Your journey to pupillage
I read law at undergraduate and graduate level in Cambridge. My academic interests range across private, family and property law, and during my BPTC I taught undergraduate supervisions in Land Law. I think the strength of my academic record fortified my application, but ultimately there are many ways to demonstrate that you can manage the sort of complex law and facts that work at the Chancery Bar requires. It is by no means necessary to come from an Oxbridge background, have an academic focus, or even to have studied law to apply for pupillage at Serle Court: one of our recent junior tenants comes from a background in acting and simply did the GDL. Chambers focusses on aptitude, practical skills, commitment and potential.
Commitment was evidenced by the fact I undertook 7 mini-pupillages across a wide range of practice areas between 2014 and 2019, as well as legal work experience in a city solicitors firm, a conveyancing practice and in-house at a FTSE 100 company.
In terms of practical skills, I had a fair amount of advocacy experience, having been a finalist in the Cambridge Brick Court Moot, and had other relevant mooting experience at Cambridge (including acting as a judge for university moots, and organising moots within my college). I earned the top prize at the BPP Advocate of the Year Competition 2018 and placed in three citizenship foundation mock trial national finals (including one second-place team finish) in my school years.
I applied for and obtained offers of pupillage in my Masters year, and started pupillage directly after taking the BPTC in Leeds in 2019/20. I wanted to find a set that offered stimulating and complex work, but which also felt like somewhere where it would be comfortable to practice in the long term. Ultimately, I thought (and still think) that Serle Court offers both in spades.
The Serle Court interview process (a gateway application, followed by a short 1st round and longer 2nd round interview) compared extremely favourably with other commercial/chancery sets to which I applied. The final round interview, which took the form of a role-playing conference, was a particular highlight, both for the intellectually interesting legal problem it concerned and the enthusiasm the interviewers showed in trying to create a realistic setting where difficult advice needed to be delivered to lay clients and solicitors. It was a process that felt at once friendly and stretching, and was a satisfying platform to demonstrate intellectual acumen, commerciality and inter-personal skills in one sitting.
I would also stress the care that members of chambers took to keep me informed during the interview process, and to assist with the transition into pupillage after I had accepted the offer.
The pupillage experience
Extraordinary. I could not have asked for better quality work, or a better range of opportunities to meaningfully assist with live work where appropriate. All of my supervisors offered excellent training and feedback, with a good range of advocacy styles and areas of practice across five supervisors (practicing across traditional/commercial chancery, advisory and contentious private client and offshore work, and real property litigation). At no point did I feel in competition with my co-pupils, or any ambiguity about where I stood or what I needed to do to improve.
This was the case even through the Covid-19 pandemic, and chambers took particular effort to introduce pupils to other members in person and remotely so far as was possible.
To illustrate the quality of work I was able to assist my supervisors with during pupillage:
- A high profile 10-week hybrid trial in the Chancery Division concerning the disqualification of directors of an incorporated charity. I was able to attend most days of the trial in person, and to assist with preparing and supporting leading counsel during cross-examination, and with drafting closing arguments.
- An ex parte application, assisting my supervisor (who was acting as sole counsel), for worldwide freezing and passport relief and interim proprietary injunctions in a £40 million fraud claim.
- Assisting in successfully resisting applications for proprietary freezing relief.
- A landmark trusts appeal in the Privy Council, heard by a 7-judge panel, concerning the priority of trustee indemnities on insolvency.
- A high-court trial of a contractual claim in the Chancery Division in Leeds.
- Legal research and analysis supporting an appeal in the Court of Appeal for Bermuda relating to the replacement of a private trust company as the trustee of a very high value trust.
- Assisting in the preparation of two separate appeals on company law issues in the Court of Appeal.
- Drafting a winding up petition on the just and equitable ground, involving allegations of serious breaches of directors’ duties.
The outstanding quality of work was an obvious draw to Chambers. But, unusually perhaps, even more compelling was how welcoming and approachable the members of chambers were. From the day I was offered pupillage, right up to the present, I have been amazed by what a fantastic bunch of people they are.
The transition from pupil to tenant
I was offered (and accepted) a 6 month secondment with a law firm that regularly instructs members of chambers immediately following pupillage. This was an excellent opportunity to get involved with some big and interesting cases (which I was able to take back to chambers and which have kept me busy after I left) to build strong relationships with some excellent solicitors, and to get experience of how to be most useful to professional clients.
This really helped ensure I landed on my feet when I started to practice on a self-employed basis, and I have had a very healthy workload ever since.
Chambers also takes serious steps to smooth the transition, with a rent-free period for the first year, and an income guarantee for the first two years. The clerks are very attentive, and there is a drive to market baby juniors and to incorporate us within Chambers’ business development plans at various levels.
What is your practice like now?
My practice has so far predominantly been in complex fraud, commercial and trusts litigation, with some advisory and property litigation work. I also have interests in company and partnership law, and in the areas where Chancery and Family law overlap.
Most of my work is led, which provides a satisfying mix of challenging and complex cases with opportunities to take on large pieces of analysis, research and drafting, but under the guidance of experienced and outstanding silks and senior juniors. The nature of the work means that Court appearances are rare, but significant when they happen.
I have had some opportunities for advocacy experience of my own (when I have been able to find time) and I have appeared alone in the High Court and on a PTA application in the Court of Appeal.
I have not felt pressure from Chambers to take on more than I can manage, but the nature of the cases I have worked on tends to keep me constantly quite busy. A typical week might resemble 9.30-6.30/7.00, an atypical week might require a number of late evenings and/or work at the weekends. I commute into chambers, but tend to spend about half of my time working from home. One of the major benefits of being self-employed and doing a lot of written advocacy is that you can do your work from anywhere, and have a good deal of flexibility.
In addition to the above, I have been involved (while on secondment or as outside junior counsel) in matters including:
- Preparing, successfully applying for, and executing a Search and Imaging Order to enforce disclosure obligations in a complex fraud case, and the investigation, document review and privilege issues arising out of the search.
- A number of ex parte applications for Bankers’ Trust/Norwich Pharmacal relief, and Section 1782 disclosure in support of foreign proceedings in the United States, in each case involving ancillary gagging relief.
- Defending a multi-million pound claim arising out of arbitration funding arrangements, which raise complex and novel consumer credit issues.
- Assisting with proceedings concerning the administration of a number of Guernsey pension schemes.
- Advisory work in relation to very substantial offshore trusts.
What is the culture of chambers?
Extremely welcoming, and with real warmth and camaraderie. The Bar naturally attracts strong characters, but at Serle Court that tends to make everyone all the more interesting to talk to, rather than generating the sort of infighting and internal politics one hears about from other sets.
Chambers drinks take place most Thursday evenings, and there has been a real effort to get a range of members in for lunches and seminars to promote collegiality (which can be obviously be challenging when so many people have the option to work from home).
Leadership within Chambers is strong and responsive, with Liz Jones QC taking over as Head of Chambers and Kathryn Purkis as the new Chambers Director within a year of my being offered tenancy. There is a real drive to be forward-looking, and to maintain our position at the top of market. A lot of important business is reviewed or led by committees, so members tend to be quite involved with significant decisions and there are plenty of opportunities to be involved in Chambers’ management from the junior end. The support staff are great, and I understand there’s a commitment to improve investment in IT, clerking and marketing capacity going forward.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
Understand, and properly analyse, what the job is about before you apply. This is not just because you need to know that you’ll actually enjoy doing it for a living, it is essential to mounting a strong application.
Barristers are advocates first and foremost. You need to be able to persuade chambers, with just a few hundred words or a few minutes at interview, that you can formulate and then deliver persuasive arguments on the brief you have. Pupillage applications are essentially advocacy exercises: the brief is your CV, and “I will be a good barrister to have alongside you in your chambers” is the proposition you need the selection panel to accept.
Barristers also need strong analytical and research skills, particularly in areas of law that often raise difficult and complex questions of fact and law. You also need to show at least some understanding of how the business works, and what you as a junior will need to do to win work and market yourself.
Equally important, though, is persuading members of chambers that you are someone they want to work and spend time with. Your personality has to shine through your application as clearly as your capabilities.