The Legal Cheek View
When it comes to restructuring and insolvency, South Square are at the top of their game. Working on both domestic and international cases, the set is the go-to when businesses fall apart. Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the current economic crisis have created an increasingly turbulent business market, and South Square’s 46 tenants are seeing their work pile up as a result. It’s no surprise that aspiring barristers are drawn to this heavyweight commercial set, given the possibility of working on high-profile, high-value cases as well as opportunities to visit such locations as the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Whilst restructuring and insolvency are the first areas that come to mind when you think of South Square, there is far more to the set than that. The 46 members, including an impressive 17 KCs, are also highly respected when it comes to commercial chancery, banking and finance, company law, and commercial dispute resolution. The work can be incredibly varied, with one insider telling us that “every piece of work is always different so it’s a constant learning curve”. That certainly seems to be the case, with clients ranging from high street banks to aviation companies. Football fans should note that the set has a history of advising Premier League clubs on takeovers, relocations, and restructuring, as well as appearing in disciplinary proceedings on behalf of footballers and managers such as Thierry Henry and Arsène Wenger. It has also advised on motorsports issues, acting for Lewis Hamilton and other F1 drivers.
It is hard to get away from the restructuring and insolvency core of this set — and why would you want to? It is a fascinating area, as one member says: “Insolvency lies at the intersection of many different areas of law. Tenants at South Square have worked on some of the biggest cases in recent years, including the Lehman Brothers Waterfall applications and the Debenhams insolvency. It is immensely interesting.” An insider explains, “because of our specialty in insolvency law, we do all of the important Supreme Court and Court of Appeal cases”. Apparently “there is lots of opportunity” to be led by the silks as a baby junior too. Commenting further on the type of work even newbies to the job can expect, one tenant tells us: “I’ve got two cases in the Supreme Court this year. I’ve also done a five-day international arbitration on my own (I’m a junior junior).” Certainly sounds exciting!
Over the past year, Tom Smith KC and Adam Al-Attar appeared in an expedited trial to determine whether the directors of Caffè Nero had breached their duties by rejecting a late bid to acquire the company for £400 million, Marcus Haywood has acted as junior counsel on the appeal of the largest trial to have ever taken place in the history of the Cayman Islands, and Tom Smith KC, Richard Fisher KC and Robert Amey have appeared before the Supreme Court in a case arising from Bernard Madoff’s multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. The set has also just launched an Arbitration and Mediation Unit, which will be the only such unit to operate in the restructuring and insolvency world.
With so much high-value work going on, getting a work/life balance is what one member says is the dream come true: “At South Square it can sometimes be hard to maintain this, as there are always crunch times before hearings and deadlines. However, you are in control and can take on as much work as you can manage. It’s a personal choice.” The good thing about being in court less often — one insider tells us roughly once a month — means there is more time to work on cases at your own pace. When led, this is more difficult as you will be following your lead’s timeline. One junior tenant does tell us, however, “I go on holiday whenever I want for as long as I want”. Nice! Clerks are described as “fantastic” along with the hard-working support staff, including 24-hour third party IT support, who are there to assist with anything. Whilst acknowledging that “you have to be prepared to give up evenings and weekends now and again”, one junior tells us: “I definitely don’t get beasted by my clerks/leaders the way some other baby juniors [at other commercial sets] do.”
It also helps that South Square is a collegiate set. Relatively small, it benefits from a “real sense of camaraderie” and an “in it together” mentality. According to one former pupil, “everyone at South Square has an open-door policy from baby junior all the way through to leading silk, and anyone is happy to talk through any issue or question you have, whether legal or personal”. One member, who shares a corridor with the head of chambers, says they regularly go and chat to him about their cases.
On the social side, with everyone getting along well and the barristers being “a fairly relaxed bunch”, chambers’ drinks or spontaneous coffees are a regular feature as well as lunches as a whole set and within smaller groups. There’s also a summer party, “fancy” Christmas do, and spring reception which clients are also invited to, as well as other celebrations in between — “so there is plenty of opportunity to eat and drink nice food!” We also hear that the baby juniors regularly go out together on a Friday night.
In terms of location, South Square is housed in a “lovely Georgian style” building in Gray’s Inn, overlooking Gray’s Inn Hall and boasting plush facilities inside. One former pupil praises the reception and meeting rooms as “top notch, City law firm-standard”. Another rookie, obviously used to higher standards, says “it’s not quite the Ritz” and unfortunately for them, “there’s no chandeliers or gold gilding”. However, they go on to concede that “we all get our own room which are spacious, light and airy” with members permitted to decorate them to their own tastes; “mine is like my own personal little oasis and I love it”. Some areas can be a bit “shabby-chic in places”, but the conference rooms are described as “swanky” and there are newly refurbished shower facilities for those who cycle or run to work. We also hear that the set has “the best stocked pantry of any chambers I’ve ever set foot in!” — that gets bonus points from us!
For those looking to apply for pupillage at South Square, they will need to make their application through Pupillage Gateway. Like most chambers, there are two rounds of interviews. Those invited to the first round, taking place in front of junior barristers, will face questions on their application form as well as a short problem question. For those who make it through to the second round, the interview is more extensive and takes place in front of a panel of more senior tenants. The interview places more focus on a legal problem that you will be given before coming into the interview. Those lucky enough to get pupillage will receive an award of £75,000.
Pupillage at South Square is all about learning. There is a non-practising second six because, as one former pupil explains, “much of the law we do is techy and complicated and you definitely need that year to get to grips with how it all works before being let loose as a tenant”. Fret not, however, while pupils are not on their feet in court at any point, they get loads of practice with drafting work and opinion writing as well as the opportunity to sharpen their verbal skills with some “really useful” in-house advocacy exercises. Pupils change supervisor every six to eight weeks so as to gain from a wide range of expertise. They also “sit with a mentor for the first few months which means you’re not just left on your own and there’s always someone to talk things through with”. All of this means come tenancy, “you’re fully prepared to hit the real world running”.
The set is looking for “high calibre” candidates with strong academic records and “the potential to become an outstanding commercial barrister”. To get a further insight into South Square, the set offers up to ten week-long funded mini-pupillages with an award of an almighty £750! Unfunded minis are also available. South Square works closely with organisations such as the Bar Council, 10,000 Black Interns, the Black Talent Charter, and Rare Contextual Recruitment System, to help to further diversity and inclusion. The set also participates in COMBAR’s mentoring scheme for candidates from under-represented groups at the Commercial Bar.
What The Junior Barristers Say
Your journey to pupillage
I studied law as an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford. After this I stayed at Brasenose for another year to do the Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) thanks to the receipt of scholarships from the Law Faculty and College. On the BCL I studied conflict of laws, restitution, advanced property and trusts, and human rights at work. This was a great experience which I would really recommend to anyone who is able to do it – it deepens your legal knowledge and ability to think critically, whilst also putting you in touch with a global network of like-minded students.
After finishing up at Oxford I received a scholarship from Gray’s Inn and started the BPTC (as it then was). During the BPTC year I taught trusts law at two colleges in Oxford. Whilst at Oxford I had participated in a number of moots (including the International Price Media Law Moot) and whilst on the BPTC I was a runner-up in the Gray’s Inn Moot Competition.
I was also fortunate to be awarded one of Gray’s Inn’s residential scholarships. This meant I (along with a dozen or so other BPTC students) got (free!) accommodation in Gray’s Inn for the year of our BPTC. Not only was the accommodation very nice, but this also enabled us to get really involved in the life of Gray’s Inn during that year. The Inns provide lots of opportunities to meet barristers (and the judges), get careers advice, and improve your advocacy skills.
I was fortunate that whilst on the BCL I got pupillage at South Square. At that point South Square was not part of the Gateway (although it now is) and this was my first time applying. As a result, I never went through the Gateway process. Prior to applying for pupillage, I had done quite a few minis (roughly 6-12) in a range of areas. I had done a mini at South Square (which encouraged me to apply) but my co-pupil (and now co-tenant) had not.
The pupillage experience
Pupillage at South Square is organised into seats of roughly 6-8 weeks. This is shorter than at other commercial sets and means by the end of pupillage you have been supervised by most of the senior juniors in Chambers. This structure is a real benefit because it exposes you to a wider range of work. At South Square, there are 4-6 formal assessments throughout the year. These cover the range of skills you need to practice here including drafting particulars of claim, preparing an opinion, and advocacy exercises. The advocacy exercises in particular are really fun (even if they are a bit nerve-wracking) and always involve an old case from someone in chambers. I was tasked with putting a well-known airline into administration and had to pretend it was 3am when we were making the application.
During pupillage I was exposed to a range of commercial, insolvency, banking and finance, and restructuring work. The day-to-day tasks of a pupil at South Square are pretty varied. You may be asked to prepare a research note for your supervisor, do a draft of a skeleton or opinion which your supervisor is working on, or do a specific piece of ‘dead work’ (i.e. an old case). The process is structured to expose you to a variety of different tasks and areas of practice. Supervisors will ask you at the beginning of each seat which areas or types of work you still need to cover, and will endeavour to plug any gaps.
One important point is that the second-six is non-practising at South Square. The reason for this is that you use the second-six to really hone your knowledge of some of the more technical aspects of insolvency law, so you are ready to hit the ground running as a tenant. Unlike some other commercial sets, there is plenty of opportunity for unled work (particularly in insolvency) in your first few years of practice.
There is regular and very helpful feedback on your work, as well as end-of-seat and mid-pupillage reviews. The supervisors are very clear about what you need to improve on and what you are doing well. Pupillage at South Square is all about learning and improving over the course of the year; no one is expecting the finished product straight-away. It is also non-competitive. You are never made to feel like you and your co-pupil are competing; in fact, Chambers goes out of its way to make sure that is not the case. We usually take two pupils every year and the expectation is that if you meet the required standard for tenancy, you will get taken on.
The transition from pupil to tenant
The transition was very well-managed, and I felt supported throughout. The responsibility of running your own cases can initially seem daunting but South Square has an open-door policy and the junior juniors regularly pop into each other’s rooms to ask questions. This is a really good way of being able to ask questions which feel stupid (but rarely actually are) and to get the benefit of the experience of people who were in your shoes a few years before.
When you start tenancy at South Square you are allocated a mentor for the first six months of practice. You sit in their room during this period so that you can ask questions and they can check that everything is going well. The mentoring relationship is something which is really valuable, and people continue to ask their mentors for advice even after they have got their own room. Your former supervisors are also continuing sources of advice and support. I have also found they are really good at getting you involved in their cases and giving you opportunities.
What is your practice like now?
My practice is a mixture of insolvency and commercial work. I also have a good balance of led and un-led work, which gives me the opportunity to be involved in the bigger cases and also get advocacy experiences. I would say barristers at South Square (and commercial sets generally) are in court less than other areas – I am in court roughly 3-4 times a month, but it varies massively. One important difference from other commercial sets is that there is more minor insolvency applications for baby juniors to do, such as extending administrations or winding-up petitions. This means we are in court on our own more than our contemporaries at other commercial sets.
What is the culture of chambers?
South Square’s small size is a great asset when it comes to building a cohesive and friendly environment. It is easy to know the vast majority of members of Chambers. People wander into each other’s rooms for a chat or for some advice. There is always someone to go for lunch with or to grab a coffee.
What is pretty unique about South Square is the relationships that are formed between people at different stages of their careers. Because of the small size of the set there is a great deal of mixing and people are not siloed into particular levels of call. There are also more formal events such as monthly drinks and lunches where the whole of Chambers gets together. There are bigger events in the Summer and at Christmas.
Chambers has great facilities and fantastic admin staff/clerks who are always able to help out. Everyone in Chambers has their own room which they can turn into their personal oasis and decorate as they see fit allowing you to express a bit of personality.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
(1) Know the Set. Make sure you understand our key practice areas and what they involve. Be wary of chambers’ websites, they often say a set does a particular type of work when very few members actually do it. Look at Chambers and Partners / Legal500 rankings to get a sense of what a particular set is good at.
(2) Engage with the Set’s Practice. Demonstrate that you are engaged with what a set does and what it is like. Look at recent decisions members of chambers have been in. Think, how can I demonstrate I am interested in this type of work?
(3) Use Concrete Examples. In your application and at interview you need to give concrete examples of how you meet the selection criteria and have the right skills to succeed. Don’t just tell us you have good advocacy skills – explain when you have used those skills and what the effect was. At times people fail to make the best out of the amazing things they have done.
(4) Think Critically. Look at your application form and think about what your weaknesses are. Use mentoring schemes like those run by the Inns or COMBAR’s scheme, to get some frank feedback on your application. Then work to fill the gaps and improve the weak points.