If the bar attracts the academic elite, then magic circle Essex Court Chambers is an elite within the elite. With a 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 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. 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. The chambers has since expanded to over 90 tenants.
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. 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 that rookies can cut their teeth on.
A recent notable case was successfully representing Highland Financial Partners against the Royal Bank of Scotland in a dispute that stemmed from RBS’s decision to unilaterally pull out of funding a collaterallized debt obligation.
Another high profile matter, this time in the field of public law, was helping to broaden the Refugee Convention to allow women who were at risk of violent abuse from their spouse to claim refugee status.
Turning now to pupillages at the set. Essex Court Chambers offers four pupillages each year. As one should expect for the bar, competition is extremely fierce, and the set makes it clear that it seeks “to recruit the brightest and best as our pupils”. Finalists in the English-Speaking Unions National Mooting Competition are all offered mini-pupillages at the set.
While Essex Court does proclaim that “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 10 most recent barristers studied at Oxbridge, and all had firsts.
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 that was introduced beforehand. These questions reflect the chambers caseload: with examples focusing on the international sale of art forgeries, similar to the ‘Bouvier Affair’.
Reflecting on the complexity of work undertaken at the set, pupils at Essex Court Chambers do not handle their own cases. Instead, these 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.