This commercial and public law titan is home to leading lights from across the spectrum.
If variety is the spice of life, then Blackstone should be selling dishes of suicide hot wings alongside its impeccable legal counsel. You get the picture: Blackstone is hot, and offers one of the most varied experiences anywhere at the Bar. “Our client base is getting more and more diverse,” declares senior clerk Gary Oliver. “My next phone call could be with a magic circle law firm, a FTSE 100 company or a non-league football club.” He adds that “over the past ten years the competition law practice has accelerated hugely,” while pupillage committee member Jane Mulcahy QC makes clear “we're very much a commercial set – that shouldn't be forgotten.”
This stat says it all: in 2017 Chambers UK ranked Blackstone for 19 areas of practice, more than any other set, and bestowed 216 individual rankings on its 100 members – again a record. The set is market-leading in financial services, human rights, competition, employment, fraud, media... we could go on.
More than 50 QCs work out of Blackstone House, many of them stars of the Bar. On our visit we bumped into Lord Pannick QC, who recently became a star beyond the Bar for his sterling advocacy work representing Gina Miller in the Supreme Court case to determine if the government could trigger Article 50 to leave the EU without the authorisation of Parliament – Treasury Devil and fellow Blackstone member James Eadie QC represented the government. Meanwhile, in a major commercial case Robert Anderson QC led Tom Cleaver and Mark Vinall in acting for Dubai Islamic Bank in a $1.2 billion claim over credit fraud restructuring (the bank won a $440 million judgment).
Employment silk Paul Golding successfully defended another bank, Barclays, against a former employee's whistle-blowing and unfair dismissal claims, the first ever victory for a bank against a sacked foreign exchange trader. Elsewhere, Blackstone teams acted on both sides of a payments squabble between Radiohead and their former record label, and Kate Gallafent QC represented Jamaican sprinter Nesta Carter before the IOC Disciplinary Commission over a doping charge.
“I was struck by how many different areas one person's practice can span.”
“A lot of the work our members do overlaps, so they can work together a lot,” Gary Oliver tells us.Big cases can mean all hands on deck, and Blackstone's members have their hands on a lot of decks – newcomers were left “struck by how many different areas one person's practice can span.” (For instance, joint head of chambers Monica Carss-Frisk QC wins Chambers UK rankings in six practice areas single-handedly). This jack of all trades approach is encouraged by Blackstone from an early stage: Gary Oliver explains that “so many new starters think they're sure they know what they want to do. Five years later, they're in love with a completely different area of law.”
Our interviewees joined Blackstone with a passion for public law and an eye towards “the flexibility to shape your own practice and explore a variety of areas;” the set's reputation and superstar members were the cherry on top. The first stage of entry is applying for a mandated mini-pupillage via a “pretty standard” application form.
Hit the score threshold, and you'll be invited to a first interview. Here candidates are asked to argue their case on one of five set topics “with a legal flavour” provided beforehand. Recent examples included whether veils should be permitted in court and if women competing at Wimbledon should be paid the same as men. “What we want is a concise argument backed up by three or four points” explains Jane Mulcahy, “but you can adjust your position based on how the conversation progresses.”
“A little bit of good humour goes a long way. Remember to smile!”
Successful candidates undertake a three to (preferably) five-day mini-pupillage, working with a supervisor across multiple areas of law. The week includes a standardised written task over a day and a half. Mulcahy advises that “a little bit of good humour goes a long way. Remember to smile!” Ten to 15 hopefuls get a final 30-minute interview evaluating the mini-pupillage and their reasons for desiring pupillage.
While those reasons may vary, a common thread of high academic and extracurricular experience in the third sector or abroad runs through those Blackstone recruits. Among the 12 members under five years' call at the time of our visit, all hold Firsts or distinctions from top UK or overseas universities and most did the BCL or an LLM; in addition one had worked for a pro bono charity in Pakistan, another for a defence lawyer in Texas, and one has an astonishing 16 scholarships and prizes to their name. Prior work experience and anything that demonstrates a passion for advocacy will stand you in good stead – recent pupils include a former solicitor, a banker and an academic.
Pupillage itself consists of four three-month seats with notional focuses on commercial, public law, employment and EU/competition law respectively – “the work doesn't necessarily stick to one area each time, but the set tries to ensure everyone gets the same depth of experience.” As such, Blackstone may not be the place for somebody hoping to focus on one practice area. Pupils only receive work from their supervisors, so “you really get to build a relationship with them” and there's a greater chance of seeing a case through from start to finish.
The work rookies do on such cases ranges from constructing skeleton arguments and tackling the first draft of documents to discrete research tasks. Pupils are free to go beyond the practice area they're 'sat' in, and our interviewees had experienced “everything from small immigration matters and pro bono to working as part of a huge team on a commercial case.” One revealed “it's not so much that responsibility increases over time as that you become more helpful to your supervisor, so you get to do more.” The formative experience doesn't include chances to spend time on your feet in court, but standard 9am to 6pm working days inevitably lengthen when supervisors' cases go to trial.
Assessment consists of a whopping five written tasks and seven advocacy exercises (“the first three are tutorials, the final four assessed”) – their exact nature varies by supervisor. (There's also advocacy training from experiences trainers at Blackstone.) Despite the large volume, pupils appreciated “having discrete tasks to tackle. It may appear daunting, but I prefer it to worrying about a more vague system.” Jane Mulcahy explains that “feedback from supervisors is absolutely crucial – performance in the assessments is important, but above all it's how you've done across the whole of pupillage that determines tenancy.”
All members of chambers vote to decide who's kept on. “There's a legend that the clerks have a chart on a blackboard rating us all,” sources laughed, before quickly dispelling the myth – “the only competition is with yourself. There's space for everybody if you're good enough.” In 2017 all four pupils made the grade.
“It may appear daunting, but I prefer it to worrying about a more vague system.”
Astonishingly, Blackstone was only founded in 1985; this is not a set that stands by tradition. “It hadn't occurred to me that barristers and clerks would address each other by anything but their first name,” a source chuckled. In place of afternoon tea members often go for a fish and chips lunch or after work drinks on Fridays (all our interviewees were adamant that visiting mini-pupils should come along too). This social side “isn't enforced, but it's there for those who want to be involved,” a pupil told us. “The disadvantage of only working for your supervisor is not getting to meet other people, so it's nice to socialise with them outside work.” There's also an annual Christmas party and a summer soiree in Middle Temple Gardens. We've managed to wangle ourselves an invite a few times, so if you can too go along and enjoy the free booze and fancy nibbles.
Money can't buy happiness, but since 2016 Blackstone pupils have been taking home £65,000 (£5,000 more than previously) and they seemed pretty cheerful.
- No of silks 52
- No of juniors 55
- No of pupils 4
- Contact: Ms Julia Hornor, Chambers Director
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) Up to 4: 12 months duration
- Required degree grade: Minimum 2:1 (law or non-law)
- Income/award: £65,000 (£18,500 drawdown)
- Tenancies offered in the last three years: 8
Type of work undertaken
The commercial law work includes financial/business law, international trade, conflicts, sport, media and entertainment, intellectual property and professional negligence. Public law incorporates judicial review, acting both for and against central and local government agencies and other regulatory authorities. It also covers all areas affected by the impact of human rights and other aspects of administrative law. All aspects of employment law, including discrimination, are covered by Chambers’ extensive employment law practice, and Chambers’ EU work permeates practices across the board. Chambers recognises the increasingly important role which mediation has to play in dispute resolution. Seven members are CEDR accredited mediators.