St John’s Chambers
The Legal Cheek View
Bristol-based multidisciplinary set St John’s Chambers is one of the largest chambers in the South West, with almost 80 barristers, including seven KCs. Founded in 1978 by six barristers “keen to break the mould of conventional practice”, the set splits itself into three main areas — family, personal injury and clinical negligence, and commercial and chancery — and takes on one pupil in each of these core areas per year. Members also take on work in employment, public law, administrative law, and the Court of Protection — to name just a few areas — with these usually having some link to their core areas. Essentially, the set does everything except criminal!
When it comes to family law, St John’s has expertise across the board, including in children law cases and finance cases. The set has particular expertise in handling cross-jurisdictional matters, and is often the go-to set for the more complex cases. Barristers have worked on complex public children mandates involving sexual abuse and trafficking, and many cases cross over into Court of Protection work. Recent high-profile cases include Lucy Reed securing permission to report the identify of a former MP and government minister found by the Family Court to have raped and abused his wife, and Zoë Saunders appearing in a significant High Court case which resolved the uncertainty surrounding the need to establish detriment or a change of position in joint family home cases. The set has also launched a new family arbitration service with retired Judge, Nick Marston, as a qualified arbitrator. They are the only set in the South West offering this service.
In the personal injury and clinical negligence team, barristers find themselves working for claimant and defendant clients, whether it be insurance companies, NHS trusts, or private individuals. The set has particular expertise in cases involving allegations of dishonesty and fraud, industrial disease, stress at work, surgical negligence, and dental negligence. Whether it be a failure in diagnosis or an accident at work, the issues arising are often complex. Tenants James Marwick, Matthew White, and Julian Horne recently secured a triple success in a Court of Appeal case arising from a fatal car accident. The case concerned the extent of the duty of care owed to unintentional trespassers by occupiers of land adjoining the highway, and the potential liability of the relevant highway authority for the configuration of the road — certainly plenty to get your head around! Meanwhile, Andrew McLaughton earlier this year successfully defended a claim brought against a Local Health Board by the widow of a man who committed suicide, her claim being that there were inadequate arrangements for out of hours care for psychiatric patients. Another tragic and very human case which raised complex legal questions.
On the commercial and chancery side, work can range from real estate litigation to construction to will and trust disputes. Whether this is spats between families or claims in the millions brought by offshore trustees, the members of St John’s will have the expertise to deal with it. This past year has seen Charlie Newington-Bridges appear in the High Court trial of a just and equitable winding up petition relating to a French stock market listed technology company worth €9 million, Charles Auld successfully appear in a rare case of fraudulent calumny (a poisoning of the mind), and Leslie Blohm KC act in the high-profile civil case of Leeson v Mcpherson, which involved a civil claim against a husband who was acquitted of murdering his wealthy heiress wife.
Whatever team barristers at St John’s Chambers work within, their work tends to be “diverse and interesting” and one junior tells us that “no two days are ever the same”. Something that ties much of the work together is the fact that it has a very human focus, whether it be a dispute about a will or an inquest following the death of a loved one. As one tenant tells us, there is “interaction with people and public bodies and therefore often important aspects of public interest”. Of course, not every case will be fascinating. Some work is “quite routine, but I think that is only to be expected”. As one junior puts it, while there is some “mundane work” around, “pretty often something novel and important comes up”. One thing is for sure, the breadth of work always helps to keep things interesting.
The atmosphere at St John’s Chambers is said to be highly supportive, with members “always willing to talk over cases when needed”. 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”. What’s more, “people are always open, friendly and helpful” according to another insider, which another tenant regards as “a real strength of chambers”.
When it comes to work/life balance, the view seems to be that it is pretty good at St John’s. The clerks are said to be “very receptive to requests and often book in preparation days when booking in a final hearing or trial”, according to one member. 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 junior tells us that they take 8-10 weeks holiday a year and are “uncontactable for that period”. Of course, experience can vary depending on practice area. One tenant explains “50% of my practice (child public law) is publicly funded so over the years my income in real terms has substantially dropped meaning I have to work more to meet my expenditure needs. So, I would say my work/life balance suffers as a result”. Similarly, one KC jokes: “I’m a silk. We are not entitled to [a work-life balance]. It’s a folly entirely of our own making.”
Perhaps because everybody in chambers is so busy, the social life at St John’s has not entirely recovered post-Covid. As one insider says, “not as many people come into Chambers as they used to”, while another adds that it “will take a little while to get back to normal”. We do hear, however, that practice groups tend to organise their own functions, whether this be drinks, dinner, or events such as cricket matches. We hear cricket is a big deal at this set, as it apparently has its own team! There is also an annual boules tournament in Bath. Overall, “the social aspect is still alive, just not as frequent!”
When members do come into chambers, they certainly have a good spot. The set is located in Victoria Street, a short walk from Bristol Temple Meads train station and close to the iconic harbour. Whilst we hear that “the outside doesn’t look much” and is rather “unremarkable”, the inside of 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”. It does still, however, still “need a bit of work” according to one tenant. In terms of IT, there is a “high level of support provided with three specialist organisations offering expertise”. We do hear, however, that “problems creep in when providers blame each other”. Generally, though, admin staff have “a high level of knowledge and are available outside office hours if needed”.
Those wishing to secure a pupillage at this Bristol set should apply through the chambers’ own application form. Applicants are advised to stress any connection that they have to the South West. Around 20 candidates will be invited to a first-round interview which will involve a short advocacy exercise as well as general application questions. The interview lasts around 30 minutes and is conducted by a panel of three. Around nine candidates are then invited to a second-round interview, which involves a mock court hearing, with papers sent in advance. The entire interview is around 45 minutes and is again in front of a panel of three. In each round, skills such as analytical thinking and advocacy skills are assessed, with the precise criteria and marking scheme being published on the Chambers’ website.
Each year, one pupil is typically taken on in each of the three core practice areas. They will each receive a pupillage award of £50,000. The specialised pupillages give pupils a solid grounding in their chosen areas. Whilst experiences and structure of pupillage will vary depending on practice area, pupils can generally expect to conduct legal research, prepare pleadings and opinions, and attend conferences and court. 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 completing work for other members of chambers.
A former pupil says that “pupillage was brilliant, with close support and guidance from both the practice group and Chambers more widely”, whilst another describes the training as “first-class”. We’re also told that a buddy system is in place for pupils to discuss any welfare issues. Training doesn’t end with pupillage. We hear that members of chambers’ different practice groups give seminars and lectures throughout the year, which are performed together with external training by senior counsel and judiciary. Informal training through colleagues helps along the way too.
St John’s Chambers takes its commitment to equality and diversity seriously. This year, they have welcome their first placement from 10,000 Black Interns. The set also supports the Western Circuit’s ‘BarNone’ campaign, offering at least 50% of its mini-pupillages to candidates from under-represented backgrounds. We are also told that those involved in the pupillage selection process have been offered Fair Recruitment and Selection/Unconscious Bias training.
What The Junior Barristers Say
Your journey to pupillage
I have taken a more unorthodox route to the Bar compared to others – I studied English Literature, not Law, at undergraduate level and I have had a previous, graduate career. I completed the GDL, and then after being awarded a major scholarship from Middle Temple, I completed the BPTC. After that, I completed the LLM Professional Legal Practice in Family Law, as I wanted to deepen my knowledge of the area in which I wished to practise.
Prior to commencing the GDL, and throughout my legal studies, I gathered as broad an experience base as possible. I undertook work experience and mini-pupillages in a wide variety of practice areas which enabled me to make informed choices about what I wanted to do. I marshalled in the Court of Appeal, County and Crown Courts. I volunteered at the National Centre for Domestic Violence, and the Family Law Advice Clinic to gain experience of dealing with clients and drafting documents. Although I did some mooting, I found working as a County Court advocate gave me much better experience of advocacy, presenting to the judiciary and managing my own cases.
The pupillage experience
It is important to do your research on Chambers and their pupillage programmes to understand what it is that may work for you. I chose St John’s because it has a specialist pupillage. I wanted this structure as it would enable me to focus on what I enjoy and gain a greater depth of understanding.
At pupillage interview, and throughout the pupillage process, I have felt members of Chambers really valued getting to know me, demonstrating the collegiate and supportive nature that is inherent at St John’s and something that I find important. They placed value on my experience and recognised my transferable skills. If you are coming to the Bar from an unconventional route like mine, be confident about your achievements and know that St John’s will consider your application in an open-minded and forward-thinking way.
Starting pupillage is daunting, but the reality of my experience at St John’s has been much less so thanks to members of Chambers being so friendly and welcoming. Everyone I have met – whether in Chambers or at their social events – has offered help should I need it and has encouraged me to ask questions. I have felt supported, and that Chambers wants me to succeed.
My first six months consisted of observing my supervisor in conferences and hearings – both in person and remote. One of the first cases I worked on was Hudson v Hathway  EWHC 631 (QB), a noteworthy TOLATA case. I have subsequently been invited to follow this case up to the Court of Appeal. I have had the opportunity to observe other junior and senior members of the Family team to gain experience of the variety of work on offer, at all levels of complexity. As I progressed, I was given autonomy over what I observed.
My second six months involved a gradual increase of my own cases, in my preferred areas of practice. The clerks are perceptive and have managed my diary astutely, understanding that everything takes a pupil longer and thus allowing time for that without being asked. The clerks have provided me with the perfect mix of children and money work, and my cases are continually growing in complexity. Whilst on my feet, whenever I have had a question, members of the Family team have responded instantly and have given their time willingly to help me learn. My supervisor always answers her phone when I call her. I could not have been better supported.
Each department manages assessment differently. The Family team does not have official assessments, we are assessed by the quality of our work during second six through feedback from clients, solicitors and judges. The Commercial and Chancery team and the Personal Injury and Clinical Negligence team ask the pupils to do a piece of work for individual members of their respective team. Detailed feedback is always provided.
The transition from pupil to tenant
Having only recently been offered tenancy, the transition is not yet complete. However, my clerks have already booked a meeting with me to discuss my practice and how I want it to develop. My supervisor has also made it clear that even after my pupillage finishes, she will always be available to offer any assistance or advice going forward. In that respect, I am confident the transition will be smooth.
What is the culture of chambers?
The culture of St John’s Chambers is inclusive, collegiate, and social. When working in Chambers, members come and visit for a chat or to check how you are getting on. You often find colleagues discussing legal issues that have arisen over a coffee in the Chambers café. There is always someone around that can help, whether that be in-person or on the phone. Chambers have sports and music clubs that run outside working hours, which anyone can join. There are regular socials as well as annual Christmas and Summer parties.
The reality is that the entire structure of St John’s is designed to ensure you succeed professionally and are happy personally. An example of this is the way in which Chambers structures their pupillage. Each year, they take on one pupil per department, which eradicates competition for tenancy and instils a camaraderie between the co-pupils. This has been invaluable during my pupillage.
Every member I have had the pleasure of meeting is down to earth, kind and brilliantly sharp.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
The pupillage application process is undoubtedly tough. There is no getting around that. Keep a good record of what you have done, when and with whom. It is easy to think you will remember, but often, you don’t. Having these details to hand makes writing applications much easier and ensures you don’t forget a really useful example of how you demonstrate a core skill that Chambers will be looking for. Not all examples need to be law related. Often the things that are not, will stand out. Finally, make sure you know your application inside out. Refresh your memory before an interview. It sounds obvious but you will be asked about what you have written.