Cornerstone Barristers

The Legal Cheek View

“Members of chambers are like family”, says a junior at London-headquartered Cornerstone Barristers, illustrating the supportive atmosphere at this hard-working but sociable set. This leading public law chambers 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.

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.

An insider describes the work as follows: “[T]he work we do is stimulating and almost always makes a local if not (inter)national impact. That might be because it’s an important issue for a particular group in society, like our work on the Ealing abortion clinic PSPO, or because it means something important for a local community, like our work on behalf of the environmental and residential campaigns trying to stop fracking in Lancashire.”

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Another adds: “The clerks have supported me to develop the practice I wanted, mainly in housing, health and social care. In the main I get interesting work in the COP, County Court and High Court and got led in the Supreme Court twice last year, which has been fantastic as a junior. There’s always the odd bit of dull work but that’s just the filler stuff really to pay the bills!”

Pupils sit with at least three pupil supervisors, who are described by their former protégés as “top notch”, taking “a real interest in your progress and needs and without the regimented assessment process that others seem to adopt. Proper training, personal support and development”. Pupils can expect to be “thrown into the deep end”. The chambers has “rigorous” standards, but “supervisors are realistic and supportive”.

Pupils 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, for example, by working as an advisor to the Guyanese Government.

One junior says they not only “saw a really diverse range of work as a pupil” but also “continue to learn as I am often led by senior barristers in chambers”. There are “lots of opportunities to be led by senior members as well as building up your own practice, and the complexity of the work allocated in one’s own right increases significantly within a year or two of tenancy”.

Work/life balance is decent. One Cornerstone barrister describes it like this: “[T]here are some weeks/months where the concept of balance goes out of the window entirely but overall I do have a decent balance and the clerks will always listen and assist if things are getting out of hand with diaries.”

Another reports: “I regularly take time out during the working day to go and hang out with my friend on maternity leave, to meet another similarly flexibly-employed friend at art galleries and museums, cook for my partner and go on adult education courses to learn new skills. All this while earning (although well below chambers’ average) far more than I ever thought possible when thinking about a possible career — and, in truth, more than I really deserve, given that I work no harder than my friends in teaching, healthcare, etc.”

It’s a friendly, good-natured place to work, with a “collegiate and open-door culture, even among silks and senior juniors. Colleagues are endlessly kind and generous with their time, as well as genuinely interested in everyone’s endeavours and successes”. Reassuringly, one rookie says “I never hesitate to ask questions and seek support”.

Another provides this account of the set’s culture: “I always ask opponents at court whether they have heard of Cornerstone and, if so, what they have heard. The answer that comes up most often is that we are a really nice bunch of people and that speaks volumes to me. It is undoubtedly true. We don’t agree on everything but we all get on and look after one another. We have recently adopted a more flexible contribution scheme for people taking career breaks or who need more time doing other, more important things, like caring for a child or relative. We go on an annual cycle ride together and, more or less once a year, a group of the younger barristers go away on holiday together.”

The facilities are “lovely”. The chambers, which backs onto Gray’s Inn gardens, recently had a substantial facelift in 2016 and is “super smart and super well appointed”. Hot-desking facilities are available for those who work part-time or live a distance from London.

Here is an account of the interior of Cornerstone’s building: “The ‘public areas’ are great and we now have excellent facilities for hosting client seminars and training, networking events and chambers meetings. We have good quality toilets and showers as well. The library is a bit thin on written materials but most of us access our information online now. Some of the members’ rooms are a bit scruffy or in need of modernisation, but that’s a personal preference for each of us.”

The set has a lively social side, with members regularly gathering for Friday night drinks, dinner parties, ski trips and weekends away for the annual charity bike ride. “Baby barristers are particularly friendly and the newest tenants share a room together.” 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

Mini-Pupillage

Taking place between 1 June – 1 August 2020
Applications close 30/04/2020

Mini-Pupillage

Taking place between 1 September – 1 December 2020
Applications close 31/07/2020

Pupillage

Applications open 07/01/2020
Applications close 07/02/2020

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 2019-20 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