If the bar attracts the academic elite, then magic circle Essex Court Chambers is an elite within the elite. With a newly renovated building overlooking the beautiful Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and full of legal boffins with outstanding CVs, the chambers can feel something like an Oxbridge College. The set specialises in commercial and financial litigation, arbitration and both domestic and international public law.
The set was founded in 1961 and took its name from the premises it then occupied at 4 Essex Court in Temple. Three of the five founders — Michael Mustill, Anthony Evans and Brian Kerr — went on to have distinguished careers in the judiciary, with the latter serving for over a decade on the Supreme Court before his death in 2020. Another co-founder, Robert MacCrindle, turned down the opportunity to join the bench because he wished to be appointed directly to the Court of Appeal rather than first to the High Court Circuit outside London.
Essex Court Chambers continues to be a strong training ground for future senior judges. Baroness Higgins, the first female President of the International Court of Justice, and Tim Eicke, a judge of the European Court of Human Rights, are both former tenants at the set. Closer to home, Richard Millett QC served as leading counsel to the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry.
In 1994, the newly renamed Essex Court Chambers moved to its current location on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Now headed up by Joe Smouha QC and Huw Davies QC, the chambers has expanded to around 100 tenants and has been involved in major cases including The ‘Heron II’, BBC v Sugar and ‘The Great Peace’.
Given the set’s penchant for high value and complex international work, tenants at Essex Court Chambers can see themselves shuttling between London, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East and Singapore. The set also has an office in the latter location. For matters which go further afield, Essex Court also has a number of overseas associates who can accept instructions on matters. While such travelling can seem hectic, juniors at the set work between 40-49 hours a week, which is lower than average.
Recent notable member appearances include Alan Boyle and Naomi Hart representing the Maldives in a maritime boundary dispute with Mauritius; several members acting in a case concerning diplomatic immunity in which a London borough sought care orders in respect of a diplomat’s children; and Professor Dapo Akande and Sam Wordsworth QC appearing for a claimant in an ECHR case concerning an airstrike in Afghanistan which killed 91 civilians. A previous high profile matter the set was involved in was helping to broaden the Refugee Convention to allow women who were at risk of violent abuse from their spouse to claim refugee status.
On the commercial side, Toby Landau QC successfully acted for Vodafone in its $5.5 billion tax dispute with India, while John Lockey QC and Jeremy Brier appeared in the landmark Supreme Court test case on business interruption insurance policies and whether they provide coverage for losses caused by the pandemic. Employment law wise, Charles Ciumei QC and Benedict Tompkins acted for the appellant in a Supreme Court case which clarified the operation of the burden of proof in claims for contraventions of the Equality Act 2010.
Essex Court Chambers offers up to four pupillages each year, each receiving an award of £75,000 — the highest available at the bar. As one should expect for the bar, competition is extremely fierce, and the set makes it clear it seeks “to recruit the brightest and best”. Due to the complexity of work undertaken at the set, pupils at Essex Court Chambers do not handle their own cases. Instead, rookies are assigned a supervisor, which is usually an experienced junior, with whom they work closely for the first three months and final three months of the pupillage. In the middle six months, pupils rotate between the six different supervisors, allowing them to sample a range of different practices. The six supervisors then write an assessment report which is used to make decisions about tenancy. Should pupils be granted tenancy at the chambers, they can look forward to guaranteed earnings of £100,000 in their first year, though they will often exceed that.
Pupils are not expected to work late nights apart from in exceptional circumstances. The time spent working is on the most intricate and complicated of briefs, albeit in a very junior capacity. If there is a frustration, it is with a perceived lack of smaller cases which rookies can cut their teeth on. While Essex Court claims “a degree from Oxford or Cambridge is not a prerequisite for a pupillage with us”, it should be of no surprise that eight of the ten most recent barristers have a degree from Oxbridge.
The set has signed up to several social mobility and diversity initiatives. Essex Court is involved with the Inner Temple’s PASS scheme and Bridging the Bar which provide mini-pupillages to those from underrepresented groups at the bar. It also prides itself on being the first, and only, chambers-backer of the Social Mobility Foundation which supports the ambitions of talented students from non-traditional backgrounds, and is also one of several sets to sign up to offer commercial law based mentoring, again for those underrepresented groups. Finalists in the English-Speaking Unions National Mooting Competition are also all offered mini-pupillages at the set.
More unusually for the commercial bar, prospective applicants only undergo a single round of interviews, lasting around 30 minutes. Half of this time is taken up discussing a problem question introduced beforehand. These questions reflect the chambers caseload: with examples focusing on the international sale of art forgeries, similar to the ‘Bouvier Affair’. For those looking to apply to Essex Court, you should be ready to demonstrate intellectual ability, promise in oral and written advocacy/communication, tenacity, self-motivation, organisational skills, an ability to work in a team, judgment and integrity. While mini-pupillages are not a prerequisite for a pupillage application here, they are strongly encouraged. The set also runs an annual Student Open Day.