Bristol-based multidisciplinary set St John’s Chambers is one of the larger South West chambers, with almost 90 barristers, including nine QCs. The high number of juniors as well as the charming and relaxed atmosphere of Bristol make it an attractive proposition for many pupillage applicants. St John’s has a good reputation and, if interested, applicants are advised to stress any South West connections as well as their academic excellence, people skills and commercial nous.
St John’s Chambers was launched in 1978 by six barristers “keen to break the mould of conventional practice”. Its members specialise in three main areas: personal injury and clinical negligence; family; and commercial/chancery. Family work ranges from care proceedings and children disputes to high-value divorce. Families at war over wills provide work for the chancery barristers as well as disputes over property and trusts, and the commercial work covers a broad spectrum from litigation to drafting and advisory work for banks. St John’s Chambers also covers inquests, public law and employment.
One of its barristers secured the highest ever general damages award for a dental negligence case (ouch!) in which the claimant, who now suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and dentist phobia, lost nine healthy teeth and had unnecessary crowns fitted and pointless root canal work. Christopher Sharp QC successfully represented a catastrophic injury case in which the overall gross capitalised value of the award was around £20 million, in which the claimant was hospitalised for two years after being hit by a motorcyclist.
Abigail Bond represented a profoundly deaf mother in care proceedings, who gave evidence through pre-recorded interviews conducted by a specialist psychologist and sign-language interpreter. A St John’s barrister acted in a high-profile case involving a farmer’s son who claimed he was promised the family farm and sued when he didn’t get it. Another chambers member defended the Ministry of Defence against allegations by an RAF Sergeant and nurse that she was bullied and harassed at work. On the commercial side, barristers have acted for Dutch financial giant ING in competition law cases brought by the European Commission.
“We do bang the glass-ceiling which covers provincial work”, says one member in the 2021-22 Legal Cheek Barristers Survey, continuing: “We get plenty of medium value work with enough at stake to allow us to engage properly with stimulating issues”. One member commenting on the work available says there is “a variety of complex and interesting cases”, while another says: “The work in my specialist field is interesting and often complex and challenging”. While there is some “mundane work” around, “pretty often something novel and important comes up”.
To help those who desire a work/life balance, clerks are said to be “very receptive to requests and often book in preparation days when booking in a final hearing or trial”, one member says. Another tells us: “Serving clients comes first: when hard work is needed, I work hard, sometimes very hard, but this has its rewards too. But, I am my own boss and overall my balance is good”. One QC comments on their balance: “I’m a silk. We are not entitled to one. It’s a folly entirely of our own making”.
A short walk from Bristol Temple Meads train station, and close to the iconic harbour, St John’s Chambers occupies a dominant landmark corner site in Victoria Street. The premises has recently been spruced up through a refurbishment, and now boasts a full suite of technology for conferences and remote hearings. Working areas are open plan and described as “modern, light, airy and spacious” meaning it is “far more business-like in appearance than traditional barristers’ accommodation”. There is also helpful on site car parking, bike storage, showers and pending electric vehicle charging! On hand is a dedicated off site team of engineers who deal with IT problems, alongside administration providing expert internal advice and support. The IT platform and phone system have also seen recent upgrades, as well as provision of comprehensive online library access which one members says “ensures that I can work seamlessly in chambers, at home and while travelling”.
The set offers specialised pupillages, giving pupils a really good grounding in their chosen areas. The chambers “really invests in pupils” in regards to training, and equally invests in them through the pupillage award which currently stands at £40,000. Chambers takes up to three pupils per year, usually allocating one to personal injury and clinical negligence, one to family and another to commercial/chancery, as was done in the 2020-21 recruitment cycle.
Pupils work under the same supervisor all year, so establishing a good working relationship is important. Pupils can expect to conduct legal research, prepare pleadings and opinions, attend conferences and court and although there is no formal structure for assessment as such, both supervisors and other members of chambers take the time to provide feedback on work. Whatever pupils specialise in, they are likely to find themselves on their feet in court right from the start of their second six and are expected to manage their own caseload as well as complete work for other members of chambers. A buddy system is also in place for pupils to discuss any welfare issues.
One member says the chambers is “plugged in” to the Western Circuit and numerous practitioner groups, which provides further opportunities to pupils and new tenants. Seminars and training beyond pupillage are performed together with external training by senior counsel and judiciary. Informal training through colleagues helps along the way too.
The atmosphere is supportive. One rookie nostalgically recalls “phone calls with other members of chambers at 11:30pm and Bank Holidays”. Do not take fright from that lovely anecdote, though, as the working hours are the average 50-59 hours, leaving you time to explore the delights of Bristol and the surrounding area. There are whatsapp groups for both personal and professional support, ‘phone a friend’ and emails for “tricky legal points that you want a second opinion on”, as well as providing “encouragement and reassurance”. “People are always open, friendly and helpful” is the experience of one insider, which another says is “a real strength of chambers”.
Chambers-initiated social excursions have included taking part in an annual boules tournament in Bath, and there are frequent impromptu drinks outings as well as an annual Christmas shindig and a summer party. During the pandemic, members got together virtually “to share a glass of wine”. The set also celebrates new members, retirements and achievements with parties. The different specialist departments also have their own gatherings “often involving food, alcohol, charity events, and lots of outdoor activities”. The set even has its own cricket team which plays seven or eight times a year.
The set looks for pupillage candidates who can “analyse information quickly” in order to present arguments “succinctly and persuasively”, and will typically have strong academics in the bag. Applicants should be able to demonstrate a “strong commitment to a successful and demanding career” as well as having the ability to adapt and manage change, and a desire to excel. Interestingly, unlike many other sets, St John’s Chambers says experience such as public speaking, mooting or legal work experience are desirable, not essential. The application process is done outside of the pupillage gateway, but in line with the timetable.
First interviews are competency based along with a discussion of a recent case. Second round interviews constitute a civil advocacy exercise followed by questions based on the written applications. Sometimes hopefuls can even be asked back for a third interview, which is solely an advocacy exercise. To get a flavour for the set, it offers a week-long mini-pupillage each month and, in support of the Western Circuit’s ‘BarNone’ campaign, it offers at least 50% of these to BAME and state-school education applicants.