So prestigious “you could get silk just by sitting on the toilet”, cerebral commercial set Fountain Court is about as elite as they come. Its expanded premises, mostly listed buildings in the historic Middle Temple, play host to some of the biggest brains in English business law. Members here appeared in some of the most well-known law school cases around including Caparo v Dickman and Bank Mellat v Her Majesty’s Treasury (No.2). Fountain Court performs work across all major continents and has an office in Singapore’s financial district which opened in 2014.
Fountain Court is among a handful of commercial chambers sometimes referred to as ‘magic circle’ sets, the equivalent of the solicitors’ super-firms given the same honorific. Its pedigree is certainly impressive: revered ex-judge Tom Bingham passed through here en route to the Supreme Court, as did other big names from the past like Lord Leslie Scarman, Sir Mark Potter and Sir Henry Brooke. The likes of Nicholas Underhill, Marcus Smith and David Waksman represent Fountain Court crew among the serving judiciary. To add even further calibre, former Supreme Court Justice Lord Wilson joined the set in 2020 as a door tenant.
Juniors here get the opportunity to undertake led work under the big name silks, which today include head of chambers Bankim Thanki whose clients have included British Airways, The Football Association and Rolls-Royce, former head Stephen Moriarty who once taught law at Oxford University, and former Bar Council chairman Timothy Dutton – in fact four members have served in the chairman position. Leigh-Ann Mulcahy, who joined in 2017, reportedly has five victories from five Supreme Court appearances, and former member Lord Goldsmith QC established the bar’s pro bono unit, now known as ‘Advocate’.
Money sloshes around this set like the water in its famous fountain (first built in 1681), which not only survived the Blitz but also a fire at the Inn. Pupils can expect £70,000, with £20,000 available in advance pre-pupillage. New juniors can get a loan to make sure their earnings don’t fall below this amount in their early years, although apparently that is never necessary in practice. Working hours here can be punishing, though, with tenants reporting a 60-70 hour week on average.
At least it’s not tedious: the commercial bar is nothing if not intellectually challenging, and contacts report their cases are “varied, legally and factually”. Traditional commercial, banking, finance and regulatory disputes work dominates, along with other commercial classics such as insurance, fraud and arbitration, among others. The set has also carved out a niche in white-collar crime, taking instructions in high-profile investigations such as the “London whale” and LIBOR rigging scandals. Public law, particularly as it relates to business and regulation, is a growth area.
Recent case highlights include Richard Lissack QC and Leonora Sagan successfully resisting an application by Oleg Deripaska for permission to judicially review the DPP’s decision to discontinue the private prosecution of Vladimir Chernukhin following allegations that Mr Chernukhin had perverted the course of justice by relying on false documents during fierce battles between the two over the rightful ownership of a site in Moscow. Other appearances include three members acting for the Financial Reporting Council which sanctioned KPMG and a former partner in relation to Silentnight, issuing a fine of £13 million to the former, and several members in a High Court success which dismissed a £1.5 billion claim by the Kingdom of Denmark arising from an alleged withholding tax reclaim tax fraud.
The chambers’ website has an impressively detailed description of how a Fountain Court pupillage goes down. Up to four pupils join each year and, in recent years, all have apparently been offered tenancy. If tenancy is offered and accepted, newbies are not required to pay any contribution to chambers’ expenses but are instead asked to perform some unpaid work.
Pupillages here have an emphasis on learning from supervisors, who are described by one insider as “absolutely terrific”. The first three and last three months are spent with the same supervisor who has “overall responsibility” for their pupil’s training; the remaining middle six months are spent with two other supervisors. Pupils complete specific pieces of work for members, read papers and help to prepare pleadings and advices which are reviewed and discussed. Rookies also accompany members to trials, appeals and interlocutory hearings. There are no competitive advocacy exercises against other pupils and none are set the same pieces of assessed work. Pupils are discouraged from taking on work of their own until the tenancy decision is made.
The chambers is keen to stress recruits come “from a range of backgrounds”, although educationally this seems to mean the occasional Cambridge rather than Oxford grad. However, Fountain Court has signed up to several initiatives to support those embarking on a career at the bar. Those include Bridging the Bar’s mini-pupillage programme for those from underrepresented groups, the Combar Scholarship Scheme which “seeks to promote social mobility and encourage a wider range of candidates to consider a career at the commercial bar”, and Fountain Court is one of nine chambers taking part in the commercial bar mentoring scheme. The set is also a founding signatory of the ‘Green Litigation Pledge’ which aims to reduce the environmental impact of dispute resolution.
For those looking to apply here, you are normally required to undertake a compulsory mini-pupillage with an assessed piece of work prior to submitting a pupillage application, although if you have not done one, then the pupillage application is treated as a mini-pupillage application too but with only a few spaces. Fountain Court looks for those with academic and intellectual ability, advocacy and communication skill, an ability to think and respond under pressure, potential to be a successful self-employed practitioner at the commercial bar, and those able to get on with a range of people as well as determination, resilience and integrity.