Construction connoisseurs Atkin are “beginning to diversify more than they've historically done but without losing sight of what they're best known for.”
Ask the general public to describe the typical barrister, and not all adjectives will be kind. The Commercial and Chancery Bars in particular fall foul of the stereotypes, and while some sets might hope to appear less snooty, Atkin appears to have "ditched the Chancery vibe” more effortlessly than most. A typical member of Atkin Chambers is “far removed from the stereotypical barrister in their ivory tower,” claims pupillage committee member Ronan Hanna, who presents Atkin as a “modern and progressive set.”
So what makes Atkin’s barristers so different? Well, construction law “is a people's industry” explains Hanna. “That means live projects and daily interactions. On a big case you'll meet everyone from CEOs and big contractors to the worker who puts their spade into the ground.” Atkin's future barristers have to be comfortable in this environment, because “you’re not just joining the Bar, you're joining the construction industry," says Hanna.
It’s on the back of a premier construction practice that this Gray's Inn set made a name for itself. But “it’s really infrastructure that forms the core of our construction work,” explains head clerk Justin Wilson, with “large projects relating to IT and energy branching directly off of that. Within that we are beginning to diversify more than we’ve historically done but without losing sight of what we are best known for.” The set’s Chambers UK rankings tell a similar story, with three construction-related practices at the top, followed closely by energy and IT.
It may only house 40-odd barristers, but Atkin’s international footprint is big, with over half of fees now coming from abroad. This means “there are lots of chances to travel, even at at junior level,” explains Hanna, informing us during the interview that they’d just sent a junior team out to South Korea. Recently the set has worked on multiple cases surrounding the $5.2 billion project to widen the Panama Canal in one of the largest infrastructure disputes of recent times. Just next door in Colombia, a team led by Christopher Lewis QC acted for a BP subsidiary alongside Freshfields. The case was initiated by 109 Columbian farmers, who claimed damages relating to the laying of a 700 km pipeline.
Travel 10,000 kilometres east to Libya and you might meet Rupert Choat acting on a multimillion-dollar dispute over the development of a North African hotel. Commonwealth and Gulf countries have traditionally been strong links for the set and a bulwark against the financial crisis, but Atkin’s work now covers six continents. Back in Blighty, a team led by Andrew White QC has acted for a Chinese steel manufacturer against US contractor in the $400 million TCC action arising out of the Greater Gabbard Offshore Wind Farm project.
“We are not looking to see the extent of a candidate's legal knowledge but rather their oral and reasoning skills.”
Applications to Atkin follow a three-stage process. The first begins in December when candidates are invited to submit a cover letter and CV. “Here we look for academic consistency throughout the candidate’s history,” explains pupillage committee member Fiona Parkin QC. “Although an interest in commercial law is critical, it is not a prerequisite for applicants to have done a mini in a specialist construction set.” Once whittled down to approximately 20 candidates, applicants are invited to interview. The first interview is a 20-minute quick-fire round on a topical issue, which in the past has included: ’Should Sharia Law be recognised in the Commercial Court?’ and ’Do you agree with a sugar tax?’ They’re intended to be more of a “personality test,” and Hanna makes clear “it’s certainly not just about a First from Oxford,” adding that candidates must show “constructive and nimble thinking.”
“The second round is more tricky,” where only around five make the cut. Applicants are givena set of papers a week before and asked to do a contractual interpretation and provide a skeleton argument to a panel. This exercise is “more reflective of what they will be doing during the pupillage.” Typically lasting around 45 minutes, the subject is something “that won’t have featured during an undergraduate course,” explains Parkin, adding that “we are not looking to see the extent of a candidate’s legal knowledge but rather their oral and reasoning skills.” While a tad harder than the first round, “we're not going to batter you for half an hour," Hanna reassured us. "We strive to maintain a very cordial interview style.” Similarly, one baby junior recalls: “What impressed me most was walking into the interview and not feeling like you’re being interviewed. The panel is made up of people of all different ranks, some just your senior, which helps puts you at ease.”
Pupils at Atkin rotate between three supervisors in three separate seats. Typically the first two seats are three-month stints with the last tending to be a bit longer, although there is flexibility according to the set's business needs. Parkin gives a clear idea of the kind of work the set aims to expose pupils to: “We try to identify the common issues that come up in practice. Yes, they will see energy and yes, they will see IT but spanning all those different disciplines are some common legal problems such as how to extrude an exclusion clause from a contract. Once you’ve seen and dealt with these problems, you can take it and apply it to different situations. Of course there are specific and technical contexts in each case but at the heart of these big infrastructure disputes are the same contractual problems.”
Juniors made a clear distinction between the oral and written work undertaken at pupillage. “In terms of oral, our bread and butter is advocacy exercises,” explained one junior. On the written side “there is a huge amount of drafting of pleadings and constructing of skeleton arguments. The first piece of work I did was about the construction of a power plant in the Middle East concerning the presence of land-mines laid by Al-Qaeda.”
Juniors estimated that around 80% of work comes from the supervisor, but noted that “you assist other members if they have a particularly interesting piece of work going on.” Although pupils will frequently attend court with their supervisors, pupils don't spend time on their feet during pupillage and are only let loose after gaining tenancy, which “allowed more time to focus on their training.”
"Pupils that meet the standard will always gain tenancy.”
Pupils expressed surprise at the reasonable working hours: “there’s a strictly enforced 9am to 6.30pm shift; they don't purposefully put pressure on pupils,” one junior reported. That said, pupils can expect a healthy dose of pressure when it comes to the set’s “regimented assessment system.” The real assessments begin at the end of the third seat: taking place over a six weeks, it's “a tough and rigorous period where it can sometimes feel a bit like all or nothing.” Firstly pupils are hit with four or five pieces of work from the panel, such as writing advice or drafting a pleading. Next comes a test paper, typically a set of papers that pupils have a week to turn around, followed by three further advocacy exams, the final one being assessed by a judge. No sweat...
When it comes to tenancy, at Atkin it’s “not a case of ’we’re only going to hire one person this year.' Pupils that meet the standard will always gain tenancy.” Pupils’ performance on the assessments, as well as reports written by supervisors and the end of each of their seat, make up the bulk of the tenancy decision. Reiterating its status as one of the smaller commercial sets, Hanna felt this enabled a less corporate, more “family feel,” which helps balance any exam stress pupils have. In 2017 one of two the pupils gained tenancy.
At £72,500, Atkin's pupillage award is the highest at the Bar.
1 Atkin Building,
- No of silks 19
- No of juniors 26
- No of pupils 2
- Contact [email protected]
- Method of application CV and covering letter
- Apply by 13 December 2017
- Pupillages (pa) two 12-month pupillages
- Income £72,500
- Tenancies in the last three years 5
Type of work undertaken
Applicants for pupillage should have a first-class degree or a good upper second-class degree. Postgraduate qualifications are viewed favourably but are not essential. Applications from nonlaw graduates are welcomed. Pre-existing knowledge of construction law is not required, although candidates should have a strong grounding in contract and tort law.
Full and up-to-date details of the structure and goals of Atkin Chambers’ pupillage training programme may be reviewed on our website. Chambers is not part of the Pupillage Gateway. Applications for the year starting in October 2019 open on Saturday 30 September 2017 and close at midnight on Wednesday 13 December 2017. Applications should be made by sending a CV and covering letter to [email protected]
In their first years of practice, new members may expect earning potential equivalent to peers at the largest commercial sets.