The Legal Cheek View
Wilberforce Chambers is best known as one of the leading commercial chancery sets while also being a big name in traditional chancery and pure commercial work. It is one of the largest sets in London, with 81 members ― impressively, almost half of these are KCs.
Due to its reputation in the field, the work is said to be “incredibly stimulating ― even the lower value pieces of work tend to involve some quite novel issues which is very fulfilling as a junior”. One tenant boasts, “if it’s complicated chancery, it comes to Wilberforce”. Many of the cases have “a fair few zeroes involved” and the work is said to be “cutting edge”. Indeed, such is the prestigious reputation enjoyed by barristers here that if the other side has a Wilberforce KC, the best defence is often… another Wilberforce KC. For example, both sides rolled out a silk in a high-profile Brexit-related dispute between the Canary Wharf Group and European Medicines Agency.
There is a varied diet of options at Wilberforce, both when you start and as you grow. One member says: “If you like challenging legal work, you will never have a dull day.” Another sums up the work on offer like this: “It is varied, interesting, complex, substantial and often quite sensitive. No two cases are ever the same”. Much of the work the barristers here do is about real people and “not just faceless corporations”. Wilberforce also finds itself taking on a lot of offshore work, especially in English-speaking jurisdictions.
More senior tenants at Wilberforce often find themselves appearing in the Supreme Court. Jonathan Seitler KC and John McGhee KC recently found themselves in the first ever telecoms case to reach the Supreme Court. Acting for telecom operators On Tower and Cornerstone in their legal battle against site owners, their successful appeals led to a judgment which will make it much easier for operators to secure the agreements required for the roll out of 5G services — something we can all celebrate!
Given the big cases going on, it is especially good news that the members of Wilberforce Chambers are said to be a supportive bunch with a great sense of camaraderie: “Everyone really is so welcoming and supportive”, one junior comments. Another adds: “Members of chambers operate an open-door policy, both literally and metaphorically, so you can almost always find someone to bounce an idea off or to generally lend an ear.” Life at the Bar can inevitably be tough at times, but members at Wilberforce Chambers support each other during these periods. One member comments that “after a day in court there are so many people you can go and talk to who will console you and help you through any issues you have”. We are told there is “no in-fighting — everyone’s too busy for that — and the juniors help each other, discuss legal issues, go for lunch and drinks”.
Members of Wilberforce generally find that the work-life balance is good. A junior comments that “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”. Another adds that “if something does come up that takes a lot more time than you think, the clerks are really good at helping to push back your other deadlines and make things work”. One Wilberforce member sums up the working culture as “very much about what makes you content (which for some is working 18-hour days!) rather than being pressured to accept every job that comes through the door”. Members also tell us that the breadth of commercial chancery work means there is the possibility to pick and choose smaller cases alongside the bigger ones to create a better work/life balance, something which may not be as possible in a purely commercial set.
In terms of the social side of chambers, we are told that “Wilberforce is a very friendly place. People are always keen to get to know new people and to hear about what everyone has been up to”. One junior comments that “there are pretty frequent visits to Hall for lunch, and every two weeks is Chambers lunch”. On top of that, “there’s always someone willing to head to the Seven Stars”, the 17th century pub around the corner from chambers. We are told the juniors often invite the pupils along. We also hear that “the most recent junior’s night was a blast ― curry and karaoke!”
Wilberforce is split across various sites in New Square within Lincoln’s Inn. “It’s amazing to be able to work from rooms right around New Square. You have to pinch yourself,” reports one insider. Another adds, “you have the gorgeous facades of Lincoln’s Inn, even if you then have to deal with the everpresent building work”. Apparently, “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. Conference rooms and client-facing areas “are all smart now”, another reports. One junior notes that the set manages “to make a 17th century building look modern and elegant. It’s very much a case of old meets new.” Apparently “barrister rooms are a bit tatty around the edges, but it all works”. Though one barrister laments that they “wish that the floors were more even!”
“Seamless” technology support is provided by an in-house troubleshooter on hand whenever needed, who is described as a “hero — he will save you”. Chambers is said to be “very aware of the need to constantly embrace new technology”. Indeed, “a new chambers sub-committee on technology has been set up to consider where we might improve our current offering, and how to make remote working easier for everyone in chambers”.
Wilberforce Chambers offers up to four pupillages each year. The mixture of work at the set means that it is “perfect grounding for a career at the commercial chancery bar”. One junior describes the training at the set as “as good as it gets, first rate” adding that they can “say this from first-hand experience as I have previously been a pupil elsewhere, at an ostensibly magic circle set”.
Pupils sit with at least five different supervisors and so see a variety of work as well as being provided with “very, very thorough and detailed feedback on every piece of work” which include pleadings and advice, we’re told. One pupil gushes: “I have pupil supervisors who are not only brilliant teachers, but brilliant people.” All pupils recruited will be retained if they’re up to it: they’re not in competition. Unlike many other chambers, the second-six at Wilberforce is non-practising. One member comments that this means “you can focus on improving and impressing your supervisor”. Apparently supervisors are keen to ensure you don’t stay working in chambers too late in the evening. One pupil comments that “supervisors always eject me as soon as the bells strike 6pm”.
Wilberforce Chambers recruits through the Pupillage Gateway. After application sifting, first-round interviews take place with long-listed candidates. This interview will be with two members of chambers and will involve discussing a problem question. A shortlist will then be drawn up for second-round interviews. This interview is more extensive and takes place with four members of chambers. It typically includes an in-depth examination and analysis of a legal problem.
Keen on equality and diversity, Wilberforce Chambers states on their website that they “adopt best practice equality and diversity procedures in [their] pupillage recruitment”. They also told us that they are continuing to deepen their relationship with social mobility charity, The Sutton Trust.
What The Junior Barristers Say
Jia Wei Lee
Your journey to pupillage
I grew up in Singapore, and came to the UK at 21 for university. I completed my law degree in June 2015, completed a Masters degree in law in June 2016, and completed the BPTC in 2017. I started pupillage at Wilberforce Chambers in September 2017.
I did very little mooting in university, instead preferring to debate competitively. They are very different activities, particularly in terms of the preparation required, but debating gave me plenty of practice developing my oral advocacy ability.
I decided I wanted to become a barrister at the start of my final year of my undergraduate studies. I knew by then that I would have an extra year doing a Master’s degree, so resolved to use the Christmas period to ready myself for the application process. I did my mini-pupillages in the few months leading up to the application window in December 2016, making sure that I did a few in the commercial chancery sets I was interested in applying to. I also spent some time in the lead-up to interview season doing some practice interviews with my friends serving as interviewers, using old university problem questions as the basis for these mock interviews.
The pupillage experience
I spent time with six different supervisors, sitting with four before a decision was made about whether to offer me tenancy. My supervisors each specialised in a different practice area – my first was specialist in commercial/insolvency work, the second in property/probate, the third in trusts/pensions, and the fourth in property.
My day-to-day varied depending on the supervisor and what work was occupying them at the time. At least half of my time was spent working on “live” cases which came across my supervisor’s desk – that meant doing the first drafts of skeleton arguments, cross-examination notes, draft orders, and so on, which gave me a very good sense of what the hustle and bustle of daily practice looked like. My supervisors also gave me some older “dead” papers to review. This usually happened when a supervisor identified a certain gap in my experience, for example that I hadn’t drafted a certain type of pleading before. The “dead” papers gave me a chance to get practice in those areas, and also helped to give me (and my supervisors) a good sense of how much progress I was making over time.
I always got the sense that supervisors were keen to see me at my very best, and that meant that there was never artificial time pressure placed on me as a pupil. I was always reminded to take the time I needed to be careful, thorough and robust in my analysis, and I very much appreciated that – it gave me the time to truly learn the ropes and dive as deep as I needed on what were invariably complex and unfamiliar areas of law.
Feedback was transparent and forthcoming. Supervisors certainly did not pull their punches if they thought I was underperforming, or if a piece of work was substandard, but the feedback was always constructive, and targeted at systematically eliminating bad habits and weaknesses. It helped that feedback was shared with the Head of Pupillage, who took a more global view of my improvement across supervisors, and relayed that feedback to me.
I did do a few cases of my own here and there, particularly towards the end of pupillage, but they were few and far between. The focus in chambers was very much on ensuring that there was a controlled environment in which I could build a strong foundation in the key skills and knowledge bases I needed to thrive in private practice. To make up for the lack of live advocacy experience, there were a few mock advocacy exercises where we got to make submissions and cross-examine witnesses in front of various members of the pupillage committee, who would give me feedback after. I found the exercises very helpful in terms of my personal development, and they came surprisingly close to what I would experience in actual practice.
Pupillage was essentially a year-long interview, and I always got the sense that chambers knew that, and tried hard not to add any unnecessary pressure. Everyone, from the baby juniors to the senior silks, leaves their doors open, and I felt no hesitation in popping into their rooms to pick their brains on a difficult point of law. I was always invited to drinks and lunch, and encouraged to socialise with fellow members of chambers. Most importantly, I was constantly reminded my co-pupil was not in competition with me, meaning that we could lean on each other for help and support. It was altogether a very pleasant, collegial, supportive environment in which to start a career.
Chambers were also very good about my working hours. I was asked to come in around 9:00am and leave by 6:00pm. It was only on very rare occasions that I was expected to stay later or come in earlier, usually when my supervisor had a conference or hearing that might run later (for example because they were working across time zones). Even on those occasions, my supervisor always reminded me that my staying later was entirely voluntary, and I was free to leave if I wished to. I can only recall having to work on a weekend on two occasions, each time when I was preparing for an advocacy exercise.
The transition from pupil to tenant
There was a bit of an adaptation period at the beginning, where I had to learn to cope with a number of things. First, I had to deal with the anxiety of not quite knowing where my next paycheck was going to come from! The flow of work in the first two to three months of pupillage was not particularly forthcoming, and so I was of course anxious and worried about how I would build my practice. Fortunately my clerking team were very good about holding my hand through these early days and assuring me that this was entirely normal, and that the work would come eventually. And of course, they were very much right about that. Chambers does also extend a bridging loan to junior members of chambers to help them cope with the initial months of practice, when we don’t yet have a regular income stream. This is in addition to helping out with room costs for the first year.
Second, I had to learn to deal with the sudden, complete freedom to decide my schedule. Pupillage involved generally having a fixed workload, and a fixed time within which to work on it. But becoming a tenant meant I was free to start work whenever I wanted, and take on as much as I wished. The temptation (certainly at the start) was always to do more, and work longer, but I eventually learned that was unsustainable, and was taking a toll on my personal life. So I needed to learn to be disciplined, and set boundaries for myself.
I should add that members of chambers, including the clerking team, were very supportive in my early days. The open-door culture, where I could always chat with someone if I was having difficulty with a point or even just unsure whether I needed to robe up for court, was a real godsend.
What is your practice like now?
My practice generally consists of a good mix of things chambers specialises in. I have a mix of property, trusts and commercial work on my plate now, and am also on secondment to the pensions department of a major city law firm for one day a week. Some of my work is offshore. I am led in about half of my cases, typically by a silk.
I used to be in court about twice a week on average, but since the pandemic began, that has gone down slightly and I am in court about once a week on average (but that’s certainly not a trend for everyone’s practice, just mine). Many of these hearings are short procedural hearings, so nothing too exciting. About once a month, I am instructed on more substantial hearings, for example a day-long appeal, or a one-to two-day long Part 8 trial. Each year I do also have one or two longer, more intensive trials or hearings in my diary, where I am led by a silk. It is safe to say, however, that the majority of my time, around 70% of it, is spent on paperwork, whether it is drafting advice, pleadings, or other preparatory work required in litigation.
My hours are generally pretty good. I usually start my day around 7.30am, and work until around 6:00pm or so. About two to three days a week I have to work after dinner, so I keep going until about 8:00pm or 9:00pm. If I have a big diary commitment that may also involve my working on the weekend, but I try to keep those clear if I can. It is hard, however, to keep these hours strictly, and I have had to be quite disciplined about it. Once I have the bit between my teeth, I do have a tendency to want to keep researching and thinking over certain points over and over again, meaning that if I don’t impose limits on myself I could very easily work myself into the ground.
I do some pro bono work as well, though not as much as I would like. That certainly isn’t for want of opportunities though. I have volunteered with the COIN Scheme, and done some work through Advocate. CLIPS is also frequently asking for barristers to volunteer with them. Outside of these formal schemes, I’ve also been approached with opportunities to advise on pensions matters on a pro bono basis.
In terms of future ambitions – well I don’t know! I’m keen to keep developing my practice, and perhaps begin narrowing things down to a few core areas of specialism. For the moment I’ve really enjoyed the trusts, commercial and pension work, so perhaps that may be where I end up going, but for the time being I’m keeping those options open. It’s a boring answer, but I suppose my long-term ambition is just to build a thriving commercial chancery practice, much like many of my esteemed colleagues in chambers have.
What is the culture of chambers?
I’ve talked about chambers’ “open-door” culture, and I’ll repeat it again. Everyone in chambers is genuinely happy to assist more junior members of chambers with whatever it is they may need, at any time. That includes silks as well, which makes for a very supportive and collegial environment.
Chambers are also very keen on ensuring people don’t retreat into their silos, and so there are weekly drinks and lunches which everyone is encouraged to attend. There are of course the summer and Christmas parties, and our marketing team always does a fantastic job with selecting the venues. The juniors also do their own version of these events, so we go out for lunches and drinks (usually ad hoc), and also do our own juniors-only Christmas dinner. These are always fantastic fun.
The clerking support is very strong. There are four clerking teams, each focusing on barristers of a certain call (juniors, senior juniors, junior QCs and senior QCs). The clerks focusing on my team are also the ones most immediately familiar with my diary, and to whom I turn for most of what I need. But all clerks are also trained and asked to have at least a basic familiarity with what everyone else is doing, so I am really able to rely on any one of my clerks for support at any time.
The clerking team also hold regular development meetings, where they look at my earnings, my client base, and my career goals, and then devise a strategy for how to achieve those career goals in the coming months and years. Given this is the sort of job where there are no obvious promotions (apart, maybe, from taking silk or becoming a judge), it’s easy to sleepwalk into a career. Having these meetings helps create a stronger sense of progression and development.
The facilities are as you would expect – chambers has a lease over various parts of buildings strewn across New Square in Lincoln’s Inn. The main two buildings are 8 and 16 New Square (reception is at 8, the clerks are housed at 16). These are the two buildings where our conference rooms are housed, and they all come equipped with video-conferencing facilities. There is also a small but surprisingly well-stocked library, manned by an incredibly helpful and knowledgeable librarian in Brian Thomas. This compliments the online databases and books to which we have access. There are kitchens and pantries in most of the buildings we occupy, and chambers stocks them with the usual array of biscuits and hot drinks. Barristers’ rooms are, expectedly, a mixed bag. But by and large the room is what the barrister makes of it. Mine, for instance, is rather bare bones, but some colleagues have rooms which are positively palatial.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
First, make sure you do well academically, and if you do a law degree, ideally do well in the subjects we specialise in (contract, trusts, land). Of course, grades are not a perfect way of assessing a person’s suitability for practice, and there is a great deal more to being a successful barrister than academic success. For that reason, it’s by no means disqualifying that someone doesn’t get a first at university. But we must also be realistic – when it comes to a paper application, grades are often the most reliable available guide to whether someone has the intellectual ability to cope with the nature of the work we do. So your grades will inevitably be a key part of how we assess your application. If you need any more motivation to excel at your exams, this is as good a reason as any!
Second, get some advocacy experience. Mooting is the most obvious way to do so, but there are many other ways to get such experience, such as debating, or volunteering with places like FRU. This helps to show not only that you are interested in a career which entails great amounts of oral advocacy ability, but that you have the aptitude for it.
Third, treat your application form as an opportunity to demonstrate your written advocacy ability. Remember that the application form is our first, and sometimes, our only opportunity to form an impression of you. So make sure your answers (even to standard, cookie-cutter questions) are concise and structured, in much the same way that a barrister’s submissions would be. Make sure that the points you are making are realistic, persuasive, and reflect a mature understanding of what the profession is about.
Fourth, when it comes to interviewing, remember that the interview is not meant to test your legal knowledge as such. What we really want to see is whether you can think like a lawyer. Of course, you will need to make sure you have a really solid grasp of basic legal principles. But there’s no need to obsess about the caselaw, or really complex points of jurisprudential theory. What we want to see is whether you can look at a legal problem, identify the key issues, identify the solution and potential risks, and present that in a clear, attractive package to a client or judge. Indeed, this is the reason why GDL students often do quite well at interview – they don’t get lost in the quagmire of theory and caselaw, and get straight to the point.