It was the nature of the work at leading public law set Cornerstone Barristers that most appealed to junior barrister John Fitzsimons. He has been involved in some of chambers’ most high-profile matters including Uber’s High Court judicial review challenge and the Grenfell Tower inquiry.
You’ll find Cornerstone spread across four floors in what Fitzsimons describes as a “beautiful” building in Gray’s Inn Square. The traditional exterior contrasts with the modern interior. Chambers has recently been refurbished on a large-scale project: rooms have been spruced up, repainted and repurposed for conferences, seminars and even hotdesking, which creates scope for flexible work. “There’s a really fresh feel to the building,” notes Fitzsimons.
So what’s pupillage like? “The old school approach to pupillage — that pupils must burn the midnight oil — doesn’t exist here,” explains Fitzsimons, who was called to the bar in 2016.
Pupils are assigned three supervisors for the year and spend four months working with each. A conscious effort is made so that pupils see a wide variety of work. Indeed, most of the work pupils take on relates to a live case. Fitzsimons finds it incredibly rewarding “when you see your supervisor use the advice you wrote or the pleadings you drafted.”
It’s a “tough and testing” year, but pupils receive written feedback on every piece of formal work they undertake. At the end of each four-month seat pupils are handed a detailed report from their supervisor, which includes an assessment of their written work and advocacy, as well as an evaluation of their suitability for tenancy. “You know where you stand at every stage,” says Fitzsimons.
Fitzsimons found little changed when he became a tenant. By that time he was already on his feet and had built up his own client base. On a personal level, “it can feel slightly overwhelming knowing that you’re in control of your practice” — but chambers’ open-door policy means juniors can always turn to more senior members should they need the support.
Fitzsimons’ practice covers a wide spectrum of public law work, including planning and environmental law, information law, housing, property and licensing. A finger in many pies it would seem, but Fitzsimons manages his workload. He explains: “There’s a lot of cross-over between practice areas and work that I do in housing will often complement my work in planning.”
So what’s it like day-to-day as a Cornerstone barrister? Well, “there is no typical working day,” explains Fitzsimons, who splits his time between court, planning inquiries and chambers. There’s plenty of travel involved, too. When we speak, he’s in the middle of a six-day planning inquiry in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. “You get to know England really well!” quips Fitzsimons, who enjoys his regular trips across the country.
Chambers is supportive of pro bono work and over half of its 50 barristers have taken instructions on this basis. Fitzsimons has done a fair bit, including advising street traders who are being relocated as part of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre redevelopment. “Our focus isn’t just on billing. It’s about taking on work you enjoy as much as it is about what brings in the money, and working pro bono is important to your development as a barrister,” explains Fitzsimons. It can be fun, too. There’s a charity bike ride each year to raise money for the Cornerstone Barristers Foundation — in recent years, barristers have cycled from London to Paris and London to Cardiff.
On the social side, it’s a pleasant environment with summer drinks and the annual Christmas party to look forward to each year. There are also extensive opportunities to network with solicitors through the various social events organised by chambers.
The four most junior members share a room in chambers together. “This is particularly useful,” says Fitzsimons, “as we do similar work and are able to bounce ideas off one another and discuss various issues that crop up in different cases.” That’s not the only benefit. Fitzsimons reveals they’re all good friends and regularly lunch together in the gardens of Gray’s Inn and go out for after work drinks.
For aspiring barristers hoping to secure pupillage here, Fitzsimons’ top tip is to build your CV before you apply, particularly in chambers’ areas of specialism. After completing the Oxford Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL), Fitzsimons interned at human rights organisation JUSTICE as well as the European Court of Justice. These experiences helped him demonstrate his interest in public law when applying for pupillage.
When writing applications, Fitzsimons advises aspiring barristers “to find a peer whose intellect you rate, show them your application and get them to tear it apart”. He continues: “Barristers will often alight upon the most random thing in your application during the pupillage interview — often something you’ll have overlooked. Having someone go through your application beforehand will help you explain and justify points you have made.”