The Legal Cheek View
Serle Court covers a wide spectrum of work under the commercial and chancery umbrellas. Made up of 72 barristers, including 27 KCs, the set’s expertise in civil fraud, company, partnerships, charities, restructuring/insolvency, commercial dispute resolution, and offshore work (members are regularly instructed in cases arising in a long list of glamorous locations) are highly respected. In addition, members work in areas as varied as property, tax, and art law.
Given the wide range of work on offer at the set, it’s no wonder that one tenant says: “there is a high volume of work and a broad spectrum of disciplines”. Working across the spectrum of business law, pupils at the set are able to see a variety of different practice areas, which helps them to develop a wide range of skills and to determine which areas they may wish to specialise in later down the line. The variety of what tenants at the set are working on can be seen from their comments to us. One tells us: “my work can be summed up as “families at war over money, with all the fireworks, drama and human interest which such disputes involve”. Meanwhile another tenant says that their work involves “high-value, high-profile litigation in a wide range of jurisdictions, involving complicated points of law”. Commercial chancery work inherently brings this variety, with one junior at the set summarising: “you genuinely get the best of both worlds: one day you may be against a Magic Circle commercial set; the next advising on a complex chancery matter”.
Whatever tenants at Serle Court are working on, it certainly never seems dull. The high calibre of the tenants, including head of chambers Elizabeth Jones KC, attracts high quality work to the set. One member says it is this kind of work that is “the reason why I do this job”. From multi-billion-pound fraud cases to acting for government officials, there is rarely a boring day. This past year alone has seen Michael Edenborough KC take on Amazon in the High Court in an intellectual property case, Conor Quigley KC appear in a case relating to the non-taxation of royalty income in Gibraltar, Will Henderson represent HM Attorney General in a case concerning Prince Phillip’s will, Daniel Lightman KC and Charlotte Beynon act in a High Court appeal concerning claims against the former directors of BHS relating to the company’s insolvency, and Max Marenbon appear in a case clarifying the law on Bankruptcy Restrictions length. Phew — that’s a lot of exciting work!
With so much exciting work on offer, it can be hard to say no to cases, but we are told clerks are very supportive in meeting the wishes of individual members and that everyone’s choices are respected by all. Offering further insight into work/life balance, one female silk with two young children tells us that “this is an absolute priority for me and one which the clerks are 100% supportive of. I don’t get it right all the time, but generally manage to preserve weekends, half terms and some of the school holidays as ‘sacrosanct’ family time. I have learnt to say no!”. Another tenant finds it a bit more turbulent, saying “[the work] goes from too much to too little” but adds “at least it is under my control and I am not at the beck and call of a partner with billing targets”.
There is no doubt that the quality of work at Serle Court “requires 100% effort, skill, expertise, energy, thought and action”, as one junior puts it. Fortunately, the Serle Court bunch are all very supportive of each other. One says the support of their colleagues is in their opinion “the best thing about chambers”. Preserving the “collegiate atmosphere” is apparently “at the heart of [the] management of chambers”. The open-door policy, which we hear is taken seriously, means that if you are stuck on a point of law, or just want to grab a coffee with somebody, there is always someone to rely on. As one junior says: “you can ask anyone for advice at pretty much any time”.
Tenants also enjoy socialising together. From the venerable tradition of chambers’ tea to Thursday evening drinks, there are regular opportunities to mingle with colleagues. We hear that things are slowly getting back on track post-Covid. There are informal lunches as well as chambers’ lunch a few times a term. The fact the chambers backs on to the Seven Stars pub according to one member “certainly means that there will be someone to have a drink with after a long day”. While socialising with colleagues is not for everyone, one member highlights that although they tend to choose to not be involved, they are still invited to do so.
Speaking of the set’s location, Serle Court finds itself in the heart of Lincoln’s Inn, split across two buildings. The main premises is a traditional 17th century double fronted building on New Square with conference rooms overlooking the garden and chapel. The building oozes charm thanks to the original wooden stairs and “wonky floors”, coupled with sleek modern touches such as mineral, sparkling, and boiling water on constant supply via a fancy kitchen tap. The annex is also said to be light, airy and air-conditioned with impressive 20ft ceilings! Many barristers seem to prefer this to the traditional premises given, whilst it has “charm and character”, it is “impractical”. Chambers has been modernised (as much as possible in the Inn) for today’s working practices including video hearings with technology being a major area of heavy investment in recent years.
Serle Court offers three pupillages per year, with a £75,000 award. Pupils sit with four different supervisors throughout their training who are “knowledgeable and experienced” in their different areas of practice. Pupils shadow their supervisors for the whole 12 months, rather than taking on their own caseload, but advocacy is taught by practical exercises in front of senior member of chambers. One recent graduate of the Serle Court pupillage process tells us: “The focus is on learning rather than assessment, which means you are able to always ask what seem like ‘silly’ or ‘basic’ questions. You get to see work across chambers’ practices and usually sit with people of different levels of call”.
The set looks for those “committed to a career in commercial or chancery practice”, with “outstanding intellectual and analytical ability” with the “the potential to become excellent advocates” and a “capacity to establish and maintain good relationships with solicitors, clients and the judiciary”.
Those wishing to apply should make their application through the Pupillage Gateway. Approximately 30 candidates are invited for first-round interviews, which take place in front of a panel of three and last around 15 minutes. Around 10 candidates are then invited to a more extensive second-round interview, which takes the form of a mock client conference. Prior to the interview, candidates will be given a short problem question to prepare and will then deliver advice in conference to members of chambers playing the role of clients and solicitors.
Serle Court is a member of the Pegasus Access and Support Scheme, through which mini-pupillages are offered, and also reserves three mini-pupillages a year for candidates from groups that are under-represented at the Bar.
What The Junior Barristers Say
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.