Serle Court

The Legal Cheek View

Meet Serle Court at the Legal Cheek Virtual Pupillage Fair on Saturday 9 October 2021

Serle Court covers a wide spectrum of work under the commercial and chancery umbrellas. The set has a strong reputation for civil fraud and has built other impressive practices in trusts and probate, company law, offshore (members are regularly instructed in cases arising in a long list of glamorous locations) and partnership. Other areas include insurance, intellectual property, sports, entertainment and media, banking, charities, property and insolvency.

Members include one of Europe’s top experts in Chinese law, and a leading practitioner in public international law. Serle Court also offers expertise in art, Court of Protection, public law, public international law, shipping, tax and telecommunications — no wonder one member says: “There is a high volume of work and a broad spectrum of disciplines”.

Headed up by new head of chambers Elizabeth Jones QC, Serle Court attracts high quality work which one member says is “the reason why I do this job”. Recent case highlights include acting for Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank in one of the largest claims to be brought in the High Court, representing defendants in a major commercial fraud case valued at nearly $2 billion arising out of a failed mining joint venture in Guinea, and acting for the former Prime Minister of Georgia against Credit Suisse entities for losses arising from the alleged mismanagement of an investment portfolio said to be worth over $1 billion.

Continue reading

Other previous high profile cases have included the Scarle v Scarle case, which required a judge to determine the order in which the parents of two step-sisters died and successfully appealing a North London coroner’s decision to introduce a cab-rank rule for burials, ending the system whereby priority would be given to Jewish and Muslim families in accordance with their religious needs to bury their loved ones as soon as possible.

“Big money, big personalities, difficult problems: keeps the adrenalin flowing!” is how one Serle Court barrister describes the work on offer at the set. Another says: “My work can be summed up as ‘families at war over money’, with all the fireworks, drama and human interest which such disputes involve”. The work is often challenging, highly varied and stimulating meaning “there is rarely a boring day,” another tells us. And it’s always that bit more interesting when members come up against each other in the same case, which apparently happens often.

With 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 the 2021-22 Legal Cheek Barristers Survey: “This is an absolute priority for me and one which the clerks at 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!”.

The set is based 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!

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. We’re also told tenants conducted remote hearings throughout the pandemic using chambers’ IT system, with little or no trouble.

With a star-studded roster of nearly 70 barristers, including 27 QCs (a notably high silk ratio), members take pride in, and place high value on, the set’s supportive atmosphere and open door policy which, we are told, is taken seriously. The atmosphere is described by one member as “very supportive and non judgmental” whereby “juniors are happy to ask for help and seniors will always give up their time” meaning there is “always an ear to discuss a difficult point or an ethical dilemma”. Another insider 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”.

Serle Court upholds the venerable bar tradition of afternoon tea in chambers, as well as other “considerable socialising” activities including Friday night drinks and parties. 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”. During the pandemic, the set kept up its social side with “well-attended virtual Friday-night drinks and Wednesday coffees”. 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.

The set offers three pupillages per year, with a £65,000 award, and there is no competition between candidates for tenancy – if you’re good enough, you’ll get it. Thirteen of the last 16 pupils were offered a spot in chambers, and the very few who weren’t were helped to find tenancy elsewhere. 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 chambers members. 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”.

Approximately 30 candidates are invited for first round interviews, narrowed down to ten for the second round, which takes the form of a mock client conference. The set offers around 30 mini-pupillage opportunities each year.

Serle Court also smooths the journey into practice financially by guaranteeing income of £120,000 over the first two years and not charging chambers expenses until earnings exceed £50,000 per anum. 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”.

What The Junior Barristers Say

Max Marenbon

Your journey to pupillage

I read Classics at Oxford, completed the GDL and got a training contract. Before starting, I took an LLM at Cambridge specialising in commercial law and then worked at the Law Commission for two years. I trained and qualified as a solicitor, but working with counsel made me conclude that I wanted to do more advocacy and so I applied for pupillage. I secured an offer from Serle Court and, before starting my pupillage, worked for a year as Judicial Assistant to Lord Wilson, who was an inspirational mentor, at the Supreme Court.

The pupillage experience

I was attracted to Serle Court because I had enjoyed working on high-value commercial, trusts and civil fraud litigation and wished to practise at one of the leading sets of chambers in this area.

The pupillage application process was very rigorous: a written application including mini essay questions, and two interviews, both involving a legal problem (I think that I was given legal problems because I had already studied law). The final round was a mock client conference: I was presented with a brief beforehand and given limited time to prepare, and then had to advise the interview panel, who were pretending to be solicitors and a lay client. I got the feeling that they enjoyed acting their parts!

Continue reading

I knew very little about Serle Court before starting so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the atmosphere was extremely relaxed and that everyone treated me and my fellow pupil (Tim Benham-Mirando), from day one, as future members of Chambers. We were never made to feel as if we were in competition with one another as we knew that Serle Court does not offer more pupillage places than it has space for tenancies. We were given continuous feedback on our work, which reassured us early on that we were meeting the standard required of us to be on track for tenancy, and allowed us to focus on the areas that needed improvement. It also stopped me from feeling the need to analyse every interaction with members of chambers to glean clues about my prospects!

I was fortunate to work on some of the most high-profile cases around during my pupillage, including two which were widely-reported in the national press: the Fundao Dam litigation, representing Brazilian municipalities and villagers against BHP in the largest group action ever brought in England; and a circa $1 billion fraud claim by HMRC against US conglomerate General Electric, on which I was then formally instructed after pupillage, including on a forthcoming appeal to the Supreme Court. Despite being only a pupil, I was treated like part of the team, with fellow counsel and instructing solicitors seemingly happy to treat me as an additional resource they could draw on!

Although there were two formal assessments, an advocacy exercise and an opinion-writing exercise, given the continuous feedback we had received on all our work, the formal assessments were less daunting because it did not feel like everything turned on them.

The transition from pupil to tenant

I had a busy start to practice as I was immediately instructed both in Schumacher v Clarke, a dispute concerning the estate of the late renowned architect, Dame Zaha Hadid, and to advise at the pre-action stage on an unlawful means conspiracy claim with international aspects. I was also instructed to appear in various hearings in the High Court and County Court (approximately one or two every month) allowing me to gain advocacy experience. As well as these complex high-value disputes led by senior counsel, I was also fortunate to be instructed as sole counsel on smaller matters: my first instruction was on a circa £1.2 million claim by a secured creditor under a guarantee. What I enjoyed most about becoming a tenant was the chance to make my own client relationships, run my own cases and do my own advocacy. What I found most challenging was the (self-inflicted) workload as I was constantly presented with amazing opportunities that were difficult to turn down.

What is your practice like now?

Just under a year into tenancy, I am lucky to have a good balance between working on my own cases, and being led in big cases where I have the opportunity to learn from some of the leading barristers in the commercial and chancery field. Senior members of chambers are very supportive and always willing to advise if asked. My weekly hours can vary but I typically work from approximately 9:00am – 7:30pm during the week, with a few hours’ work at weekends, although I’d work much longer hours during a very busy period. Obviously barristers are self employed and can, to some extent, choose how much work they take on. Many of my colleagues at Serle Court probably work shorter hours than me, but at the moment, as I’m still early on in my practice, I’m investing the time in learning as much as possible. Outside of court hearings, I have complete freedom to choose when and where I work, and I take full advantage of that flexibility to enjoy a full social and family life alongside my professional commitments. I undertake advocacy in court approximately once a month (although my hearings as sole counsel have been virtual so far because of Covid restrictions) and probably appear as a junior a similar amount, although I have a 20-day trial coming up in October, which I’m greatly looking forward to.

What is the culture of chambers?

Colleagues are very relaxed and considerate. There is a sense that even the most senior members of chambers always have time for you, no matter what you want to talk about. People are understanding about others’ non-work commitments. Social life was busy before Covid, with numerous drinks events, pub trips and a party at the London Transport Museum. During periods of Covid restrictions, people made the effort to organise weekly Zoom drinks and – when possible – morale-boosting art gallery trips and chambers lunches. I am looking forward to chambers social life restarting in earnest, with the chambers party at the Tower of London next year promising to be a particular highlight.

Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers

Focus on doing the best academically that you possibly can. Further study beyond undergraduate level is not essential, but if you enjoy wrestling with complex legal questions at postgraduate level then you’re likely to enjoy this aspect of the work at Serle Court. Don’t neglect your social life, or your outside interests – the latter not as a box-ticking exercise for your CV, but because it is important to be a rounded, approachable person and to have a life outside the law. Look for opportunities such as working at the Law Commission or as a Judicial Assistant: these are not only CV-boosting, but hugely interesting, and they enable you to learn a great deal.

Deadlines

Pupillage 2023

To commence October 2023
Applications open 05/01/2022
Applications close 09/02/2022

Mini-Pupillage

Applications are received on a rolling basis
Applications close 31/12/2021

Mini-Pupillage

Applications are received on a rolling basis
Applications close 31/07/2022

Insider Scorecard

A*
Training
A*
Quality of work
A
Colleagues
A*
Facilities
A*
Work/life balance
A
Social life
B
Legal Tech

Insider Scorecard grades range from A* to D and are derived from the Legal Cheek Junior Barrister Survey 2021-22 of over 600 barristers at the leading chambers in England.

Key Info

Juniors 42
QCs 27
Pupillages 3
Oxbridge-educated new tenants* 4/5

*Figure is for the five most junior members of chambers; does not include postgraduate studies.

Money

Pupillage award £65,000
BPTC advance drawdown £22,500

Diversity

Female juniors 31%
Female QCs 11%
BME juniors 7%
BME QCs 7%