The Legal Cheek View
If you’re looking for property lawyers, there’s no better place than Falcon Chambers. These specialists cover all types of property — residential and commercial — and are especially renowned for their expertise in real estate litigation. The set is made up of 48 barristers, of whom an impressive 15 are KCs, who practice across every level of property law. The set also has distinguished expertise in agriculture and rural affairs, and additionally takes on work relating to infrastructure, development, natural resources, and the environment. Interestingly, they are also highly rated for their telecommunications work — these are often cases at the intersection of property and telecoms. In addition to its 48 barristers, the set has three door tenants — all of whom are KCs — and an impressive roster of former members, including the former President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury.
It’s very common that law students don’t enjoy their land law module, but the reality is that practice is very different to academics. One tenant at Falcon explains, “land law is fundamentally about people and society, so every case provides both a challenge and an education!” Another similarly notes the ideal combination of intellectual legal challenges and “human interest” that property work involves. Given the reputation of Falcon Chambers in this field, the work that comes their way is high quality. Members at the set tell us that their work is “highly stimulating” with “plenty of knotty legal problems to consider”. One very happy junior tells us: “I get to spend all day solving fun puzzles and getting paid to do it!” Sounds perfect!
Despite being a specialist set, “the breadth and depth of work is great, meaning no two days are the same”. Given that Falcon Chambers operates across the full spectrum of property law, cases can certainly be varied. Members have worked on matters ranging from being instructed by Vodafone in a lease renewal dispute with Portsmouth Water over a mast site to acting for Tate Modern when residents of the neighbouring building tried to force them to close off their viewing gallery as it allowed visitors to see into their flats. Their clients also range from landlords to port authorities, sovereign wealth funds and individual farmers.
The number of silks at the set means the most challenging cases are sent Falcon’s way, with one tenant telling us “many of the papers that come across my desk raise points of law which are untested”. This sometimes means trips to the Supreme Court for members of the set — such as the two members (Guy Fetherstonhaugh KC and Elizabeth Fitzgerald) making the trip for the Tate case. Members are also frequently involved in work in other jurisdictions, particularly Commonwealth countries. We’re told that pupils and juniors will typically begin by taking on mainly residential property cases before working up to handling commercial property cases of significant value. There are opportunities, however, to be led by a silk in the most high-profile cases.
Recent cases taken on by members at Falcon Chambers include Jonathan Gaunt KC, Nathaniel Duckworth, and Gavin Bennison successfully represented a landlord in a High Court case which considered whether GP tenants were liable to pay service charges to their NHS landlord. Meanwhile, Gary Cowen KC published the first award dismissing a claim for relief under the Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Act 2022 — Falcon is the only set that is an approved arbitration body to deal with Covid-related rent arrears arbitrations under this Act — whilst Stephen Jourdan KC, James Tipler, and Imogen Dodds appeared in a High Court decision on the effect of a restructuring plan on an original tenant and guarantor. Significantly, in February 2022, six members of Falcon Chambers appeared in the Supreme Court whilst acting in three combined telecoms appeals — it’s clear that this is an increasingly significant area for the set.
With so much going on in Chambers, it’s important that you have good people around you. Fortunately for the tenants at Falcon, they belong to a “close knit, collegiate” set and can rely on each other if they get stuck on a legal problem. We hear that there is an open-door policy throughout the set. One member tells us, “I cannot really think of a person in Chambers that I would feel unable to go to with a problem”. Apparently, it is common for members to “share their difficulties and anxieties” with one another, and we’re told people are always there for advice and support, no matter how busy they are. One member sums up, “I could not think of any better colleagues: they are wonderful”.
That support is sometimes especially needed when the workload gets heavy. Whilst members of Falcon are generally positive about their work-life balance, there are inevitably times when it can become a “constant challenge”. When the balance is off “it can be really off”, one junior tells us. However, Chambers are supportive. One tenant tells us, “I never feel under pressure to take on more work than I want to, but there is always work to be done if I want it”. Falcon are also said to be “very attentive to the need to manage everyone’s wellbeing and workload”.
There is a social side to life at Falcon Chambers for those wishing to unwind. The “close-knit” unit has numerous events going on, including lunches out and regular drinks parties to celebrate important events. We are told that members gather in the library every day if they want to have lunch together — a lovely touch. There are various WhatsApp groups on the go, including one for baby juniors, and ad-hoc socialising is pretty common.
One of the areas of Falcon that receives more mixed views from its members is the building itself. One comments, “it’s fine but no more than that” — not the most glowing review! We are told, however, that major refurbishments in the reception area have been carried out over the summer, which tenants think will help to modernise the look of the set. The set has also recently switched IT contractors due to some issues with the old one (ironic for a set with telecommunications expertise!) The tech support now provided is “excellent” and there is in-person support throughout the week as well as remote support out of hours as needed.
Those sold on property law and Falcon Chambers should apply for pupillage through the Pupillage Gateway. Falcon recruits two pupils a year, offering a recently-upped award of £75,000 to each. Those scoring highest in the written application, around 20 people, will be invited to a first-round interview, which usually lasts about 20 minutes and is in front of a panel of three. Based on performance in this interview, up to seven candidates will be invited to a final round interview, before which they must also complete a written exercise. The final interview considers the written exercise as well as a problem question. It takes place in front of five members of Chambers. Throughout the application process, the criteria that Falcon uses are the same: an excellent academic track record, ability to think quickly and absorb information rapidly, ability to identify essential points and possible solutions in a practical and pragmatic manner, communication skills, interpersonal skills, time and personal management skills, and integrity.
Those successful in their pupillage application may be invited to attend a week-long crash course in property law, delivered by Professor Martin Dixon of Queen’s College, Cambridge. Upon starting pupillage, they will rotate through four different pupil supervisors to enable them to see as wide a variety of work as possible. Common tasks for pupils in their first six will be reading papers before conferences and briefs before court, writing opinions and draft statements of case, and attending court with tenants. During the second six, pupils will begin taking on their own work. This will typically be things like appearing in possession or interim hearings and writing pleadings or opinions. Throughout pupillage, training and feedback are provided. One tenant tells us, “We treat pupillage as an investment in the future and so there is a real atmosphere that chambers want you to succeed”.
Falcon Chambers emphasises that it recruits only on merit, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, disability or any other characteristic. The set publishes its equality and diversity statistics on its website.
What The Junior Barristers Say
Your journey to pupillage
At school, I was fairly sure that I wanted to be a lawyer but had more difficulty working out how I wanted to get there. I spent a long time deciding whether to pick law as an undergraduate degree or to study something else (biochemistry, as it happens) and then take the GDL. In the end, I chose law and enjoyed it enough to continue with a master’s degree.
Whilst at university, I involved myself with mooting, having debated in school. Both are great ways to practise oral advocacy and improve your confidence, as well as being useful for pupillage applications.
In terms of work experience, I did a vacation scheme with a commercial law firm and mini-pupillages at various sets specialising in different areas, so that I could make an informed decision about my next steps. I decided that I was interested in the Bar, specifically the Chancery and Property Bar, and applied during my master’s year. I was accepted for pupillage at Falcon Chambers, which I started in October 2020 after taking the Bar Course, then called the BPTC.
The pupillage experience
Before I started my pupillage, I received a one-week intensive course in landlord and tenant law from Professor Martin Dixon of Queens’ College, Cambridge. Chambers organises this for all incoming pupils and it was very useful in providing me with a solid grounding in this unfamiliar area of law.
My pupillage was divided into four three-month seats, each with a different supervisor who gave me papers to read, set work for me to do, and provided me with feedback. I was involved in whatever work my supervisor had going on at the time and my tasks included carrying out legal research, assisting with preparation for trials and hearings, and drafting pleadings, opinions, and skeleton arguments.
Throughout my pupillage, my hours were very reasonable. I worked between 9:00am and 6:00pm and was discouraged from working outside that. The deadlines I was set were always appropriate and intended to allow me enough time to produce my best work, rather than to put me under intense time pressure. For that reason, I only ended up working on evenings or weekends a handful of times, either where the work was urgent or (twice) because a mediation had run late.
In my second six, I continued to spend most of my time doing work for my supervisors but I also picked up a few small cases of my own. I was instructed to draft statements of case and applications, to appear in court at possession hearings, and to act as a junior for a QC. Chambers also organised advocacy training and assessments to prepare me for appearing in court.
The transition from pupil to tenant
To be quite honest, I found the transition from pupillage to tenancy more stressful than I had anticipated. Chambers prepared me well by giving me some of my own work towards the end of my pupillage, so that the shift wasn’t as abrupt as it could have been, but it’s still an adjustment when you realise that the buck now stops with you rather than your supervisor. Having said that, I always felt able to ask questions to other members of chambers if I was unsure about something, which I did on a more or less daily basis at the start and still do frequently.
The other major change that comes with tenancy is that the amount of work you take on, and the time you have to complete it, are no longer fixed for you by a supervisor. Instead, managing your own diary, setting realistic deadlines for yourself, and keeping control of your working hours become essential skills. I found that the key to doing this successfully was to develop a collaborative relationship with the clerks, who were excellent.
What is your practice like now?
All of my work relates to land in some shape or form. As you might expect, I deal with lots of landlord and tenant law and classic ‘land law’ issues such as easements and restrictive covenants. But my work also regularly involves other areas such as contract, tort, trusts, professional negligence, and insolvency. I act for a broad range of clients, including residential tenants, private homeowners, farmers, property developers, and corporate landlords.
For most of my cases, I’m the only barrister representing my client, which means that I have a lot of independence and plenty of opportunities for advocacy experience. Less frequently, I’m instructed on more complex matters as a junior to a more senior barrister.
The structure of my working week varies depending on what I have on. In an average week, I might be in court two or three times, typically on short hearings, and then fill the rest of my time with a couple of pieces of written work.
My hours remain good and I’m happy with my work/life balance. I typically choose to work 9:00am to 7:00pm, although that fluctuates depending on how busy I am. Wherever possible, I try to keep my evenings and weekends free, which prevents me from burning out and also means that when something urgent does come up I have the time to deal with it.
What is the culture of chambers?
My colleagues in Chambers are a genuinely lovely and friendly bunch. People regularly pop into my room to say hello or check how I’m getting on and we tend to congregate in the library to have lunch together every day, which pupils are encouraged to attend. The atmosphere in Chambers is relaxed and non-hierarchical and, as a pupil, I felt welcome from the moment I started. Having done mini-pupillages at quite a few other sets, I genuinely think the culture we have is special.
Everyone, at all levels of seniority, is more than happy to answer questions or to be used as a sounding board for a slightly ‘out there’ argument. On days when I happen to be working from home, there’s a WhatsApp group that the junior juniors use to keep in touch and ask each other questions (and send photos of our pets).
Being self-employed, it’s up to each of us to strike our own balance between coming into chambers and working from home and, like everyone else, our working habits have been affected by the pandemic. My sense, however, is that we have quite a high proportion of attendance compared to many other sets, which I think is beneficial for those at the start of their careers.
The clerks and support staff are all great and a vital part of Chambers. The clerks have a very good understanding of what it’s like for new tenants starting out in practice and were able to guide me as I got my feet under the table. In addition to our day-to-day communications, I have practice meetings with them every few months, in which we assess how my practice is developing and discuss ways in which I might steer it in one direction or another.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
Start by looking at the criteria by which applications are assessed, which you can find on our website, and think carefully about how the experiences you’ve had can be used to demonstrate that you meet them. Giving examples is key, both in the application form and at interview. Don’t fall into the trap of making bald assertions (such as that you’re calm under pressure and work well with other people) without evidence. The application form is also a chance for us to see your written advocacy, so make sure that all your answers are concise, clear, and well-structured and pay particular attention to any essay questions.
Once you get to the interview stage, my top tips would be:
(1) As with the application form, it’s not just about what you say, but also how you say it. Your interviewers will be looking for evidence of an aptitude for oral advocacy so keep your answers structured and don’t waffle.
(2) You should try to show an interest in the work we do, but we aren’t trying to test how much property law you already know. Keeping an eye on the news for topical developments in our area is a good idea, but you don’t need to worry about trying to remember all the case names from your land law notes.
(3) More generally, in my experience there is a significant degree of overlap between the questions that different chambers ask. I found it helpful to keep a note of what I was asked in each interview and if I was stumped by a question the first time around, I would make sure I had a better answer ready if it came up again.