Your journey to pupillage
I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Durham University. Before heading to university I took a gap year and, after dabbling in local politics and deciding that wasn’t for me, I worked in the wills and probate department of a small local solicitors firm. One of the partners recommended mooting when I went to university. After my first mooting competition I decided that I wanted to be a barrister. I then went on to complete the law conversion course (GDL) at City Law School (then run by the formidable and late Dr David Herling). I did mini-pupillages at quite varied chambers, from planning law to personal injury, before settling on commercial and public law. After being offered pupillage by Essex Court, Covid intervened, so I deferred for a year to study the BCL at Oxford.
The pupillage experience
I was drawn to Essex Court because of the wide range of quality work and the fact its members frequently appear in leading cases. During one of my mini-pupillages I saw work on a civil fraud case, and found that was an area I would be keen to build a practice in given the striking facts. During pupillage I was happy to build experience in this area, but learnt so much more too. I sat with my main supervisor for 3 months, before going on ‘the rota’; this involved sitting with 6 supervisors for a period of 2/3 weeks each. I then returned to my main supervisor in the summer, and a decision on tenancy was made. The work was varied and interesting. I found supervisors were keen to get me involved in some of the most difficult items on their desk, so doing ‘dead’ pieces of work (on old cases) was rare.
As a junior barrister at the commercial bar a significant amount of your work is the first draft of court documents; getting detailed feedback from supervisors on skeletons or drafts of pleadings during the rota was invaluable, teaching me the different styles of written advocacy that can be deployed.
The transition from pupil to tenant
Exciting! You are finally let loose on the world. You begin having practice meetings with the clerks who are keen to hear in what direction you would like to start building your practice. You start getting smaller cases put in your diary, and begin doing advocacy for yourself and working with your own instructing solicitors. I found it a really thrilling time (and still am enjoying it a lot).
Helpfully chambers also provides financial support by way of an interest free loan so that you are not cash strapped in those early months before clients have paid your fees.
What is your practice like now?
My practice is varied. I typically have 2-3 larger cases running throughout the year where I will be part of a team of barristers (such as representing a Singaporean shipbuilding company in a several hundred million dollar arbitration), and smaller cases where I am sole counsel (e.g. representing members of a joint venture gone wrong, or acting on bankruptcy petitions).
The work at the commercial bar is pressured, so there are times when work can dominate somewhat more (e.g. leading up to trial). But there is a very good culture of making sure you take enough time off; this includes getting to go on trips around the world to undertake business development in different jurisdictions or just for relaxation. The international focus of the commercial bar has certainly broadened my horizons and I have thoroughly enjoyed the new places work has taken me.
What is the culture of chambers?
There is a fantastic buzz. Members are regularly off to court testing difficult points of law. And lots of the silks have large practices which means there is plenty of work at the junior end and opportunity to work with fellow members.
Each member of chambers has their own room, but regularly members leave their doors open and are happy for one another to pop their head around the door to chat about a case. I find I frequently get to catch up with old supervisors at chambers functions throughout the year.
We have a juniors WhatsApp chat and there are regular drinks and social events, organised by a specific committee known as the ‘Chambers Hub’. There are also termly dinners with the clerks which are great fun as the clerks play a huge role in your practice after tenancy.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
Commercial law is a large house with many rooms. Try your best to see some work in one of the many different areas: shipping, banking, insurance (reinsurance), civil fraud, arbitration, energy and natural resources, construction, etc. This should hopefully give you more of a specific flavour of what interests you and why. The British and Irish Legal Information Institute website (bailii.org) has a specific page dedicated to recent Commercial Court decisions – it is a great resource to see what is currently being litigated and who has been instructed.
Avoid adverbs and adjectives where possible in your written applications. Lead with evidence – what you’ve done, where, and why that makes you want to practice in a particular area. Mini-pupillages are a great anchor point for this: you may have not found an area of law interesting, but that is a completely justified reason for wanting to practice in a separate area.
At the interview stage, do not give up if you find one of the problem questions hard (or if an interviewer asks a difficult question which you need time to think about). I felt as though my interview at Essex Court was one of my worst interview performances – but sometimes that is because the interviewers want to see how you handle the pressure (akin to how it might be one day in court).
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Take your time. One of the wonderful things about this profession is that there is no ‘right’ age when someone should become a commercial barrister. The more diverse your background the better. And keep up your outside interests beyond just law. It is important to have a human side; it might not be long until you are having a drink with your instructing solicitor after a case, and they will be keen to know a bit more about you on a personal level too.