The Legal Cheek View
Kings Chambers is undoubtedly a northern powerhouse and one of the biggest names on the Northern Circuit. Founded in Manchester in 1946, it also has offices in Leeds (which opened in 1996) and Birmingham (opened in 2012). Over the years, Kings Chambers has grown exponentially and is now one of just a handful of chambers with more than 100 barristers. Between 2018 and 2021, the set’s turnover has soared by 26% from £35 million to £44.2 million.
For the first 50 years of its life, Kings Chambers operated as a full service chambers. However, in 1996 the set stopped doing criminal, family and — for the most part — publicly funded work, to focus exclusively on civil law.
Instructions flow in across the full range of civil practice areas, with Chambers divided into the following four departments: chancery and commercial law, planning and environmental law, administrative and public law, and personal injury and clinical negligence. It has both extensive litigation and arbitration experience. Despite being based in the North, members are said to work all over the country and also in foreign jurisdictions, including the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, and the UAE.
Whether it’s Mark Harper KC representing sporting icons such as Wayne Rooney and Sir Bradley Wiggins against their agents, or Paul Tucker KC and Piers Riley-Smith securing permission for the tallest building in Staines town centre, the set is consistently doing interesting things.
On the commercial side, members, particularly KCs, appear in a number of significant reported cases. We are a little jealous to hear that Paul Chaisty KC has just returned from a two-week trial in the Singapore Commercial Court. Meanwhile, Louis Doyle KC is the co-author of Doyle, Keay & Curl’s Annotated Insolvency Legislation, one of the key practitioner’s texts in this area.
Planning law is another central area for Kings Chambers — the set even has a Planning Podcast! Construction disputes handled by the set range from rights of way for HS2 to Premier League football stadia through to onshore wind farms. Recently, Paul Tucker KC and Constanze Bell have advised Liverpool Council in relation to Everton’s proposed new stadium. Kings’ planning prowess has also been bolstered by Christopher Katkowski KC — described as “a legend of the Bar” — moving across from Landmark Chambers this year. Kings is also one of the few chambers outside London to regularly represent clients on matters before the Technology and Construction Court (TCC). Indeed, after retiring from the TCC, Judge David Gilliland KC joined Kings Chambers as an arbitrator.
The administrative and public law department covers a wide array of areas, from the Court of Protection to local government cases. Recently, for example, Sam Karim KC has led a Kings Chambers team of licencing specialists who were instructed during the COVID-19 pandemic to challenge various UK government closures and curfews. Members of Kings Chambers take on both public and privately funded work in this area. Constanze Bell recently acted for a successful claimant in a “reasons challenge” judicial review. The case had a planning element to it — something which is very common at this set. A number of barristers are on the Attorney-General’s provincial panel for civil litigation.
On the clinical negligence side, one junior describes that they have a “varied and interesting” practice, with another describing that “the medical science side of clinical negligence is really interesting”. Helen Mulholland was recently instructed on behalf of Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust in a sensitive case involving withdrawal of treatment from toddler Alta Fixsler. Personal injury is described by a junior as “more cut-and-thrust” with “a wider opportunity for advocacy”. The set has particular experience in aircraft-related deaths — and acted in the inquests into the Nimrod XV230 Air Disaster, the single largest loss of life suffered by the British military since the Falklands war.
From a rookie barrister’s perspective, there is a range of matters on which to cut your teeth — from supporting more senior lawyers on high profile cases to handling your own matters in lower courts. One junior tells us: “For the most part I feel very lucky to do a job that’s varied, throws up complex questions that need researching, and has a fair bit of variety.”
There is seemingly a supportive culture at Kings Chambers, which continues from pupillage into tenancy with colleagues “always on hand over the phone if needed”. One barrister, who moved to Kings Chambers from another set, commented that they were “provided with extensive support and mentoring when developing new practice areas”.
Like most chambers, rookies can be expected to work between 50 and 60 hours a week. Members are generally happy with their work/life balance. One junior observes that their senior colleagues with children are supported, with clerks being “fully supportive of part-time working/non-working days fixed each week”.
Views on social life at Kings Chambers are mixed, with juniors commenting that there is a considerable challenge in “getting people together” which can be “like herding cats”. Manchester apparently has the best social scene, as it has the biggest office and more younger members. Leeds and Birmingham can apparently be a bit hit and miss, with one junior complaining that “down in Birmingham there isn’t much”. When social events do happen, however, they are described as “good fun”.
In terms of the buildings, Manchester and Leeds are described as “magnificent”, especially following the recent renovations in Leeds — we hear that there was a £500,000 makeover in 2021! Both are centrally located in their respective cities and much of their stream of work comes from the many big firms around them. The Birmingham building, whilst also central, is described as “well-furnished” but comparatively “a satellite site and small”. It did benefit from some additional conference facilities being created during the pandemic.
Inside the buildings, one junior commented that “the rooms available for more junior members of chambers aren’t ideal”. According to one insider: “The more senior barristers seem to have reserved the nice rooms, but occupancy is fairly low, so you end up with lots of traditional and relatively spacious barristers’ rooms lying empty much of the time, while pupils and new tenants use hot-desks and open plan areas.” The library, clerking and staffing were, however, all described as “excellent”.
The set offers up to four pupillages a year across its locations. Training at the set is highly-rated. The first six is described as “generally very good preparation” with a focus on shadowing and then working for “very friendly” colleagues, including Kings’ roster of 20 KCs, one of the best collections of senior lawyers outside London. During the second six, rookies can find themselves in court “up to three times a week.” All offers of pupillage are made with a view to tenancy.
Kings Chambers emphasises on its website that it has a focus on equality and diversity, and welcomes candidates “from all backgrounds” and “sectors of the community”. Indeed, in September 2021, alongside Cornerstone Barristers, Field Court Chambers, Francis Taylor Building, and Landmark Chambers — all other specialist Planning, Property and Public Law sets ― it launched a mentoring scheme for underrepresented groups at the Bar. The set says that it is looking to develop barristers with an “uncompromising attitude to quality and client service”.
Kings Chambers recruits through the Pupillage Gateway. After application sifting, first-round interviews take place, which are conducted by at least two members of Chambers and last around 15-20 minutes. The second-round interview is more extensive and takes place in front of a panel, typically including at least one KC. Candidates are normally asked to deliver a presentation to the panel on a topic of their choice. They may also be expected to provide a submission in respect of a problem provided in advance of the interview. Kings Chambers states that it is not looking for the “finished article” — it is the purpose of pupillage to produce this. The set is, however, looking for candidates with “the potential to become excellent barristers”.
What The Junior Barristers Say
Your journey to pupillage
I started out at The Kings School in Macclesfield. I didn’t know I wanted to do law as they didn’t offer it at A-level, but I had always enjoyed performing and in Year 11 or 12 someone told me that the courtroom was like a stage and the idea stuck. I did a history degree at the University of York and it was in my final year there that I decided to pursue a legal career and I started to look for experience with solicitors’ firms as well as in chambers.
I was lucky enough to meet a barrister on a family holiday and went on to do some shadowing with him before completing a number of mini-pupillages. I went on to do the GDL and it was in that year that I thought I would give pupillage applications a go on the first round. I was offered two pupillages, including one at Kings, and went straight onto pupillage after my bar course. I worked hard but I imagine there was some ‘right time, right place’ involved too.
The pupillage experience
I knew I wanted to stay in Manchester, so I only applied for pupillages there. Kings is a great set with a great name, and I wanted to start my career off in the best place I could. I did a mini-pupillage at Kings and really enjoyed it and thought it was different from the other mini-pupillages I had done. The first day involved lots of talks from different barristers and a judge came in too, then on the second day there were lots of advocacy exercises. Because I didn’t do a law degree, the practice area talks were really interesting for me and I found there were all these areas of law I had never heard of. It was during my mini-pupillage at Kings where I first learnt about The Court of Protection. Simon Burrows gave the talk on Court of Protection and Mental Health work and he was so passionate about the area. I was invited to lunch in the summer before starting my pupillage and was very pleased to hear that he would be one of my supervisors!
I was offered a common-law pupillage; however, during my interview I was clear I wanted to do Court of Protection, mental health, and public law work. Even though Kings wanted a common-law pupil, they recognised my interests and came up with a way of tailoring my pupillage to match them. I spent three months with Richard Livingston in personal injury and clinical negligence, before moving onto three months with Simon Burrows doing Court of Protection and mental health work. The transition into my second six was really easy, I did a lot of personal injury work and then slowly built up my Court of Protection practice.
Having two different supervisors in the first six was really useful as both had such different styles and approaches. With my first supervisor, I spent quite a lot of time in chambers as he had quite a heavy paperwork practice. This meant I got to meet lots of members and practice my drafting skills. When I moved over to my second supervisor, I was in court pretty much every day with him, there was never more than an afternoon of paperwork. I kept both supervisors in my second six.
Assessment is conducted on an ongoing basis at Kings. My supervisors set paperwork tasks and then provided feedback. After court or conferences, my supervisors would ask me questions and see whether I understood and see if I would ask the right questions and whether I had picked up on the right things. As well as wanting candidates with intellectual abilities, as chambers invest a lot of time and money into pupils, they want to make sure you are the kind of person who will fit in. I was encouraged to spend time with the clerks and other members of chambers who I am sure reported back to my supervisors as well. I really appreciated and liked the ‘on-going’ nature of pupillage assessment at Kings, as I know some chambers set specific assessment tasks or interviews. Everyone has horror stories of a bad day in court and I don’t think a single assessment reflects life as a barrister. One bad day in court doesn’t define you and isn’t representative of you as an advocate, so I think the ongoing nature of assessment at Kings is a good one.
At the end of every three months, supervisors would fill in a review sheet and you would fill in an identical sheet and then a meeting was held with the head of pupillage. During the meeting we would discuss what was going well or any concerns, though it would largely focus on what pupils wanted to get out of the process and how you felt it was going. It was an opportunity to review, rather than an assessment.
The transition from pupil to tenant
It was a natural, easy and seamless transition through to tenancy. I had been on my feet for six months already so just carried on the next day. During second six I didn’t feel like I was a pupil, I still wanted to do well and impress, but I didn’t feel like I was treated any differently than I would if I were a tenant. During my second six, I think I was often a little nervous to ask ‘silly’ questions as I wanted to impress, but over the past two years I’ve grown in confidence and found the support network at Kings to be fantastic – now I ask ‘silly’ questions all the time!
What is your practice like now?
Most of my practice is still remote, I’ve had three hearings in person since March 2020. With Court of Protection work especially, lots of it is directions hearings and timetabling for future evidence, so until you get into final hearings and contested hearings, most of the work is done in meetings and conferences before you go in so you don’t really need to be in the courtroom as such. I think a lot will stay remote. I do miss being in court though and would like to be back in at least a few days a week.
In terms of work/life balance, some people may struggle with the amount of work I do and some may want more, but for me it’s pretty perfect. I am never afraid to ring my clerks to ask for paper days if I am overwhelmed, and if they can accommodate it, they will put one in for me and allow me that breathing space to prepare. Now everthing is remote, the work/life balance is a lot better; I’m not racing for trains or getting back late after an afternoon hearing. I felt like I was working a lot harder during pupillage, but I am sure this was because I was spending eight hours preparing a case rather than the 2 it actually required! It is a hard career, and it takes a lot of work, it isn’t a 9-5 job but I still tend to get most of my weekends and whilst there is the odd evening when I’m up late, there are days when my hearings will vacate and I find myself with a free day or two.
I have recently started to broaden my practice and am now picking up some Human Rights and Judicial Review work. When I have asked about expanding into different areas, I have felt supported by the clerking team. For example, Court of Protection work is split into health and welfare, and property and affairs work and at the moment my practice is largely the former, but I’m looking to develop my property and affairs practice. When I have spoken to the clerks they have been really supportive in suggesting conducting seminars and helping me to build new relationships with solicitors firms.
What is the culture of chambers?
With Covid, I haven’t really been into chambers in almost two years! My team is really helpful and friendly, we have a great support network. When there is a cross over with an area of law I’m not familiar with, I know I can pick up the phone and ask the clerks who I should ask for help. I recently sent a message to a colleague asking for help and within two minutes he called me and talked me through it all. Even though I am two years beyond pupillage now, that supportive atmosphere is still there. We have things like a Court of Protection team Whatsapp so if anyone has a query, we can bounce ideas off each other. It is a really nice environment, especially over the last year – being a barrister means you work on your own, so it can be quite lonely, but Kings manages to create an environment which makes you feel like you’re part of a team, which is especially helpful for people at the junior end.
Socially, since lockdown, the Court of Protection team has been out for dinner. During lockdown we had Zoom quizzes as well.
Chambers is split across three buildings in Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham. In Manchester we have a library with desks that anyone can use, but you can also rent permanent desks too. Chambers is spread across a number of floors with desks grouped in rooms, usually shared by people practicing in the same area. There are lots of conference rooms you can book out as well for client meetings and calls.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
Apply for the mini-pupillage programme. This has been virtual for the past two rounds and rather than just select 20 people for both days, on the first we’ve had it open to anyone. If you show that engagement with chambers that is one tick in the box. There are so many seminars and podcasts on our website too, listen to those and engage with members as much as you can. I often get messages on LinkedIn and I am always happy to respond.
Kings specialises in areas like planning, business and property, personal injury and clinical negligence and public law, we don’t do crime or family work, so make sure you tailor your application appropriately.
Good academic results are great, but a lot of applicants will have good grades. Show us something different, tell us what makes you someone we want to meet. We want friendly, enthusiastic people who will fit into the supportive atmosphere that we have in chambers.