In black and white
Founded in 1966, One Essex Court has spent the past half-century building up an extraordinarily strong reputation for high-end commercial work. One of the Bar's magic circle sets, it has grown membership by 25% in the past five years alone. The set's advocates remain a very popular choice for banks, businesses and investors of all kinds when resolving disputes.
Browse OEC's website and it's soon clear what its main areas of practice are. Low-angle shots of Canary Wharf, a share index and a wind farm loom large. Banking and finance, arbitration, civil fraud and energy are all key breadwinners, while the set also has a stash of specialists dealing with tax, competition, IP and insolvency disputes. Barristers often work with top City firms and “direct instruction by in-house teams is increasingly prevalent,” according to senior clerk Darren Burrows. “In addition, the emergence of boutique litigation firms and international arbitration practices has provided a variety of new opportunities.”
Burrows also told us that 2012 was a record year for the set in revenue terms: “We saw sustained periods of full engagement for all our members.” Or, as one member put it, “everyone's been really busy making pots of money!” The set's reputation and breadth of practice no doubt help a lot here. “When your core practice is commercial disputes, you benefit from the broad umbrella of areas you can cover,” says Burrows. OEC is also capitalising on London's increasing importance as an international disputes hub. To boost its international credentials, the set opened a representative office in Singapore in 2012. “We do a huge amount of international work,” one member observed.
One international dispute saw the set combine its expertise in energy and tax law: members acted for a subsidiary of Chiswick-based Tullow Oil on a $313m claim against Heritage Oil over unpaid tax liabilities in Uganda. The set has also been active on a large number of energy-related arbitrations. For example, three members acted for a Kuwaiti oil company in arbitration with Dow Chemical over whether Dow was entitled to claim damages after a failed merger between the two.
OEC's members act on a ton of disputes between banks and investors every year. A more unusual example saw Laurence Rabinowitz QC represent the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary and other investors in a commercial case against Morgan Stanley over the loss of a $20m investment in a defunct German bank. Some clients are less saintly: one member is acting for newspaper proprietor Richard Desmond, who is suing Credit Suisse over a complex insurance swap investment contract. Members also frequently advise regulators like the FCA and Ofgem, sometimes going on secondments there too. And head of chambers Lord Grabiner was recently tapped by News Corporation to lead a £53m internal investigation in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.
After an initial CV sift, 35 to 40 applicants are invited to face a single interview. They are given a set of facts on a case, an analytical question and a copy of Chitty on Contracts, and get 90 minutes prep time. “You are then asked to present your answer to the interview panel, who challenge and cross-examine you,” a pupil told us. The panel also asks some CV-based questions.
By our count, around half of the present juniors under five years' call were Oxbridge undergraduates. To give you a further idea of their backgrounds, around one in three has a BCL, while a similar number studied overseas or worked (briefly) in academia. “But we're not looking for a brain on a stick,” a pupil supervisor said. “We want persuasive advocates who can perform well in court and give focused commercial advice.” Another member added: “If an applicant has a business background and it's relevant to the type of work we do, that could be advantageous. But if someone's background is not relevant to the job that doesn't count against them.”
Pupils sample all areas of practice during their year with the set. They spend time with three supervisors: two in the first six and one in the second. Each supervisor usually has a broad commercial practice, so pupils see a variety of cases during each seat. At present, pupils also have the option of completing a distinct IP seat. From 2014/15 onwards, OEC is offering a specialist IP pupillage alongside its four regular commercial slots. Applicants are given a different interview question and, although science or industry experience is not required, “an interest and aptitude for IP” is a must. It sounds like an interesting gig to us: the set's IP lawyers recently acted for M&S in its dispute with Interflora about Google search terms, and represented Cadbury in a case about the trade marking of its distinctive purple packaging.
From their first day, pupils work solely on active cases. “They expect a lot of you from the start,” a pupil said, “but supervisors spend a lot of time getting you up to speed on their cases and they give good feedback.” Typical tasks in the first six include research, attending court and drafting skeleton arguments. From the off, pupils work for other members too. “I met Lord Grabiner in my first week and was given the opportunity to shadow him in court,” one pupil beamed. “It was impressive to see him in action – being able to work with people like that is one of the reasons I came to this set.” Are working hours as long as the set's busy commercial vibe suggests? “It varies,” a pupil said. “You're always going to be working from 9am to 6pm and that lengthens into the evening later in pupillage. And every hour you spend here is going to be quite intense and require a lot of brainpower.”
After six months, pupils are given an official review on their progress. There's no definite indication of whether tenancy is on the cards, but underperforming pupils are given a heads-up. In their second six, pupils get to spend time on their feet, appearing in small claims cases. “We make a concerted effort to provide a steady stream of advocacy opportunities suitable for pupils and very junior members,” says senior clerk Darren Burrows. Such cases may come from smaller provincial firms and are often RTAs or debt claims. “My first case was an application to have a claim form extended,” a pupil told us. “It was in the High Court and in front of a judge, which I hadn't expected!”
There are no advocacy or other exercises during pupillage. The tenancy decision is made by all members of chambers based on the three pupil supervisors' reports and score cards marking each piece of work done by a pupil for another member of chambers. In 2013 the set made tenants out of all three of its pupils.
As OEC is a fairly sizeable set, “it's not the sort of place where members all rent a chalet and go on a skiing holiday together.” That said, on Fridays members often club together for lunch in halls and there are drinks in chambers at the end of the day. “I usually go along as it's a good way to meet people,” a pupil said, and there will often be “cameo appearances” from the top silks. A pupil told us that chambers “isn't formal” and “you don't really notice the hierarchy,” adding that “at lunch in halls we'll have social conversations more than we have legal ones.” Members aren't required to buy into any prescriptive culture or traditions. “I want to feel like I'm a member of a barristers chambers not a rugby club!” said one.
“Launching new junior tenants into practice is relatively straightforward when you have a strong position in the market, a high quality product and a reputation for providing a first class service,” says OEC's senior clerk Darren Burrows.