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Cornerstone Barristers

The Legal Cheek View

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

Olivia Davies

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.

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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.

Deadlines

Mini-Pupillage Autumn 2022

September/October/November 2022
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