The Legal Cheek View
‘Northern powerhouse’ Exchange Chambers has over 200 barristers, including 24 silks, and three sites — in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool — making it one of the largest chambers in the country. In 2022, Exchange took on a record eight pupils across its locations. It seems the set is big in all things, including the broad range of work it does. The set is multidisciplinary, operating in everything from crime to commercial. Highly regarded at the Northern Bar, practice areas include commercial dispute resolution, family, insolvency, employment, business and property, private prosecutions, tax, professional discipline, and many others. In short, there’s very little that the set doesn’t do!
The work is often of high quality too as members of Exchange Chambers get their hands on some of the biggest legal matters in the north. Past cases have included representing the University of Salford at the Manchester Arena Inquiry, representing the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police before an employment tribunal, and working on a case involving a Salford Gangland conspiracy to murder rival gang members. The set’s work extends beyond the north, however. Members have, for example, acted in the North Wales (Waterhouse) Child Abuse Inquiry, working on the merger between Unilever and Alberto Culver, and the ‘Blue 25’ Inquest concerning the deaths of five UK servicemen shot by a rogue Afghan policeman. One junior at the set tells us the work is “very stimulating”, “high quality” and is often of the type that “makes a real difference to people’s lives”.
The exciting work keeps coming. In the past year, Nicola Daley has successfully prosecuted a multi-million-pound cannabis trafficking operation, David Went has acted as part of the counsel team for RHA who obtained the green light from the Competition Appeal Tribunal for a £2 billion claim relating to the trucks cartel to proceed, and Julian King has successfully defended a police sergeant in front of a misconduct hearing after he was accused of violently punching a detainee.
Of course, while work is generally “interesting and varied”, there are some less exciting cases — well, it can’t all be billion dollar claims! Speaking of the quality of work, one junior tells us, “sometimes it’s very stimulating. At other times it reminds me of being forced to eat greens as a child!” As a pupil or junior, it’s inevitable that some bread and butter cases will be less flavoursome, but the reputation of Exchange Chambers means there will always be someone around you doing something exciting, and there is a sense of learning by osmosis from these people.
It should be noted that applicants to this set apply to a practice area — either crime, family, common law, or commercial — which would suggest that you are somewhat limited in what you will see during pupillage, and possibly your first few years of tenancy, by this decision.
Despite how large the set is — almost like a law firm rather than a traditional chambers — it is described as “an extended family” by one tenant. There is generally always someone on hand to help you out if you are struggling with a case or just need a chat. The pandemic has somewhat affected this. One junior confides: “We used to have a very busy chambers with an open door policy — and we have not quite been able to replicate that remotely… yet!” Even if you can’t physically speak to somebody, though, we hear that many members are just a call away. We are told, in particular, that senior members make a large time investment into supporting junior colleagues who are “never turned away”. Informal mentorship from more senior barristers is also on offer, with one source commenting their mentors “have been very supportive of [their] aims and ambitions”. One tenant goes so far as to say: “This is one of the most supportive, friendly and welcoming Chambers in the country. I have spoken to many of my contemporaries and none of the support they have received compares to Exchange Chambers.”
When it comes to work-life balance at Exchange, views are pretty mixed. This is most likely due to the wide range of practice areas that members operate in — experiences will differ greatly depending on the sort of work you are doing. While one barrister tells us that “Chambers give really good support over well-being and diary flexibility particularly to those with caring responsibilities,” another despairs, “I work every night — on the night’s when I don’t work, I feel guilty, because I’m so used to work”. It seems particularly stressful on the criminal side, with members reporting “endless emails and endless court orders with impossible deadlines”. Clerks are, however, “quick to spot when someone is struggling” and Chambers are supportive of people setting boundaries. Some members also note that it is “better since remote hearings were introduced” — not having to travel four hours for a 30 minute hearing can only be a good thing!
While the focus is definitely work not play — as is only to be expected of life at the Bar! — there is definitely a social side at Exchange for those who want it. We hear there was a huge Chambers dinner earlier this year to celebrate the former CEO’s retirement. Web socials have also become popular as many people continue to work from home. Many members do note the impact that the pandemic has had: we’re told the social side is “sadly, not what it was” but another tenant comments that they are sure “things will even out”. Pre-Covid, we hear there were regular activities linked with charitable activities such as abseiling down the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral or completing the ‘Three Peaks Challenge’ — we hope these can return soon as they certainly sound like good fun!
As mentioned, Exchange Chambers is split across three sites: Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool. Each is located in a prime position within the city and all of the sites are “modern, functional, and impressive” as well as “immaculately maintained”. The Manchester office even has a rooftop terrace! We are told there is a “good mix of common areas for those with paper-lite practices who are often in court and individual rooms and shared rooms for others more desk based”, along with a lot of conference space. Technology within the offices is generally praised, and premises are well-connected with video linked meetings across all three cities and monthly internal newsletters. The IT staff are also said to be lovely, with Mike and Jon in the Liverpool premises being praised for their expertise. The irony of spending money on refurbs when more people are working from home has not, however, been lost on one tenant who complains, “I’m not sure why we need these fancy buildings now when all our work is digital!” At least it’s popular with the clients!
Those interested in applying to Exchange Chambers will be competing for up to seven pupillages on offer — the record-breaking eight last year appears to have been a one-off. The award is £25,000. Applicants should apply through Chambers’s own application form. They will apply to a specific practice area: either crime, family, common law, or commercial. The criteria on which any application will be assessed are: a fine intellect, sound judgment, clarity of thought and expression, an ability to achieve, a capacity for sustained hard work under pressure, an ability to relate appropriately to the very widest cross section of society, confidence, enthusiasm, integrity, broadness of mind, and a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. Those scoring highest in the paper application will be invited to a first round interview, lasting about 25 minutes. Prior to the interview, candidates will be provided with a question that will form of the basis of the discussion. Based on performance in this interview, no more than 12 candidates will then be invited to a second round, which lasts a full day and will include a mixture of formal interviews and assessed practical exercises. This almost replicates a law firm assessment centre and is an unusual selection method, but certainly allows candidates to show off an array of skills.
It’s probably fair to say that Exchange offers a level of on-the-job advocacy training that is only possible outside of London. At the regional bar, pupils will be in court more frequently than in the capital, and pupils at Exchange can expect to be on their feet almost every day in their second six. One former pupil said: “The support I received during pupillage was excellent, I am lucky to have worked since then with a number of senior juniors and silks who are experts in the field”. Training continues beyond pupillage, with one tenant telling us “the senior juniors and silks I have worked with over the years have been key in my development as a barrister”. Another, who was been a member at three other chambers, says the training at Exchange is “in a class of its own”. Some members, perhaps unsurprisingly, do describe themselves as “self-trained” — there is a lot of learning on the job after all!
In addition to its training, Exchange Chambers has shown commitment to equality and diversity through involvement in several initiatives. Twenty-two of the set’s barristers are part of a mentoring programme to inspire people from all backgrounds to pursue a career in the law, while other members frequently pen articles detailing their diverse journeys to the Bar. Further, the set has recently launched a new pupillage podcast series: found here. The set also partners with Inner Temple’s Pegasus Access and Support Scheme and provides work experience through, among others, the Sutton Trust. One of Exchange’s barristers is a founding member of the ‘All Rise’ project, inviting barristers to speak out and stand against abusive, bullying, and belittling behaviour by wearing an All Rise pin badge as a symbol of allyship. All in all, they certainly seem a good bunch.
What The Junior Barristers Say
Your journey to pupillage
I went to the University of Hull and studied law with French which meant I spent a year in France. I then did a Master’s at Leeds in International Finance and Banking law, then after the two year bar course, I started pupillage. In total it took a total of six years to reach pupillage, and throughout I worked in numerous different law firms getting all kinds of different experience. I did a number of different mini-pupillages in a range of practice areas to get as much experience as I could. I also did vacation schemes in both London and Manchester. I always knew I wanted to stay in the North, but I did one vacation scheme in London which confirmed what I already knew, but I just wanted to make sure of my decision.
The pupillage experience
I had done a mini-pupillage at Exchange and I always knew I wanted to be based up North and that I wanted to do commercial law, and with Exchange’s big presence across the North, it seemed the perfect fit.
The pupillage application process consisted of the normal paper application, then two separate interviews, with the first round interview in the Liverpool chambers and the second round in the Manchester chambers. The second round interview consisted of written and oral exercises, and a number of interviews. I got more of a feel for Exchange at the interviews themselves, and it is not as pretentious as you imagine a lot of the sets to be. What I liked about the interview stage was that I was interviewed by such a mixture of people including the clerks, junior barristers and senior barristers, with younger people and women, which made it slightly less intimidating. Both senior clerks from the Manchester and Leeds chambers interviewed me in my second round interview. Once I had been offered pupillage, the fact they had I had met them previously meant I was made to feel more at ease when I went into chambers.
Prior to starting pupillage, I had already been invited into chambers to meet people informally which meant my first day wasn’t as intimidating as it might have been. The beginning of pupillage involved getting settled in, working on papers and looking at files to ease into things. It wasn’t half as intimidating as I expected, and I think a lot of people do expect it to be, but everyone was so lovely and down to earth. When you are going into pupillage, you know the work is going to be hard, there will be pressure, and you’re going into a new environment, but to have that worry alleviated instantly takes some of the pressure off.
Pupillage is a whirlwind at first because you’re seeing such a broad range of things from all different people. You have your supervisor but you also shadow other people in different areas, so you see and learn so much, it is about being a sponge and soaking it all up. It is such a steep learning curve that you come out of it a completely different person.
I had one supervisor in Leeds for my first six, and a second in Manchester for the second six. Learning from two supervisors and being spread across the two cities has really benefited me, and now I can go to and speak to both of them. At my level, you are constantly asking questions and pulling on people for assistance and so being so comfortable in both sets of chambers means there is an even bigger group of people to ring or knock on the door of.
Assessment wise, pupils have a formal review every three months to scope out progress. My first six was pre-Covid so I was in chambers every single day, my supervisor was generally in everyday but if I was shadowing someone else we would still speak every day. This meant I already knew how things were going before the reviews. Pupils need to keep track of your own progress, and so if there are things you think you haven’t seen, for example witness handling or property, then you can discuss this with your supervisor. This means you constantly monitor your progress alongside your supervisor and you can have a big input into what you think you need more help with, or more experience of, so you do have a big input into your pupillage. Going into pupillage, I didn’t know what to expect, but I absolutely loved it – you just grow so much.
At the junior end, the commercial department is going from strength to strength and the junior end is just growing and growing. There is so much good quality work and it helps having so many people around at your level that have the same problems and queries.
The transition from pupil to tenant
You build tenancy up so much but then the second six is so full on, you are almost too busy to worry, but it is still always on your mind. When you do get tenancy, it is odd as you build it up to be this huge thing but not much changes. I was told on the Friday late afternoon, I had various calls all weekend with congratulations but then went into court on Monday as normal. The bigger thing is going from non-practising first six to practising second six, and Exchange make that transition as smooth as possible. On my first day on my feet, I was in the Winders list and there were other people from Chambers in the list too. It was nerve-racking doing my first day in front of other people from Chambers but it was reassuring to know they were there too.
What is your practice like now?
My practice is so wide ranging even though it is just commercial, there is still a mixture of insolvency work, general commercial litigation and property work. I get to do some cases from start to finish so from drafting pleadings then going right through with the case. There is also opportunity to junior the more senior people in chambers, it is so varied and that is what makes it so interesting. Ordinarily, you can expect to be in court every single day or at least every other day, whereas now due to Covid, you can have three or four hearings in the same day and do it all from the same desk, so if anything, Covid has made us much busier!
Coming out of the pandemic, I am now in court physically twice a week at least. There are still a range of remote hearings via telephone or video, but face to face are becoming much more frequent. I can’t visualise everything becoming face to face again, or not for a long time at least, but face to face makes you remember why you do the job, you get a feeling when you’re stood in court which you don’t quite get when you’re jumping from hearing to hearing behind a screen, you get that professional feeling of being in court and in front of a judge.
In terms of the future, I am simply loving it at the moment. I want to carry on as I am as it really is such a steep learning curve: once you get comfortable doing a certain type of hearing or application, you then go up to the next level, get comfortable then go up again. I want to carry on as I am, learning more, getting experience in as many areas and doing as many different things as I can. Exchange is so supportive if there is an area you want to do, or any area you don’t.
The clerks are fantastic, and you get to know them so well – it is so important to have a good relationship with all of the clerks. They give you as much work as you want, you can always turn around and say “I don’t have the capacity to do that” or “I don’t feel comfortable doing that”, and they are fine with that. Because Exchange is so big, there is always someone for the work to go to if you’re not able to do it. The role and aim of the clerks is not to burn you out, they will give you as much as you can handle, but you do have to be able to time manage in this job.
What is the culture of chambers?
It is just so supportive both informally and formally. It is supportive informally, in the sense I can pick up the phone to any number of juniors and even a number of seniors, or knock on the door of anyone in chambers for assistance or run things by them.
There is also a formal mentoring scheme in place for after pupillage which is a brilliant scheme. You have that one person who you might go to things about which you might not go to others with, so it is also for issues beyond work. This extends to upcoming pupils, I am currently mentoring next year’s upcoming commercial pupil, she has been into chambers to meet members, so the support network comes in right from when you are offered pupillage. Everyone genuinely wants you to do well at Exchange, I thought it would be competitive but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everyone wants to help others, and due to our size there is always someone who will know the answer or point you in the right direction. The people are my favourite thing about Exchange, I wouldn’t enjoy it half as much if I was surrounded by different people.
Throughout the lockdowns there were events organised including commercial department drinks and wider chambers events. Since lockdown there have been various in-person drinks organised, meetups on the mass chambers scale have been more difficult, but that is not to say that the juniors haven’t gone for drinks amongst themselves.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
You need to show a commitment to chambers and the North. Exchange prides itself on having such a big presence in the North, so it is so important to show commitment and show you won’t do pupillage and carry on your career elsewhere.
Get as much experience as possible, do minis in different practice areas, try going to different locations and a range of different chambers, get as much advocacy experience as possible through mooting, debates and negotiation and look at Inns of Court events.
Really do not give up, it is the best career! It is a lot of work to get there, but once you are there, it is so rewarding.