A public law set with stellar expertise in employment and information law, 11KBW works on headline-grabbing cases and makes no secret of its high standards.
Pupillage committee member Christopher Knight sums up the historical development of 11KBW as follows: “Originally we were a commercial and employment set, but over the last 15 years we've become a leading public law set as well, while maintaining our position at the top of the employment tree.” This development was no doubt helped along by the lasting reputation and efforts of Lord 'Derry' Irvine who founded the set in 1981 and headed it until 1997 when he became Lord Chancellor, appointed by his former pupil at 11KBW, Tony Blair.
Recent lay clients of this set include the US government, GCHQ and the Foreign Office.
11KBW is ranked in eight practice areas by Chambers UK, and all but one of those rankings (employment) is for an area related to public law. A member estimates that “40% of what we do is public law – partly because of all its sub-categories – another 40% is employment and the rest is commercial.” The set is keen to shrug off its reputation for mostly acting for respondents. “We do far more claimant work than people realise!” one member exclaimed.
“We're constantly involved in massive pieces of tribunal litigation as well as high-profile appeals,” says Knight of the set's employment work. Illustrating this point, two members were active in 2012/13 on Geys v Société Générale, a major Supreme Court case over the manner in which a senior official was dismissed from the French bank's London office. And at the end of 2014 joint head of chambers James Goudie QC advised Rotherham Council on how to manage the departure of its chief exec in the wake of the Jay inquiry into historical cases of sexual abuse. Goudie's fellow joint head of chambers, John Cavanagh QC, has been acting for five police forces in age discrimination claims involving over 1,000 former senior police officers seeking compensation for being forced to retire after 30 years in service. Another silk successfully defended the University of Leicester in an Employment Appeals Tribunal case brought by a university professor over alleged race discrimination and victimisation.
"We're unequivocally the market leaders in that area.”
On the public law side, 11KBW's most recent high-profile piece of work was its involvement in the Prince Charles 'black spider' letters case: along with Treasury Devil James Eadie, members assisted both the government and the Information Commissioner in arguing (ultimately unsuccessfully) that Charles' memos to ministers should not be published. Barristers have also been involved in high-profile national security cases, such as claims against GCHQ in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden disclosures. As one source put it: “We own information law. We're unequivocally the market leaders in that area.” It's no empty boast: Chambers UK ranks 11KBW on its own in Band 1 for data protection.
While 11KBW's commercial side may not be as well known as that of Essex Court Chambers or Fountain Court, its members do take on cases related to finance, fraud, and shareholder disputes. For example, one member recently defended mining giant Glencore against a £10 million breach of contract claim related to a profit-sharing scheme, and at the time of our visit members were embroiled in a “big commercial fraud trial,” though details were hush-hush.
Making a mark
Pupillage at 11KBW is split into two three-month seats and one six-month one. “In retrospect, the first three months are a sort of settling-in period,” reflected one pupil, “and you just do work for your supervisor.” After Christmas the rotation happens and “if you were with a public law supervisor you move to an employment law one, and vice versa. You also start working for other members of chambers.” This is always filtered through your supervisor who “manages your work, making sure you're exposed to a range of areas.” At the same time, another pupil points out, it's worth having a sense of which “members are known as having more influence,” and “making sure you're being seen by the right people.” Pupils don't get their own cases, even in the second six, but while there's no advocacy on offer, court shadowing opportunities abound.
"Pupils only do work which can be properly assessed, so that rules out admin tasks.”
All work pupils do is assessed and double marked on criteria like legal analysis, clarity of expression, structure and more practical qualities like “whether the writing has provided useful advice and would be understood by a client.” Each piece of work goes into a pupil's folder which is then used to make the tenancy decision in July. This might sound daunting, but as a junior tenant points out, “it means pupils only do work which can be properly assessed, so that rules out admin tasks.” The basic structure of the marking system hangs on a particular numerical mark: the standard chambers expects you to achieve. Knight explains: “We're looking at how pupils' marks grow over the course of the year. We don't necessarily expect work in the first term – or even absolutely everything in the second term – to be up to standard. But we want pupils to be consistently at that standard by the end.” In 2016, 11KBW kept on its single pupil as a tenant, having kept on both pupils in 2015.
Fight for this love
The pupillage application process consists of three stages: a first interview, assessed mini-pupillage and final interview. During the first 15-minute interview candidates are given three topical issues – for instance, assisted dying – and are asked to present an argument for or against each one. They're then questioned and tested on their viewpoint, argumentation and presentation. From the 50 to 60 initially interviewed, roughly 30 are invited to complete an assessed mini-pupillage. They spend three to five days in chambers and are given “a number of real cases which members have worked on in the recent past," on which they are asked to produce an opinion about the merits of a claim being brought. If there's time, mini-pupils might get to go to court too. At the end of their time in chambers, applicants sit down with two pupil supervisors to talk through the piece of work they've produced and to have their conclusions tested. Finally, ten applicants are invited to a final interview in mid-July. At this point the questions you'll be asked become "much more legal.” In 2015 the interview consisted of three parts: a general CV discussion, a discussion of a recent important public law case and a short advocacy exercise. Knight believes that at this stage, “the best candidates are the ones who think about most of the possible pitfalls they may come up against, and aren't deflected by the ones they haven't thought of.”
“The best candidates are the ones who think about most of the possible pitfalls they may come up against."
With such a rigorous application process it's no surprise that 11KBW ends up with some very high-calibre pupils and junior tenants. Among the six youngest tenants at the set at the time of writing is one who previously worked at the World Wildlife Fund, one who taught law at Oxford, and one who wrote a book about being a boxing coach for teenagers in Tottenham (it's called Boxing Clever). We lost track of the number of Firsts, prizes and LLMs which these six had completed between them – and they're a youthful group to boot, meaning they crammed a lot into just a few years during and after university.
Don't be concerned that 11KBW's hyper-intelligent barristers lack social skills. Sources described the environment as “collegiate,” saying that “everyone is interested in each other's work, but also happy to chat about football, cycling or where they went to the theatre last night.” Incoming pupils settle in quickly with drinks organised in October to welcome them. Other non-compulsory gatherings include a New Year's party and regular chambers tea.
11KBW has the distinction of being where Tony Blair met his future wife Cherie. They were both pupil barristers here at the time.
11 King's Bench Walk,
- No of silks 17
- No of juniors 44
- No of pupils 2
- Contact Ms Claire Halas, director of finance and administration
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) 12 months – 2-3 Required degree first or upper second class (in any academic field)
- Income £65,000 (up to £15,000 of the pupillage award may be paid to prospective pupils as an advance in their BPTC year).
- Tenancies offered in last three years 6
Types of work undertaken