Wilberforce Chambers

The Legal Cheek View

Wilberforce Chambers is a seriously commercial set, known in particular for its Chancery work: “if it’s complicated Chancery, it comes to Wilberforce”, one tenant boasts. Other practice areas include arbitration, insolvency, property, pensions, professional liability, tax and trusts: nothing for the faint-hearted. Around half the tenants here are QCs and the cases more often than not have a “fair few zeroes involved”.

Such is the prestigious rep enjoyed by barristers here that, if the other side has a Wilberforce QC, the best defence is often… another Wilberforce QC. For example, both sides rolled out a silk from the New Square-based set in the high profile Brexit-related dispute between the Canary Wharf Group and European Medicines Agency (EMA), which arose after the EMA relocated to Amsterdam in March 2019 and found that the lease on its Canary Wharf premises ran until 2039 without a break clause.

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On the insolvency side, another tenant recently helped bankrupt the colourful solicitor-turned-porn star Paul Baxendale-Walker. Out in the Cayman Islands, meanwhile, colleagues were successfully defending “one of the largest fraud claims ever litigated” in a year-long trial. Work often takes tenants far from London, in fact, from Russian oil arbitrations in Stockholm to family trust disputes in Hong Kong.

Wilberforce is split across various sites in New Square. “It’s a pretty setting, and the conference rooms/client facing areas are all smart now,” one insider reports, continuing: “Barrister rooms are a bit tatty around the edges, but it all works. Being spread out over annexes has downsides, but on the plus side you get plenty of fit-bit steps in wandering around New Square.” Within annexes, the mood can be pretty relaxed. “I don’t wear shoes most of the time,” confides one member.

Pupils here earn an award of £65,000 and can be a force to be reckoned with by the end of their second six, with Wilberforce barristers hailing a “great mix of commercial and Chancery, led and unled work”. It may be incredibly difficult to make the grade in the first place, but once in you should be well looked after: “real care was put into how my pupillage was run”, another junior tells us. The chambers promises “at least two different pupil supervisors” during the first six, which seems to be borne out in practice: “Pupillage places you with a range of supervisors, so you will see a range of practice areas and working styles”, we’re told.

The 70 or so tenants here enjoy one another’s company: “I have pupil supervisors who are not only brilliant teachers, but brilliant people” gushes one baby barrister. “There’s no in-fighting — everyone’s too busy for that — and the juniors help each other, discuss legal issues, go for lunch and drinks etc”. Both pupils recruited each year will be retained if they’re up to it: they’re not supposed to be in competition. As a result, “you can focus on improving and impressing your supervisor. Second six is non-practising for the same reason”.

Oh, come on, it can’t all be happy families? “Put it this way: I’m the godfather to my next door neighbour in chambers’ son”, responds another tenant quizzed by Legal Cheek. “We have lunch as a chambers every fortnight”. On top of that, “there’s always someone willing to head to the Seven Stars”, the 17th century pub around the corner from chambers.

What’s more, the work/life balance is surprisingly OK. “The clerks treat me like a grown-up, and don’t pressure me to cancel weekends or holidays — entirely up to me whether I want to,” one junior tells us. “The culture (as I see it) is very much about what makes you content (which for some is working 18hr days…!) rather than being pressured to accept every job that comes through the door.”

What The Junior Barristers Say

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.

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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.”

Deadlines

Mini-Pupillage

31 March 2020-2 April 2020
Applications close 24/02/2020

Mini-Pupillage

7 July 2020-9 July 2020
Applications close 08/06/2020

Pupillage

To commence October 2021
Applications open 06/01/2020
Applications close 07/02/2020

Insider Scorecard

A*
Training
A*
Quality of work
A
Colleagues
A*
Facilities
A
Work/life balance

Insider Scorecard Grades range from A* to D and are derived from the Legal Cheek Junior Barrister Survey 2019-20 of over 600 barristers at the leading chambers in England.

Key Info

Juniors 39
QCs 34
Pupillages 3
Oxbridge-educated new tenants* 3/5

*Figure is for the five most junior members of chambers; does not include postgraduate studies. Wilberforce Chambers takes up to three pupils each year.

Money

Pupillage award £65,000
BPTC advance drawdown £20,000

Gender Diversity

Female juniors 31%
Female QCs 18%