Wilberforce Chambers stands as one of the UK’s leading commercial chancery sets, known particularly for its handling of complex commercial, insolvency, pensions, professional liability, private client and property matters. And yet, such prestige alone wasn’t what led Cara Goldthorpe to apply for pupillage at the set. Goldthorpe, then a final year student studying law at University College London, was instead drawn to the chambers’ culture which prioritises collaboration over competition.
“I applied to Wilberforce because I wanted to do pupillage at a place where it’s not competitive — where pupils are assessed against the chambers’ standards as opposed to against each other. I didn’t want the pressure of competing with my peers, in addition to the existing pressures that come from doing pupillage itself,” she explains.
Getting picked for one of two pupillage spots on offer comes as little surprise. After all, Goldthorpe was set to graduate with a first class degree and had spent her undergraduate years “obsessively CV building” through a mix of mooting, mini-pupillages, paralegalling and research assistant work. Goldthorpe was called to the bar in 2017, the year she joined Wilberforce.
During her 12 months of training, Goldthorpe had five supervisors, ranging from junior barristers to QCs, who each periodically offered rookies “transparent feedback”. Such support continues through to tenancy too. “You can always pick up the phone to your previous supervisors, who are happy to share their knowledge, even when you’re no longer a pupil,” says Goldthorpe.
Unlike other chambers, Wilberforce’s pupils must patiently wait until tenancy to enjoy courtroom exposure. Beginners will instead spend their first and second six laying a “good foundation to build off” by getting stuck into paperwork-heavy drafting and research tasks. “Personally, I really liked that. It meant I learned properly from my supervisors before I plunged into the deep end of private practice. After all, six months is not a long time to learn before picking up a case all on your own if you have a practising second six,” says Goldthorpe.
Pupils, however, can enjoy Wilberforce’s shift away from the traditional ‘facetime’ working culture. Put simply, if pupils aren’t needed in chambers, then there’s no reason for them to stay late. “I would normally get in around 9am and leave around 6pm because all supervisors were keen for you to get away from work and unwind — there was no need for your routine to match theirs, or for you to get sucked in by what they were doing,” Goldthorpe reveals. This generous timetable allowed the then pupil to get away from the hustle and bustle of Lincoln’s Inn.
Goldthorpe continues to build her own practice spanning Wilberforce’s core practice areas. The junior barrister regularly advises on property, trusts and probate matters, and in particular has dealt with cases involving breach of duties by executors and trustees, multifaceted shareholder disputes, and dilapidations and easements disputes. Goldthorpe often appears in court in her own right on insolvency matters, acting for both creditors and debtors in winding-up and bankruptcy proceedings. Even newly-qualified barristers, she notes, may assist on high profile, cross-border disputes under the leadership of more senior barristers and QCs. For example, Goldthorpe, at the time of speaking, currently acts as junior counsel for a defendant being sued by his former lover for tens of millions of pounds. “I’m enjoying the balance of doing smaller work on my own, as well as being involved in larger cases. They involve you in different ways, and test different skills,” she says.
Much of this high quality work can, according to Goldthorpe, be attributed to Wilberforce’s “very collaborative” practice management and marketing teams, who “do a great job at building relationships, marketing our barristers and getting in those big cases”. Barristers also benefit from having an “open dialogue” with practice managers about which types of cases they wish to pursue. “They really know everything about me. So, when work comes in, they can recommend cases based on my availability and whether it’s the right fit,” she adds.
While a large workload can mean long hours, Wilberforce’s tenants enjoy flexibility in how they manage their time. When busier periods leave Goldthorpe office-bound, there’s a kitchen and lounge area conveniently on her floor — ideal for late-nights. Similarly, when self-employed members of chambers find themselves working late, they can start late the following day. Goldthorpe may sometimes leave earlier and take work home in the evenings if need be — allowing her to relax with an evening yoga class or homecooked meal first. “I prefer to leave chambers if I have more work to do and pick it up again at home after a short break — even if my office is quite nice,” she says.
Indeed, Goldthorpe’s quarters, described by visitors as being “very zen”, is decorated with bean bags, plants and colourful posters, and features a wardrobe for quick changes from comfy clothes (including flip-flops in high heat) to corporate garb. Goldthorpe continues: “Ultimately it’s about how you work best. If you want to be comfortable and if it makes you more productive, then why not?”
A “downside” to the flexibility offered to members is that work may spill into the weekend. “Lately my weekends have been all over the place — all the days are merging together. I’ve been quite busy with a big case that has been very stop and start with many manic, last-minute issues,” says Goldthorpe. Barristers cannot always brace themselves for hectic hard-pressed periods either — especially when new developments in old cases arise. “It can be hard to manage your diary as work is sometimes unpredictable — it’s not easy to know when things will flare up, and once you’re already involved with a case, being self-employed means you can’t simply throw your hands up and say ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. You’ve committed to the job and have the responsibility to finish it,” she explains.
In quieter times, when existing commitments don’t fill up the diary, barristers have the option to set off on secondment with partnering law firms. Early into her tenancy, Goldthorpe spent time in Stephenson Harwood’s private client and pensions teams to get a different outlook on legal practice. “You quickly build an appreciation of the role solicitors play in litigation, and what they need from counsel. It’s helpful to understand the sorts of pressures solicitors come under from lay clients and their firm, and the insight has helped me in my working relationships with instructing solicitors,” she says.
Although spread across several buildings, Wilberforce, which has 73 tenants to its name, has a close-knit collegiate culture. “Barristers feel more like your friends — it’s that kind of community,” says Goldthorpe. Even in busier times, barristers from all specialisms can break off for a fortnightly lunch or meet for a quick drink at the local pub.
Goldthorpe’s golden advice for aspiring barristers begins with the obvious: work hard in your studies. “Don’t think first year doesn’t count, because I worked really hard in first year — perhaps too hard — but having good grades helped me get pupillage before getting my final year grades,” she advises. The same goes for building up your roster of practical experience — something, she believes, is potentially more important than racking up further academic qualifications. Goldthorpe explains: “I’m not saying you shouldn’t do a masters because there are certain advantages to postgraduate study if you feel like you need the extra academic boost, or have the time and resources, and a genuine interest you want to pursue. But I didn’t do one, and I think that my practical experiences instead helped to set me apart when applying for pupillage. It also proves you don’t necessarily need it.”