Modern chambers often take one of two routes to success. Go big or go boutique. As the third largest chambers in the country, St Philips has elected for the former. The set was formed over two decades ago when two smaller sets in Birmingham, 2 Fountain Court and 7 Fountain Court, joined forces. The combined entity moved to a new site on Temple Row, taking its name from the Cathedral which it overlooked. Residents of the United Kingdom’s second city colloquially know this space as ‘Pigeon Park’. Later, another Birmingham set, 1 Fountain Court, was consolidated into St Philips, and the chambers expanded into Leeds in 2014. In 2016, St Philips Chambers merged with the shipping-focused Stone Chambers in London, in an attempt to form a ‘mega set’. However, the affair was short-lived. Less than two years later, Stone Chambers ‘demerged’ and joined with ‘The 36 Group’ to create 36 Stone.
Headed up by Richard Atkins QC, who used to be the chair of the bar of England and Wales, St Philips today has 11 QCs, six QC door tenants and 127 juniors, with over 75% of tenants based in Birmingham. Former members include two presidents of the Family Division, a former Supreme Court judge and an impressive list of judges and recorders.
Its sheer size means the set covers a range of fields, from clinical negligence and crime through to business and property to employment and regulatory. Respondees to the 2021-22 Legal Cheek Junior Barristers Survey describe the “fast-paced” work in which “you’re never in your comfort zone for too long, as harder work comes in to push you upwards and out of it”. One member raves about the “great spectrum of high-quality work” which goes from the “magistrates all the way to the European Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court”. Indeed, two barristers from St Philips successfully appealed a conviction for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and there are opportunities to junior the senior members in cases which travel up the courts. There is also the “best commercial work in the Midlands by a mile” according to one member. While “the core of the job is amazing”, one member notes the “admin and protocols” around court work is “making the job a lot less fun”.
Two other tenants were appointed to the Football Association’s Anti-Discrimination Chairman Panel, and another is a panel judge for the Disciplinarty Tribunals of UK Athletics. Success stories include Kevin Hegarty QC and Raj Punia being commended by the National Crime Agency for securing successful convictions for a scheme which saw £130 million laundered through UK banks to China and the Middle East, Jonthan Barker prosecuting pharmacists involved in diverting hundreds of thousands of prescribed controlled drugs to the Caribbean, John Randall QC and Mark Grant representing Sheffield Wednesday FC in their appeal against the decision of an EFL Disciplinary Commission surrounding the high profile sale of the club’s Hillsborough ground, and Julie Duane representing a claimant in an employment case concerning several racial harassment and victimisation claims.
“You have to take the lead on work/life balance, but clerks are supportive at diarising paperwork, prep days and holidays,” one member says. Due to the nature of the job, the balance for barristers can vary greatly, and is often dictated by practice area and personal preference. However one tenant who recently moved out of practising in London says it “was the best move I could ever have made”. One member bluntly puts it: “Barristers are never happy about work life balance — feast or famine — it’s part of the job.” The set says a mix of people have completed formal mental health training.
Turning to pupillages at the set. Chambers is said to be “very interested in its pupils”. In the first six, pupil supervisors expose rookies to different areas of law and the styles of different members through attending court and conferences. Some supervisors will also arrange advocacy sessions for pupils before they get on their feet, which are said to be “second to none”. Second six brings pupils their own advocacy and advisory work. Clerks are known to “keep you towards the upper end of your comfort zone” by frequently giving “you something that’s a challenge and really accelerates your practice”. One former pupil tells us their pupillage was “first class” and set them up for practice. Training continues with professional development with “more senior colleagues promoting advancement”. Another graduate of the pupillage programme managed to achieve judicial office within just ten years.
If asked, colleagues will give time to lend a hand. Rookies praise the “free and ready access to QCs and experts on the field” through the set’s open-door policy. “You can knock on anyone’s door, or pick up the phone, regardless of seniority and whether you have ever spoken to them before and they will undoubtedly give you advice or point you to a person who will know the answer,” one member says.
With egg chairs, liberal splashes of purple and glass inside the offices, the chambers would seem to be more modern and less traditional than its London counterparts. The building is modern with “beautiful” views of St Philips Cathedral, and is “modern and airy” but is undergoing some touch-ups. Still, as one comment reminded us, “when you are a criminal barrister you are never really [in chambers] anyway!”. With the trial and tribulations of the pandemic, technology wise there are conferencing facilities to assist with remote hearing, legal resources are provided and a small IT team who “do a good job”, although one member says “sometimes larger staff would help”.
The social life of the set is said to be “really good” due to members being a “really friendly bunch” and people who do not take themselves seriously meaning there are “plenty of actual friends rather than just colleagues”. During the pandemic some teams would have regular remote coffee mornings. Coming out of lockdown, steps have been put in place for renewed social activities, with new chambers social spaces planned. Informal drinks are also said to be a regular feature. In 2018, the set established a Wellbeing Committee and since then has introduced a regular chambers tea as well as setting up in-house sporting activities including yoga, running and boxing.
St Philips has put a commendable effort into community and outreach. The set has helped facilitate member participation in The Access Project, mentoring and tutoring talented low-income A-level/GCSE students. Several members also dedicate time to various Midland universities and their societies as well as to schools. Iqbal Mohammad also judged the ELSA UK Commercial Law Moot Court Competition.
St Philips Chambers says it only offers pupillages if tenancy is available, and “will do everything we can to support you to get there”. Prospective applicants should be ready to demonstrate intellectual ability, advocacy potential, mental stamina and good judgement. In the next pupillage cycle (2021-22), St Philps will be recruiting five pupils, one down from the previous year. Within the family team, in four years it will have produced nine specialist family pupils. The set offers three-day mini-pupillages and tries to match applicants with their preferred specialist practice area.