This set has built a strong reputation for itself at the Commercial Bar; specialisms include shipping, international arbitration and public international law.
“The badge we are looking for is that of a set working on complex multiparty, multi-jurisdictional commercial disputes,” says director of strategic development James Huckle. 20 Essex Street's ability to work on such cases is strongly linked to its long-established reputation for international arbitration, public international law and especially shipping, for which the set is top-ranked in Chambers UK. Huckle points out how abilities in these areas are leveraged to attract other work: “If an oil company instructs us on litigation related to one of their oil tankers, and then they have a dispute to deal with afterwards related to oil production, then they can turn to us too.” This approach has allowed the set to successfully build up a solid position at the commercial Bar in the last 15 years and it wins Chambers UK rankings for both general commercial work and banking and finance. The three areas where Huckle sees most potential for strategic growth are energy, banking and civil fraud. Lateral hires are a part of this strategy: for example in late 2015 the set brought over energy silk Gordon Nardell from 39 Essex Chambers.
“Your first seat is a grace period – thank goodness – in which you are adjusting to the work and the expectations placed upon you.”
Around a third of 20ES's members have a shipping and commodities practice. Members were recently active in the Supreme Court on Bunge v Nidera, acting for the buyers of a cargo in a dispute with the sellers over the interpretation of a contract under trade association rules. There are some wet shipping cases too: for example, two members recently defended the underwriters of the oil tanker 'Brillante Virtuoso' against a Commercial Court claim over the ship's attack by pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Other cases mix shipping/commodities work with other specialisms like fraud and energy: three members acted for Romanian oil company Petrom in a claim against Glencore over suspiciously mixed oil delivered to Romania by ship in the 1990s.
As this case suggests, there's lots of international work to be had for pupils at 20ES. “I chose this set for its international commercial litigation and arbitration work and its public international law practice,” a pupil told us. On one recent international matter two silks acted for the Libyan Investment Authority in a $1 billion Commercial Court claim against Goldman Sachs over derivative contracts disputes. Barristers are frequently active on arbitrations too and while most work is confidential, we can tell you that one silk is involved in a battle over two gold mines in Armenia. Meanwhile, the set's eight public international law experts are instructed mostly by governments but also by businesses and other institutions. Members have recently worked on cases related to nuclear disarmament, the Mau Mau uprising, Italian marines being held in custody in India, oil investments in Russia, and allegations of torture in Egypt.
It only takes a mini
For a pupillage at 20 Essex Street you apply via the Gateway. Previously all applicants had to have completed a mini-pupillage before being considered for pupillage. This requirement has been dropped for 2017 as the Gateway deadline has been brought forward, but may be brought back in future. For the moment minis are “strongly encouraged” – in 2016 the deadline to apply for autumn/winter places was 30 June, and for ones in spring 2017 it's 30 November. On a mini you can expect to sit with two supervisors for two days; each will give you a piece of written work to complete which is assessed.
“I chose this set for its international commercial litigation and arbitration work and its public international law practice.”
There's just a single interview round which around 25 applicants are invited to – it's 30 minutes in front of four members. Applicants face an abstract legal problem question which they are given ten minutes in advance to prepare. “You don't need to know any case law – the basic contractual or statute information is provided. We are looking to test analytical reasoning,” says pupillage committee member Susannah Jones. The question involves providing advice to a client on the basis of an imaginary statute and set of facts, for instance “related to a change in gun legislation in a fictional country.” Interviewees are given five minutes to talk the panel through their advice and are then asked questions on it, before facing several competency and CV-based questions too.
Pupils sit with four supervisors for three months each and are exposed to the full range of chambers' work. “My first supervisor had a broad commercial practice with an emphasis on energy and arbitration,” a baby junior told us. “My second had a commercial and commodities practice, and my third did banking, finance and shipping.” In addition, a pupil told us they had worked for around ten other members during pupillage. “I wrote an insolvency opinion related to the Arbitration Act for an insolvency silk,” a pupil told us, “and I was involved in a few public international law cases too.” Working for other members is a requirement and is organised by supervisors.
“Towards the end of the first seat the work becomes more complex,” a pupil told us. “After Christmas I would be drafting a skeleton argument for a trial as well as opinions and pleadings.” Rookies work mostly on live cases and were impressed by the volume and level of feedback they received. “The first time I ever wrote a defence was for a QC,” a baby junior recalled. “When I had completed it he made a point of sitting down with me in the library, taking out all the relevant statute and going through my defence line by line comparing it to what he had produced and giving me commentary.” Pupils also shadow their supervisors in court or at arbitrations whenever they go, which is perhaps three or four times a seat.
“The first time I ever wrote a defence was for a QC.”
Given the size and scope of 20ES's casework, pupils do not usually spend time on their feet. Once you're the “finished article" and start as a junior tenant you can expect to be in court once or twice a month, for instance on small commercial claims, company/insolvency hearings or charter party claims.
There's no T in Thursday
There are four assessed oral advocacy exercises during pupillage. “You're given the papers two or three days beforehand and are asked to write a skeleton argument,” Susannah Jones told us. “The pupils then go up against each other in a scenario designed to mimic a hearing or court case.” The reports on these exercises are looked at alongside reports from supervisors and other members pupils have worked for by the tenancy committee, which makes a non-binding recommendation on tenancy. A meeting of all members then makes the final decision. In 2016 all three pupils were taken on as tenants.
20 Essex Street's chambers tea has been replaced by Thursday evening drinks on the premises. “Sometimes four or five members will go along; sometimes it will be everyone,” a pupil told us. “You make friends with people very quickly.” Given the set has many eminent silks – two have knighthoods for their work at the Foreign Office – we wondered if this made the set a hierarchical place to work. “It's not like that,” a baby junior assured us. “If I tried to call one of the members with a knighthood 'Sir' they'd laugh at me. There is no division here between those members who have a knighthood and, uhm, those who don't.” Members are a mixed bunch in other ways too. “Some people like to go to the opera and others like to jam with their band on the electric guitar.” Really? “Yes, head of chambers Chris Hancock plays electric guitar, and he has an electronic drum kit in his office.”
“Pupillage is definitely hectic. You put a lot of pressure on yourself, but pressure is not imposed on you by anyone else. You're not given keys to the building and if you're still working at 6.30pm you'll be asked, 'Why are you still here?'”
20 Essex Street
20 Essex Street,
- No of silks 24
- No of juniors 49
- No of pupils 3
- Contact Daniel Clark, director of admin and finance, (020) 7842 1200
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) three of 12 months
- Minimum degree 2:1 (law or non-law)
- Award £65,000
- Tenancies offered in the last three years 85% of our pupils have become tenants