Murder and lies
"You often see our QCs on the front of the Metro," one source told us in our visit to chambers this year. The many headline-hitting cases that go through 2 Bedford Row hint at why it has won top-tier rankings for both crime and criminal fraud in Chambers UK. The set is home to the mighty William Clegg QC, who made the news this year defending Sergeant Danny Nightingale. The set's line-up of raw talent – and youthful QCs – is a key driver in its success. Outside of the crime and fraud world, 2BR has made a very big footprint thanks to some first-class names: Jim Sturman QC for sports, Ian Stern QC for professional discipline, and Richard Matthews QC for health and safety, to name a few.
In recent years, this defence-focused set has added practices in finance and regulatory work. As such, it has broadened its client base, which now encompasses major City firms and institutions, local councils, high street solicitors, offshore clients, Premier League football teams and public and international bodies. 2BR's latest assignments have seen it working with the European Court of Human Rights, acting for the General Medical Council, and taking cases before the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Gone in 70 seconds
2 Bedford Row does everything with a no-nonsense attitude, and that includes the hiring process. If all the stuffy tradition and old boys' club stereotypes about the Bar put you off applying, then 2 Bedford Row may be your answer. "We're not really that bothered if someone's from Oxbridge or not," reported a pupil, and head of pupillage Stephen Vullo echoed this: "I honestly don't know what uni the current pupils went to. They have to be bright, of course, but what we are really looking for is someone who is a good advocate on their feet." All interviewees stressed this point, so take note. Two-Bedfordronians spend much more time in court than most, so the interview is built around judging advocacy potential.
Of the 450-odd applicants, the set aims to interview between 70 and 80. The first interview goes like this: the panel gives the applicant a topic to argue, with very brief preparation time. "We tell candidates to talk for no more than 70 seconds," says Vullo. "We are looking for brevity: half of them talk far too long and that weeds out a lot." Don't be surprised if the panel gives you a different topic to argue seconds before the interview. "That throws them a bit, the point being that they read, understand and react quickly." That said, our interviewees did claim that the interview process is "more straightforward than most places I applied to. There was no 'bad cop' on the panel." In 2012, the set put 22 interviewees through to the second round, and four are usually awarded pupillage. The second round lasts a little longer and applicants are sent the exercise in advance. "This year we are sending them a sentencing guidelines exercise and they will be expected to give five to ten minutes on their feet. They will respond to our questions on it."
"If you can't stand up and talk, don't apply," said one interviewee. Vullo elaborated: "If we feel nervous for the person, they are not right for us. We look for poise and confidence. And we don't cross them off for getting minor legal points wrong." A pupil also offered: "Be as succinct as possible. They are looking for spontaneity." Pupils also strongly recommended equipping yourself with prior experience, which will go some way to boosting your confidence in this advocacy-focused process.
In one of 2BR's swanky conference rooms, the pupils opened up to us about their lot. During the first six, senior clerk John Grimmer "has us in court every day from the get-go." During this time, pupils work for two supervisors simultaneously, but aren't allowed to represent clients themselves. "During the second six you'll be in court from day one," though. "Most of my work has been in the mags' courts defending cases like theft, assault and harassment," remarked one interviewee. The cases tend to be on the lighter end of the criminal scale during pupillage, but one interviewee was starting to get involved in "cases like violent crime, rape, murder," while another mentioned weighty cases like "child grooming, kidnap and fraud."
"This isn't a glamorous job," thought one pupil, and speaking to those who had done pupillage here it becomes clear a hardy constitution is a must. "They also need to put in the work," Grimmer plainly puts it. Pupils agreed that they often worked "four out of five evenings a week, sometimes until midnight if you include travel." One confided: "When people ask me out for a beer I tell them this is like having two jobs." The up-side, claimed one source, is that "we get more exposure to trials in the mags' than anyone else I've heard of." In a similar vein, 2BR also starts its pupillage in the spring, with the aim that "by the end of the year pupils are streets ahead of the competition."
This lifestyle evidently suits a certain type of person, and pupils recommended "doing a mini-pupillage – it's the best way to work out if it's for you." All agreed that the lifestyle was a price worth paying: "The pupillage here is an amazing thing to be part of." Vullo tells us: "We are conscious not to crush people in pupillage. We always think pupils are worth investing in. Members here are expected to give up time to pupils." And they really do invest the time; a snapshot of this might include "Bill Clegg QC giving talks on tactics, Jim Sturman QC on closing speeches and Mark Milliken-Smith QC on cross-examination." One junior enthused: "This place is a breeding ground for success. You learn from class acts."
Call of Duty: Blackfriars Ops
"Pupillage feels like a year-long interview," admitted a source. Pupils are judged on their performance throughout the year. "You've got to do well on your feet," said one, but added, "they put more emphasis on the second six." The year culminates in a mock trial in Blackfriars Crown Court, which 2BR hires out for the purpose. A panel of silks and other members is there to judge the Blackfriars gig, and they give their verdict on tenancy towards the end of September, drawing upon performance throughout the year, too. Aside from the obvious advocacy points, the panel also looks for "decent written work and recommendations from solicitors."
So what's the magic formula to gaining tenancy? Awkwardly, the message seems to be: "Keep a low profile, but impress everyone." A junior added: "It's not a popularity contest but you've got to fit with chambers: be respectful, work hard." John Grimmer shed more light: "We need to see clearly that in five years' time they will have a practice of their own."
As we were shown through the doors of the grand Bloomsbury townhouse at no. 2 Bedford Row, it struck us that fitting in here isn't in fact the greatest challenge. Guided though a dark maze of corridors and a cavernous basement, we saw a set comfortable with its own disarray. Down there amid the piles of files we were greeted by a welcoming bunch ready to make friendly chat. Pupils confirmed this: "The atmosphere is open, collegial and quite different to many sets." Another chimed: "There are some sets where pupils are viewed as a subspecies, but not here." Instead, they are "always included in things." This set has no truck with ceremony or needless hierarchy; all interviewees threw around the phrase "down to earth" with abandon. The set puts on the usual welcome drinks, Christmas knees-ups and summer parties. Otherwise the hub of chambers' social life is at The Old Nick just round the corner. Friday drinks here are pretty common, unless you're one of the pupils, it seems, who "genuinely don't have the time for much socialising." Stephen Vullo adds: "Part of the test for pupils is striking the right balance with socialising." Chambers is also rumoured to take part in white-collar boxing – find out more if you get here...
The recruitment team wanted to stress to ethnic minority applicants that although its current line-up is hardly a beacon of diversity, it is striving to address this with future hiring. This doesn't mean the set is making exceptions. “It's a level playing field once you're in the interview,” said a pupil. In 2013, two out of four pupils were offered tenancy.
There is no secret to the rewards of a 2BR pupillage – just make sure you're "committed to the Criminal Bar and prepared to be in court.”
- The Criminal Bar
Sets which do similar work
- Matrix Chambers