Heavyweight commercial set Twenty Essex is made up of 87 barristers, including an impressive 31 KCs. Headed up by Philip Edey KC and Charles Kimmins KC, the set is best known in the commercial world for its shipping and international trade work but also has expertise in commercial dispute resolution, energy, restructuring/insolvency, insurance, and civil fraud. For those set on a practice in commercial law then, Twenty Essex should be high up the list. The set is also one of the best in the country when it comes to public international law. Twenty Essex’s international expertise means that it has a global reputation – indeed, the set has a base in Singapore! It also has a large focus on international arbitration, with around two-thirds of its work being arbitration rather than litigation – reflecting the direction of the modern Bar generally.
Given their reputation as a set, Twenty Essex gets a lot of high-quality cases which are both “intellectually challenging” and “incredibly rewarding”. Whether it be charterparty issues or worldwide freezing injunctions, tenants represent everyone from individuals to governments, natural resource majors to marine insurance underwriters. One insider says they “get a great combination of factually interesting cases, tricky points of law and plenty of oral advocacy”, while another tells us “it may not be headline-grabbing most of the time, but the work is varied and dynamic”.
Whilst it’s true that many of the cases at Twenty Essex may not make the front page of a national newspaper, they are often very significant in their own legal sphere. For example, the ground-breaking Haliburton v Chubb Supreme Court case, one of the most important judgments concerning international arbitration in recent years, lay out the process for assessing whether there is a real possibility of arbitrator bias and what disclosures an arbitrator must make, particularly in relation to the trade credit and political risk market. Members also acted on both sides of the €1billion “The Prestige” shipping dispute arising from one of the largest oil spills of this century and involving the Spanish and French states.
Some cases are of more general interest and so do grab the headlines. Philip Edey KC and Susannah Jones appeared in the FCA test case concerning whether thousands of businesses could recover under their business interruption policies for losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The case was dubbed “the insurance case of the century”. Another exciting case involved providing an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court in a matter “concerning claims for US$250 million in compensation for the alleged coerced sale of a master trove of medieval art treasures known as the ‘Welfenschatz’ during the Nazi-reign of Germany”. Tenants’ public international law work can also bring high-profile cases, such as a case concerning Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Princess Haya’s children, in which Twenty Essex barristers were brought in on the state immunity issues.
Over the past year, cases worked on by tenants have included Sam Goodman acting for the successful defendants in a £1 billion fraud claim following the collapse of the owner of one of the largest private healthcare chains in the Middle East; Andrew Feld acting in a Commercial Court case which found an NFT auction to be outside the reach of English consumer protection legislation; and Philippa Webb acting in a High Court case which ruled that a foreign state can be sued for alleged use of spyware — the first case to find an exception to sovereign immunity for allegations related to spyware. It has also seen Sir Michael Wood and Belinda McRae appearing for the Foreign Secretary in a Supreme Court case which upheld the UK Government’s recognition of Juan Guaidó as interim President of Venezuela and clarified the very limited ability of an English Court to entertain challenges to the validity of Mr Guaidó’s presidential acts of appointment of officials to represent the Venezuelan Central Bank in respect of its assets in England.
Whilst many of the biggest cases will naturally be led by KCs or senior juniors, there are possibilities for more junior members to get involved. One junior tells us they “are given a lot of autonomy to take on substantial sole counsel cases and to get stuck into substantial elements of led work”. Another insider at the set does, however, say that “at the junior end, there’s a lot of repetition. Very small, low value shipping disputes.” It seems, then, that views vary — this could be down to different practice areas providing different opportunities.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges at the bar is maintaining a good work-life balance. There are, naturally, “urgent cases and hearing demands”, and then times when members “wish they were busier”. However, we are told that “chambers is highly supportive, with members being open about the need to take time out. There is no ‘work all hours’ mindset, whether from barristers or clerks”. There is no pressure from clerks and they are happy for tenants to take on only as much work as they wish. In recognition of its efforts on wellbeing, the set has been awarded the Wellbeing at the Bar Certificate of Recognition by the Bar Council.
“Chambers is extremely collegial”, says one member, with another adding: “I really value the support from my fellow barristers — not just my contemporaries but also those much more senior and junior than me”. The set has an open-door policy with members positively encouraging others to drop by for guidance and support or to pick up the phone to those not in chambers. One member adds that the set continues to strive to do more socially to maintain good cohesion among colleagues. It seems to be working, as one junior describes the set as being very “friendly”.
Whilst we hear that Twenty Essex encourages socialising between members, the pandemic has unfortunately had a big impact on the social life at the set. As more people are coming back into chambers, members hope that the once busy social calendar, with events such as Thursday night drinks, will pick up again. One insider comments that the social life is currently “on the quiet side in the latter stages of the pandemic and early aftermath, but signs — hopefully — of the friendly and cohesive nature of chambers generally following through to more social events”.
Based on the edge of the Temple area of London, just across from the Royal Courts of Justice, Twenty Essex has a “beautiful frontage” to its listed Georgian facade, however its indoors is “in need of revamping”. IT offering is “improving but could be better”. We are told that there is a “fantastic IT team” who get back to those in need “incredibly quickly”, with one member saying they have solved every problem they have encountered. Twenty Essex has “just taken on extended premises, with substantial renovation works expected in late 2022 into early 2023”. The plans are apparently “very impressive and will transform chambers, with many more spaces for socialising, entertaining/networking, and collaborating”.
Twenty Essex takes on up to four pupils a year, offering an award of £75,000 to each. The selected pupils will sit with four supervisors over the course of their pupillage, being given a detailed appraisal at the end of each three-month period. They will typically begin taking on their own cases whilst sitting with their fourth supervisor. We hear that “chambers has developed a more structured and professionalised pupillage programme in recent years”. One former pupil at the set tells us that they feel “privileged to have been trained by some of the best barristers I’ve ever come across”. One junior does, however, reveal that pupil supervisors can be “very hit and miss”. That said, “chambers has recently launched a new, improved, regular programme to assist junior tenants with a host of practical matters, from business development to working with solicitors” meaning training continues beyond pupillage.
Whilst pupillage is always a steep learning curve, Twenty Essex recognises this and has several initiatives in place to support pupils. This includes not expecting pupils to work late in the week, take work home or work at weekends and providing a buddy system. One pupil says their supervisors have “always been really careful to make sure (for example) I’m not online and replying to emails in the evening”.
Those looking to apply to Twenty Essex should apply through the Pupillage Gateway. Candidates must have completed or been offered a mini-pupillage in order to be considered for pupillage, and their performance during this mini will also be taken into consideration. Shortlisted candidates, around 20-25, will be invited to complete a written exercise, which they emphasise is not a test of legal knowledge. They will then be invited to an interview where they will discuss the written exercise as well as other general questions. The interview lasts around 30 minutes and takes place in front of a panel of tenants.
Twenty Essex looks for those with “exceptional ability” with interest in its fields of work, whilst looking for skills beyond intelligence including “interpersonal and communication skills”. The set is keen to increase equality, diversity and inclusion at the bar, and so participates in a number of initiatives including Bridging the Bar, the Women in Law Pledge, and the COMBAR Mentoring Scheme. Twenty Essex were also the very first chambers to use the Rare Recruitment system, which is “intended to allow a recruiter to put a candidate’s achievements into the context of the candidate’s circumstances”.