good thing about Cornerstone: other chambers can be very territorial, we’re just not,” Fowles said.

Indeed, at the time of speaking, Fowles is working alongside barristers from Matrix Chambers in a judicial review challenge to the prorogation of parliament. Fowles represented Joanna Cherry QC MP and 73 other members of parliament in their successful Supreme Court challenge. He is also part of the team representing Joanna Cherry, Dale Vince, and Jolyon Maugham QC in a legal attempt to force Boris Johnson to comply with the Benn Act, seeking an extension to Article 50. This follows his involvement in similarly high-profile matters including Wilson v the Prime Minister, the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Trade Bill 2017-19 and the Data Protection Act 2018.

Being so closely involved in fast-moving political issues often results in an unpredictable workload. “Sometimes work needs to be turned around in the hour — it’s just the result of the political situation which is moving very quickly and we’re trying to respond to it. In that case, you just have to drop what you’re doing and do whatever needs to be done.”

Similarly, busy periods resulting in the occasional all-nighter and working weekend are “just a reality of practice”, Fowles recognises. “Ultimately, you are responsible for the conduct of the case and delivering the right results for your clients.”

When he’s not representing clients, Fowles offers training seminars — skills which he draws from his time lecturing at institutions including the University of London Institute in Paris and the University of Sydney. Seminars are held either in the clients’ offices or in Cornerstone Barristers’ chambers, which thanks to recent refurbishment now boasts a cool, modern interior. More recently, Fowles focuses on offering training on GDPR and data protection. “It’s an under-appreciated part of the work that we do; sometimes, especially as barristers, it helps to identify issues from the start rather than acting only when something has gone wrong.”

The junior barrister also hones his public speaking skills during appearances on programmes including BBC Business and BBC World, or the set’s vlogs series, ‘The Three Minute Brief’, which can be found on the Cornerstone Barristers YouTube channel. Such activities, Fowles believes, are part and parcel of modern-day practice. “It’s not like the 1900s where your clerks simply brought in all of your work in a neatly tied pink-ribboned bundle. These days a modern barrister has to be entrepreneurial in going out and building their reputation and practice.”

Even in hectic times, however, Fowles finds a balance between work and play. Cornerstone’s barristers are spoilt for social dinners and drinks, whether organised by chambers’ management or the tenants themselves. Alternatively, those seeking a break from the heavy case law can enjoy some lighter reading courtesy of the set’s popular book club.

A collegiate atmosphere among the 58 tenants guarantees a constant support network for barristers. “These are not just colleagues you see nine to five from Monday to Friday. Ultimately, they’re your mates and here to support you.” Case in point: Fowles reveals that he’s invited 20 tenants and all the set’s clerks to his wedding next year.

Fowles finds time for hobbies, too. “You’ve got to have a life outside of the bar, otherwise you would end up quite a boring person or you just lose perspective,” he says. Whether he’s “tearing around a field with a rugby ball or trying not to join in and sing during a West End musical”, Fowles believes that taking time out helps his practice. “Being able to blow off steam makes me a better barrister. It means that when I’m here, I’m focused and I’m really here,” he adds.

Fowles advice to those wishing to follow in his footsteps? Don’t dismiss the benefits of postgraduate studies. “During a PhD, you are responsible for your project and ultimately, you have to deliver that before your scholarship runs out. Working under this pressure is really helpful at the bar,” he says.

Perhaps even more important, however, is to be resilient. “All the time people were telling me how hard it was coming to the bar and I had to be prepared that I wouldn’t make it. It was really disheartening and made it really difficult. So, the big thing I would say is: keep at it. Ultimately, you have to believe you will get there and tune everything else out. I got here in the end, even if it took me ten years,” Fowles advises.

Deadlines

Pupillage

Applications open 07/01/2021
Applications close 07/02/2021

Insider Scorecard

A
Training
A*
Quality of work
A
Colleagues
A*
Facilities
A
Work/life balance

Insider Scorecard Grades range from A* to D and are derived from the Legal Cheek Junior Barrister Survey 2020-21 of over 600 barristers at the leading chambers in England.

Key Info

Juniors 43
QCs 15
Pupillages 2
Oxbridge-educated new tenants* 1/5

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

Money

Pupillage award £60,000
BPTC advance drawdown On request

The pupillage award is £60,000 for the year which includes guaranteed minimum earnings of £20,000 in the second six months.

Gender Diversity

Female juniors 33%
Female QCs 7%

The Chambers In Its Own Words