The Legal Cheek View
Leading public law set Cornerstone Barristers has premises in London, Birmingham, and Cardiff. With 60 barristers, including 13 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”.
What The Junior Barristers Say
Your journey to pupillage
I studied law as an undergraduate at St Peter’s College, Oxford. I then worked in the Brussels office of Latham & Watkins LLP as a stagiaire for six months on competition law cases, before returning to do an LLM in competition law at King’s College London.
After getting an Exhibition from Inner Temple, I did the BPTC (as it then was) after my LLM. People were very down on the BPTC as being a waste of time. I largely agree with that criticism, except in relation to the advocacy modules which I found very helpful preparation for advocacy exercises at pupillage interviews.
I then spent some time working in the civil service. First, for a year as a legal intern at the Competition & Markets Authority. Then for eighteen months as a Research Assistant in the Commercial & Common Law Team at the Law Commission. At the Law Commission I worked on two different projects: one reforming the Victorian Bills of Sale Acts, and the other on reforming residential leasehold. I can’t sing the praises of the Research Assistant programme at the Law Commission highly enough as a thing to do if you’re trying to get pupillage. It is without a doubt where I learned the skills that were most useful to me in both applying for pupillage and then actually doing pupillage.
Over the years, I did somewhere between five and ten mini-pupillages in a mix of areas, some assessed, some un-assessed. Ironically, I didn’t do a mini at Cornerstone!
I wasn’t one of the fortunate few who got pupillage first time and applied three or four times (I can’t quite remember which!) over the years. I took the attitude that I was happy to keep applying as long as I felt that I was a stronger candidate in that round than in the round before.
I was, for some reason, obstinately against being involved in mooting and so preferred to get my advocacy experience through the Free Representation Unit (FRU). I volunteered with the FRU social security team for a few years, doing first-tier tribunal appeals. I stopped just before I started pupillage. I also volunteered with the Citizens Advice Bureau as a gateway assessor.
The pupillage experience
It is a real eye-roll worthy cliché but everything about my pupillage application to Cornerstone just clicked. I had had no interaction with Cornerstone prior to interview but at both my interviews I was struck by how normal everyone I met seemed. The place is obviously full of immensely talented barristers with enormous brains, but despite that they are also all friendly and approachable to a noteworthy degree. I feel I have had enough experience of other sets to make that comparison fairly!
Pupillage is split into three seats of four months each. You have a different supervisor for each seat. The general rhythm tended to be one substantial piece of written work for your supervisor per week, which could vary depending on what was happening. I had a brilliant first seat with Philip Coppel QC, one of our Heads of Chambers, where I was involved in a range of public and commercial law cases, like the SNP’s judicial review against ITV’s exclusion of them from a TV leadership debate and Vote Leave’s challenge to the Electoral Commission’s publication of investigation findings about electoral offences committed during the Brexit referendum.
Just as I was gearing up for my fully practising second six, lockdown 1.0 hit. Cornerstone second sixes are usually fully practising, but sadly mine was spent home alone with my laptop.
Things perked up in time for my last seat where, sadly, there was still no chance to practise on my own, but I was lucky enough to be supervised by Rob Williams. Rob is one of Cornerstone’s many excellent planning specialists and being involved in his many High Court planning cases was a valuable grounding in public law.
Cornerstone takes feedback quite seriously and after every piece of work you do for your supervisor, you will get written feedback which you will discuss. The idea is that you don’t find yourself blindsided at the end of the year having wrongly thought everything was going swimmingly. The feedback was always constructive and helpful. You do three advocacy exercises throughout the year in planning law, licensing law and housing law respectively. The exercises are not formally assessed and are intended to be a learning exercise.
Throughout pupillage you have the chance to do pieces of written work for members of chambers other than your supervisors, as and when the opportunities arise. It’s a great chance to show off your talents as broadly as possible, which can never be a bad thing.
Cornerstone isn’t one of those places that does “Hunger Games” style pupillage where there are millions of you competing for one tenancy. We take two pupils every year and the expectation is that if you meet the required standard for tenancy, you will get taken on. So, it’s yours to lose!
The transition from pupil to tenant
My transition was probably scarier than most because I hadn’t practised at all during pupillage due to the Covid pandemic. Usually, pupils would be very busy with their own work in the second six. I had my first ever case on the day of my tenancy vote! Despite that, it was a remarkably easy transition, largely because of how much members go out of their way to help you and answer the many stupid questions that you have when you’re starting out.
The four most junior members in chambers all share a room together, which is a real asset. It means that there’s always someone around to sense-check an advice with, or moan to if you’ve had a bad day at court. Plus, you always have a lunch buddy!
I’ve also been incredibly lucky with the opportunities I’ve had to be junior to QCs in chambers on big cases. Working with Lisa Busch QC and Philip Coppel QC in the Court of Appeal and High Court respectively in my first year of practice was a real privilege.
What is your practice like now?
One of the things I like about Cornerstone is that no two weeks are the same. Some weeks I might have a full day trial (for example, a defended possession claim), with a couple of smaller interim hearings and a written advice. In other weeks, you might be asked to be someone’s junior on an urgent judicial review.
I get a lot of court time, which I really enjoy. There’s also plenty of advisory work, which is great because you don’t always want to be spending your mornings on a freezing train platform.
People’s views differ on this topic, but I try and stay firm in my policy of not working on the weekends. My view is that if you’re going to be in this job for forty years, you need to have sustainable working practices from the outset to defend against burn-out. There’s some leeway there if something truly amazing comes in last-minute (like an opportunity to be a junior on a big case). But otherwise, I turn my laptop off on Friday evening and won’t look at my emails again until Monday. The sky won’t fall in if you do that, I promise!
What is the culture of chambers?
Everyone says this, but Cornerstone is a truly collegiate place. People will wander into your room for a chat, to ask your opinion on a case, or because they want someone to go for a coffee with. Similarly, there are always loads of people you can turn to for advice – both substantive legal questions, and the more thorny issues that sometimes arise in practice.
The building itself is pretty high-tech compared to some I’ve seen. We have nice conference rooms and proper showers for those mad people that like to cycle/run to work.
The clerks and staff are all great. I have had repeated experience of them being absolute miracle workers in a crisis. On a day-to-day basis the clerks are proactive and supportive of your specific ambitions.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
These are my top tips to get pupillage at Cornerstone:
• Read the criteria against which applications are assessed as published on our website.
• Make sure that your form shows how you meet those criteria.
• Come to interview armed with concrete examples of how you meet those criteria.
• Let us see your personality!
There is a lot more information on our website about the process of applying for pupillage with lots of further tips from the pupillage committee.