This internationally-minded construction set works on everything from "dodgy windows to massive arbitrations."
If you build it, they will come
At the time of our most recent visit, Atkin Chambers was, rather appropriately, something of a building site. The set recently expanded out of its original digs into adjoining premises, and the contractors were hard at work sprucing up both spaces. Now, renovations are complete and Atkin's physical expansion is an appropriate metaphor for a set whose success comes from branching out into related fields while never straying far from its construction roots. In addition to receiving top marks for construction law, Atkin is ranked by Chambers UK for arbitration, IT, energy and professional negligence. “We deal with all sorts of infrastructure and projects disputes,” says senior clerk Justin Wilson. “If there's a major piece of infrastructure in the UK, and there's been a dispute over it, someone from Atkin will have been involved.” Construction law – in all its iterations – is by far the biggest driver of work, with second place alternating between IT and energy, depending on what cases the set is doing in a given year. All of this leads to a “hugely varied daily existence,” one baby junior told us.
At £72,500 Atkin's pupillage award is the highest at the Bar.
For example, one member recently represented the piling subcontractors as defendants in a £150 million claim brought against engineers Volker Fitzpatrick over defects to the floor of a logistics distribution centre; another was active on a negligence claim brought by a private developer over professional advice given about flood risks. In addition, members have been active on a number of disputes over PFI contracts, often related to the construction of hospitals. And in one IT-related case, barristers acted for the supplier of electronic ticketing machines installed on Nottingham buses in a dispute with the city transport authority.
If Atkin's workload is more varied than simple builders' disputes, it also spans more than just England. “What attracted me to Atkin was the broad international slant to the work,” a pupil said. The figures certainly back that up: roughly 40% of work is international in some way. “We've had an international brand for 30 years,” confirms Justin Wilson, “and as senior clerk I frequently go on international trips to meet clients.” The set has links with a number of Commonwealth countries, and the Gulf region has been a major driver of work post-credit crunch. One notable recent international piece of work saw members representing state-owned Trinidadian construction firm UDeCOTT in a public inquiry into corruption. In addition, one silk was active on a dispute over the construction of the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre (designed by the late Zaha Hadid) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, while another tenant counselled the Government of Gibraltar in a £30 million dispute over redevelopments at Gibraltar Airport.
Build me up
Pupils sit with their first two supervisors for three months each, and the third for the remaining six months – the aim is to give fresh-faced barristers an experience reflecting Atkin's spread of work. Pupils don't spend time on their feet during pupillage, something our sources broadly felt was right. “The work is complicated and difficult to get to grips with,” a pupil said, “so chambers prefers to spend the entire 12 months training you up, rather than letting you loose on the public.” Another source added: “You need a bedding-in period when you start any specialist area of law. My first supervisor took it slowly, while giving me the tools to find the right answers.”
It may be a learning experience, but pupillage is certainly not an academic exercise. “They may not be your own cases, but you'll always be given live work,” recalled a baby junior. That might be anything from drafting a piece of advice to “going through 50 pages of particulars of claim, analysing an expert report, or writing a defence that responds to the claim point by point.” While Atkin has a “paper heavy” practice, pupils are invited to attend court with both their supervisors and other members. “I met with the person I was going to court with a week before the hearing and he asked me to draft a skeleton argument,” recalled a pupil, “and then we compared skeleton arguments before going into the hearing.”
“We don't expect applicants to know about construction law when they first come through our door."
Structural integrity is all important in construction, and Atkin seems to have taken this lesson to heart when designing its assessment programme: the pupillage committee sets each pupil one piece of written work per term, which is marked by the committee. In addition, a panel of senior members sets pupils five separate pieces of work, which they have four weeks to complete. Then there's the 'test paper', a “thick, challenging set of papers that pupils have one week to turn around.” And if all that isn't enough, pupils also have three advocacy exercises during the year, the final (assessed) one before a real-life judge. All of these exercises generate a volume of reports, which the pupillage committee peruses – along with supervisors' reports – before writing its tenancy recommendation. In 2016, the set's single pupil gained tenancy.
When we asked if there was a grace period in which pupils can make mistakes, we were told it's “practically the whole pupillage.” By way of example, we heard of one pupil who was kept on despite suggesting a legal argument to their supervisor which, when tried in court, elicited a cry of 'don't even try' from the judge. Unsurprisingly, applicants who wilfully disregard supervisors' advice or repeatedly make the same mistakes are unlikely to endear themselves to the tenancy committee.
“We don't expect applicants to know about construction law when they first come through our door," says pupillage committee member Ronan Hanna. "We know it's not taught at many universities." Pupils advise applicants to bone up on their contract and tort law, because “a lot of construction law is about those two areas – you need to have the intellectual flexibility to use them in different situations and to understand their limits.”
Atkin recently engineered a new, two-round interview process: in the first, pupils answer questions on their CV and give a five-minute presentation on a political or ethical topic, while the second round is a half-hour discussion on a complicated legal question. “We look for people with initiative, with get-up-and-go,” says Hanna. “You need to show you're a grafter, that you can get your head down and learn.”
“We're told at the start that if we're both good enough, we'll both be kept on.”
“When I started, I was utterly astounded that the hours I worked as a pupil were so reasonable,” said one baby junior. How reasonable are we talking? Think 9am to 6pm, or maybe 8.30am to 6pm for early risers. “They're very fine hours,” agreed a pupil, “although they do increase during the formal assessments, because you want to do them as well as possible.”
Many sets talk about being 'down to earth', but at the Construction Bar, ”explaining your advice in a way that doesn't make you sound like an ivory-tower academic is really important.” Why? This set's lay clientele may have money and kudos, but “few of them were born with a silver spoon in their mouth,” says Ronan Hanna, and “many of them are personally invested in the project.” So being able to explain complex disputes or points of law in straightforward terms is vital.
'Straightforward' is a watchword internally too. Justin Wilson says he has “personally put a ban on” clerks addressing barristers as 'sir' or 'madam'. All of this fosters a collaborative atmosphere, and while pupillage may be a hard slog, youngsters can take comfort from the fact that they aren't competing for one slot. “We're told at the start that if we're both good enough, we'll both be kept on,” said one pupil.
Chambers tea at Atkin is a relaxed affair, where attendance is optional and there are “no silly rules about biscuits.”
1 Atkin Building,
- No of silks 17
- No of juniors 28
- No of pupils 2
- Contact [email protected]
- Method of application CV and covering letter
- Apply by 20 December 2016
- Pupillages (pa) two 12-month pupillages
- Income £72,500
- Tenancies in the last three years 5
Type of work undertaken