Gold standard for client service
One Essex Court was founded in 1966 as a mixed civil and commercial set. Though a relative newcomer to the market in comparison to some of its old-school neighbours, what OEC lacks in history it makes up for in rapid success: the set quickly overtook its competitors under the direction of former senior clerk Robert Ralphs, who “recognised the virtues of client service at a time when it was a rarity.” Since reconfiguring its business to serve clients first and foremost, the set has done nothing but flourish.
OEC's strength in commercial law cases has propelled it into the Bar's magic circle, and management claims the set has “a wider range of work than any other commercial set.” The real engines of OEC are arbitration, banking and finance, civil fraud and energy work, although tenants also take on a sizeable amount of revenue, competition and EU, IP and insolvency work, too. “The joy of our thriving practice is that every day you're dealing with different problems,” senior clerk Darren Burrows explains. While tenants dabble in a variety of areas, he says the set “is hardly rag-tag: our core is commercial, but we're fortunate to have practitioners with niche strengths,” pointing out that such members are “credible market specialists, not just barristers who fancy trying out that kind of work.” Indeed, household names such as Google, easyJet, eBay and Yahoo! have all approached the set's renowned IP experts recently to handle complex trade mark and copyright disputes. Because its tenants tackle a wide range of industry sectors, OEC has a broad range of clients – from magic circle City law firms to banks and individuals – and is less susceptible to the market fluctuation experienced by sets that specialise in areas like insolvency. According to Burrows, the set's management has spent the past decade “focusing hard on attaining new markets and clients with the aim of broadening the practice without losing any of our quality. By working within two or three distinct markets at any one time, we've steadily and healthily climbed to the top.”
Burrows is intent on preserving the high quality of client service ushered in by his predecessors, which entails upholding “a gold-standard reputation of reliability.” For this reason, the set is one of few that implements a strict no double-booking policy. Chambers is also looking to expand under his leadership, probably into East Asia as “it's well placed in the market” and “there are clear corporate and dispute resolution opportunities out there.”
It's all in the argument
Pupils at OEC are among the highest paid at the Bar, which partially accounts for OEC's substantial volume of applications each year. This translates into a hefty paper sift for the pupillage committee, so current pupils suggest that applicants spend a lot of time on their applications to ensure they aren't discounted at the first stage due to “silly mistakes like grammatical errors.” It's also important to submit an application that's “a true representation of yourself.” As one pupil put it: “Finding the right set for you is like finding the perfect partner – you have a major part in choosing it, and you shouldn't lose sight of that.” Completing a mini-pupillage, while it does “show a sign of interest,” isn't required because of limited availability at the set.
While successful applicants all have the common quality of academic excellence, members of the pupillage committee say the “turning point is our assessment of their legal ability: not just how well they do on the day of the interview, but our ability to see them succeeding in the long run.” For this reason, it's imperative that an applicant be “a natural advocate – someone who's good at generating confidence in their argument. People who are capable comprise a wide variety of personalities, so we don't pigeon-hole and look for a certain character.” That said, pupils say that being grounded and focused is important, as is a bit of humility. “Absolutely no one is arrogant here, even those who have cause to be.”
The 30-40 applicants who make it through the first stage of the application process face just one interview, which is based on a test of analytical abilities, “not a chat on whether you can look and act like a barrister.” One QC explained the process in detail: “We give them a legal problem and then lock them in the basement with a copy of Chitty on Contracts – and a window if they're lucky! – and let them prep for 90 minutes.” The problems are “framed in a manner that doesn't prejudice those without a law degree,” and pupils claim that “it doesn't actually matter whether your answer's right – it's all about how you present and support your argument.”
Over the past decade, OEC's number of pupillage and tenancy offers has been roughly in proportion to the number of applicants with law degrees and those who've completed the graduate diploma in law, so aspiring barristers with “less traditional” backgrounds are equally as welcome as the Oxbridge-educated law students who dominate the profession.
Pupils spend time with at least three supervisors during their year at the set, which exposes them to a range of different cases and working styles. “The aim is to show them variety,” so they don't always work exclusively for a single supervisor and have the opportunity to follow junior members. According to one, “it's difficult to generalise” the kinds of work pupils come into contact with, as it's “so unbelievably varied: you can be researching code one day and doing admin work like bundling the next.” Most of this work is live, but luckily “the support is great” and there are “plenty of opportunities to find your feet.” Court appearances generally occur in the second six, when pupils begin attending “low-value” trials such as traffic court cases to gain advocacy experience. Because OEC tends to favour complex, high-value commercial matters that require the expertise of more experienced barristers, it can sometimes be difficult for pupils or even junior members to gain substantive advocacy experience at the beginning of their careers. However, management makes a special effort to offer opportunities to appear in court through an arrangement with a number of provincial firms in which younger juniors work on fixed-fee cases for a lowered rate.
Six months into pupillage, there's a review to evaluate the pupil's progress. According to one QC, “we never kick anyone out, although sometimes, very rarely, we tell one that they might want to consider other options.” Each piece of work pupils submit is marked out of ten and collected into a folder, which the pupillage committee examines when making the final tenancy decision in June. Because the set “aims to keep all pupils on,” an all-around healthier working environment is fostered. “We were told on our first day that we're not in competition with each other, which immediately made us all relax. Knowing that has made it so much more enjoyable and has made it possible to have real friendships with each other,” one told us. “Being immediately regarded with the potential to become a tenant certainly makes the experience a happier one.”
The atmosphere of OEC is relatively informal compared to that at some commercial sets, which Burrows attributes to the chambers' “noticeable evolution over the last 40 years.” Everyone's on a first-name basis, and barristers maintain relationships in which they get together occasionally, but “don't live in each other's pockets.” As one quipped: “We're a set, not a cult.” Pupils are invited to all the social events, which are “not terribly formal” and include occasional luncheons and Friday night drinks.
All four pupils were granted tenancy in 2012, and they called the high retention rate at OEC “a real selling point. It's a true meritocracy, and you'll get an offer if you're good enough.”