Fountain Court Chambers
The Legal Cheek View
Part of the bar’s so-called Magic Circle, Fountain Court Chambers is about as elite as they come in the field of commercial law. The heavyweight set is made up of 98 barristers, of whom an impressive 42 are KCs. Home to some of the biggest brains in law, tenants at the set have appeared in some of the best-known cases amongst law students, including Caparo v Dickman and Bank Mellat v Her Majesty’s Treasury (No.2). The set’s 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. To add even further calibre, former Supreme Court Justice Lord Wilson joined the set in 2020 as a door tenant. The set should certainly be high-up on any aspiring commercial barrister’s list.
Tenants at Fountain Court work across the spectrum of the commercial bar. Areas of practice include banking and finance, commercial dispute resolution, competition, insolvency and restructuring, and professional discipline. The set has also carved out a niche in white-collar crime, taking instructions in high-profile investigations such as the ‘London Whale’ (a trader losing a reported $6.2 billion for JPMorgan Chase & Co. in 2012) and LIBOR rigging scandals. Public law, particularly as it relates to business and regulation, is a growth area for the set. It’s not just domestic litigation that the set handles: medication and arbitration are also key areas, as is work with an international element. In fact, Fountain Court has an office in Singapore! Members are regularly instructed in a variety of jurisdictions, including the Cayman Islands, Trinidad & Tobago, and Turks & Caicos.
The variety of the work available means that things are kept interesting for the tenants. They report that their cases are “varied, legally and factually”. It is also safe to say that due to the high-profile and high-complexity nature of much of the work, it remains intellectually stimulating for barristers at the set. As one junior puts it: “you have some of the finest minds at the bar to learn from”.
Over the past year, exciting cases passing through its doors include Nicholas Medcroft KC and Daniel Carall-Green representing the executive counsel to the Financial Reporting Council in high-profile proceedings for alleged misconduct against KPMG in relation to their audits of Regeneris and Carillion; Tetyana Nesterchuk appearing in a successful appeal against a stay imposed by the Commercial Court on their proceedings against the Secretariat of State of the Holy See (a government unit which exercises sovereign jurisdiction over Vatican City); and Rosalind Phelps KC, David Murray, and Aaron Taylor acting for JPMorgan Chase Bank in a $1.5 billion Quincecare claim brought against them by Nigeria. Certainly, a lot of impressive stuff!
One junior at Fountain Court tells us: “there is a lot of high quality work to keep you busy if you want it, but ultimately it is up to everyone how much they take on”. It is perhaps unsurprising that the tenants at such a prestigious set can be workaholics — one source tells us that their work-life balance is not good but blames this on their personal choices rather than any pressure from chambers. We hear, for example, that pupils are always told to go home by 6pm, which allows them plenty of time for a personal life outside of work. Colleagues are also said to be incredibly supportive of one another beyond pupillage. “There is a great supportive environment within the set, especially among the junior end,” one insider tells us.
Given that tenants get on so well, it is no surprise that there is a good social life at Fountain Court. Whether it be informal pub drinks after work on a Friday or more formal events organised by the set, barristers seem to enjoy spending time together. Chambers itself often provides the ideal setting for social gatherings. Located in the beautiful Fountain Court — which has a famous fountain that not only survived the Blitz but also a fire at the Inn — chambers has recently had a refurbishment and now boasts top quality facilities, including strong IT support. We are told that everyone gets their own room — something described as a “rarity nowadays” — and some even have views of the ancient mulberry trees lining the Court.
For those interested in applying for pupillage at Fountain Court, they should make their application through the Pupillage Gateway. All applicants must have completed an assessed mini-pupillage at the set. 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 an ability to get on with a range of people as well as determination, resilience and integrity. Those scoring highest on the Gateway application and during the assessed mini will be invited to an interview in front of a panel of seven barristers. The interview will consist of a problem question as well as more general questions. Four pupillages are typically offered per year, each with a generous award of £80,000.
For those who are successful, they can expect to spend their pupillage year with three different supervisors, allowing them to see a variety of practice areas — 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. Pupillages here have an emphasis on learning from supervisors, who are described by one insider as “absolutely terrific”. Pupils complete specific pieces of work for members and help to prepare pleadings and advices. They also accompany members to court and are discouraged from taking on work of their own until the tenancy decision is made, something which is not unusual at commercial sets.
Fountain Court is keen to stress that pupils come “from a range of backgrounds”, although educationally this seems to mean the occasional Cambridge rather than Oxford grad. However, the set has signed up to several initiatives to support those embarking on a career at the bar and it appears to take its commitment to equality and diversity seriously. Initiatives include Bridging the Bar’s mini-pupillage programme for those from underrepresented groups, and the commercial bar’s mentoring scheme.
What The Junior Barristers Say
Your journey to pupillage
I went to a grammar school in a rural area, then on to Cambridge to study history. After my undergraduate degree I won a fellowship to study for my masters for a year at Yale in the USA, where I began to slide unconsciously towards law by specialising in legal history. When I returned to the UK I did the GDL, won a couple of mooting competitions open to GDL students, and did 5 or so mini-pupillages at a mixture of commercial and public law sets. I applied for pupillage while I was on the GDL and accepted an offer from Fountain Court that year.
The pupillage experience
Pupillage at Fountain Court is probably more relaxed and less structured than at the other major commercial sets. There are no advocacy exercises, and you do about 20-30 pieces of assessed work, all for different members of Chambers (not just your supervisors). I found it to be very manageable, and definitely non-competitive; I am good friends with the other three pupils in my year (and we were all taken on). The work is extremely high-quality, and probably more varied than at comparable sets. There is classic banking, insurance, fraud and general commercial, but also professional discipline, aviation and a specialism in the law of privilege.
The transition from pupil to tenant
Challenging; there is a steep learning curve when you start putting your own name on documents. Managing your own practice also takes some getting used to. But it is also very exciting, and Chambers is extremely welcoming to new tenants.
What is your practice like now?
I do a mixture of work in large teams, work in small teams and small cases on my own. I am currently working on a very large insurance case, a slightly smaller company fraud case, an aviation case and a Singapore arbitration. There is no shortage of work- quite the opposite. My working patterns vary a huge amount week to week; I work quite a lot of evenings and weekends but can also put holidays and long weekends away in the diary without any pushback from clerks or leaders. I’m aiming to diversify my practice and keep a broad spectrum of work in the first few years, and probably increase my exposure to Court, as most of my work at the moment involves heavy research and writing rather than advocacy.
What is the culture of chambers?
Colleagues are generally excellent, and there is a relaxed, quite sociable atmosphere (without the socialising being ‘mandatory’). Everything functions very well without feeling corporate. Amusing round-robins of the kind that would be viewed with terror at a law firm are not uncommon.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
• Get the best grades that you can, whatever subject you are studying and wherever you are studying it. Evidence of academic ability is the most important element of our recruitment (as it is at most sets).
• Do some mini-pupillages at commercial sets, but no need to go mad with the numbers, especially when you are already pushed for time- if you have 3-4 relevant minis then that is fine.
• Experience as a solicitor or in a different career is welcome (although I personally didn’t have any).
• Let us see something of your personality in the application form and at the interviews; perhaps not a litany of jokes, but unusual interests or quirks. We will actually ask you about yourself as a human being as well as a lawyer!