Cornerstone Barristers

The Legal Cheek View

Meet Cornerstone Barristers at the Legal Cheek Virtual Pupillage Fair on Saturday 9 October 2021

Leading public law set, Cornerstone Barristers — co-headed by Philip Coppel QC and Tom Cosgrove QC — has premises in London, Birmingham and Cardiff. Its 60 barristers, including 12 QCs, take on a mix of public law work. “From urgent judicial reviews affecting local government policy, planning inquiries, to high value property or commercial disputes, there is always interesting work on offer” reveals one insider to the Legal Cheek 2021-22 Barrister survey.

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

Recent member appearances include the Post Office IT scandal and subsequent public inquiry, the Shoreham air crash disaster, Uber’s London licensing appeal 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. Such varied and challenging work means “there is rarely a boring day in the office”.

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The Covid-19 pandemic means Cornerstone Barristers’ expertise has been in high demand; “we are acting for local authorities at a time when the pressure on them has never been more acute”, says one member. A lot of Cornerstone Barristers’ work has 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”. The set also acted in the judicial review of the A-Level algorithm brought in during the pandemic.

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 chances to “quickly pick up opportunities to broaden and deepen your practice”. The set also provides “good opportunities to undertake led work”. 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.

Pupils here sit with three supervisors during the structured 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 practices 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 months, 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, often, the Supreme Court, as well as lower courts and tribunals. There is also a strong chance of tenancy — offers have been made to all pupils in the past three years.

Training does not end with pupillage either. The set encourages its members to seek wider opportunities and experience, as one insider says, “the clerks have been very accommodating of us undertaking further training”. The set puts on a whole host of seminars, webinars and conferences which ensures “that the best practice is shared” where members “all learn from one another’s experience and insight” which has been “greatly appreciated” during the lockdowns by legal practitioners across the board.

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’re told the Cornerstone women have their own designated WhatsApp group where they celebrate successes and offer advice. In the words of one happy tenant, Cornerstone is home to the “best bunch of people you could ever work with”.

The pandemic has put no injunction on this set’s supportive environment. “I have never been more grateful — nor prouder of — the supportive environment in chambers… so many senior members, staff and clerks repeatedly make efforts to reach out, check in and offer advice, assistance or support when needed, it has made a huge difference during a difficult year”, one member tells the Legal Cheek Barrister Survey. The flexibility of the clerks during the pandemic has been especially appreciated by members, with one welcoming “their understanding that not all members are able to practise at 110% all the time and sometimes need a little break”. In terms of work/life balance, one member adds, “more broadly, our clerks are really open to allowing members to control our diaries and arrange our working schedules in a flexible way”. Wannabe barristers should not, however, forget that “this job is not for the faint hearted or the work-shy” and “there are of course times when litigation tilts the balance more towards work”.

The traditional Inns of Court building which houses chambers, backs onto Gray’s Inn gardens, and had a substantial facelift in 2016 which now “boasts a modern, client-facing, air-conditioned conference suite… the building is not only comfortable for members, but inviting to clients”. 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”. 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”. Other facilities on offer are hot desking, a well-supplied library and showers for those members who cycle to work. In support of its members, “the walls are decorated with photos of interesting cases or planning inquiries in which members have acted”.

When it comes to the social side of chambers, one member says: “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?” The set really lives by the work hard, play hard mantra. During the pandemic the set put on afternoon tea, Friday drinks and weekend pub quizzes all by Zoom. Covid-regulations dependent, Cornerstone has a summer party arranged in Gray’s Inn and one member predicts the summer to “see the return of weekly drinks”. For those who are less active socially, there is still “always a colleague to have lunch or coffee with”.

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

To commence October 2023
Applications open 05/01/2022
Applications close 09/02/2022

Mini-Pupillage

1 January - 31 May 2022
Applications close 30/11/2021

Mini-Pupillage

1 June - 31 July 2022
Applications close 30/04/2022

Mini-Pupillage

1 September - 30 November
Applications close 31/07/2022

Insider Scorecard

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

Insider Scorecard Grades range from A* to D and are derived from the Legal Cheek Junior Barrister Survey 2021-22 of over 600 barristers at the leading chambers in England.

Key Info

Juniors 48
QCs 12
Pupillages 2
Oxbridge-educated new tenants* 3/5

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

Money

Pupillage award £70,000
BPTC advance drawdown On request

The Pupillage award is inclusive of £20,000 guaranteed second six earnings.

Diversity

Female juniors 35%
Female QCs 8%
BME juniors 13%
BME QCs 8%

The Chambers In Its Own Words