A tempting mix of commercial, competition and public law work is on offer at this most prestigious of sets.
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Brick Court is like an armadillo, or Professor Green: hard on the outside, but surprisingly soft on the inside. Step inside its sleek cream-coloured building and your feet will be immediately cushioned by the fluffiest of carpets. Float over to one of the golden lifts, and head to the top floor: the sky's the limit on Brick Court's sprawling roof terrace, with romantic views of an intersection of rooftops set against the peaks of London's most famous landmarks.
This set reaches the heights in more ways than one: while Brick Court does not disclose its revenue figures, it is certainly one of the Bar's highest-grossing outfits, and may even be the top set in the capital by total income. Head count is booming too. “We recently took on nine juniors in the space of 18 months," says joint senior clerk Julian Hawes. "We're quickly heading towards the 100-member mark.” Lateral hiring has always been a strategic priority for Hawes, who believes it's a sure way of maintaining high standards.
This is chiefly a commercial set but also has strong EU/competition and public law expertise. Julian Hawes estimates that the revenue from these three areas splits roughly 60/30/10, but as public law fees are lower the actual volume of this type of work is higher than this split suggests. Some members specialise in one area; others work in several and sometimes there's a significant overlap.
Chambers UK awards Brick Court a shower of rankings for its know-how, marking it out as one of the most highly regarded sets in the country. It's ranked in over a dozen areas, receiving top-tier recognition for its core areas of commercial disputes, European law and competition, and high rankings for public law, energy, banking and finance, telecoms, insurance and professional negligence too.
Brick Court is one of the few sets with a female (joint) head of chambers, in the shape of Helen Davies QC (click here to read our Big Interview with Helen Davies). Davies has worked on some landmark cases of the past few years, including the Abramovich/Berezovsky saga and the BSkyB v Ofcom pay-TV dispute. Other recent work highlights for the set include commercial silk (and fellow joint head of chambers) Mark Howard QC appearing in the Supreme Court on behalf of Lloyds in a £3.3 billion financial dispute about contingent convertible securities or 'cocos'.
On the EU/competition side, newly appointed silk Sarah Lee acted for the government, instructed by the Treasury Solicitor, in a case that saw the European Court of Justice rule that Iran's largest privately owned bank had been unlawfully sanctioned by the EU for almost six years. And in the public law arena Paul Bowen QC successfully represented the family of Connor Sparrowhawk, proving that his and his family's human rights were violated by the Southern Health NHS Trust when it failed to prevent his death from drowning after he had an epileptic seizure in the bath while in their care.
“... outstanding intellectual ability.”
On your marks
The application process is a marathon intellectual contest. First, aspiring pupils are encouraged to apply for an assessed mini-pupillage before submitting a pupillage application. Then you apply via the Pupillage Gateway. Each application is anonymised to remove unconscious bias and then evaluated by two or more members. They look for “outstanding intellectual ability,” says pupillage committee chair Mike Bools QC, “but not necessarily in law.” Those who impress are invited to a 20-minute initial interview, where they're given a non-legal conundrum to argue and are then “probed with questions testing their ability to reason and to maintain a cohesive argument.”
Those who prove they know their stuff are invited to do a mini-pupillage (if they haven't done one already), lasting a week or sometimes less. The mini involves sitting with one or two supervisors, who assign you work, take you along to court and formally assesses you throughout. Candidates are also given one piece of written work to complete –“usually a short piece of advice” – and a panel that hasn't come into contact with the candidates blind marks this based on a fixed grading scheme. The pupillage committee then looks at everything each applicant has done so far – application, interview, mini-pupillage, written exercise – and marks them out of 32.
The top 15 or 20 candidates are then invited to a final interview. Applicants are sent a case study a week before the interview and are asked to write a short skeleton argument to put to the panel; the case is one you are “unlikely to have studied” in uni or law school – recently it was the Court of Appeal decision in Versloot Dredging v HDI Gerling. As well as being questioned on the case study, expect to be posed an ethical question – "when I was interviewed it was about assisted dying,” one source revealed. Then finally the decision is taken who to offer pupillage.
"If you're really good, it doesn't matter where you've come from.”
Trawling through junior members' lists of accolades, awards, previous work experience, and triple Firsts on Brick Court's website is a daunting experience, but sources impressed upon us that prospective candidates should not be put off. Mike Bools comments: "We're are very much not just for people with double Firsts from Oxbridge, but inevitably our system does throw up people with achievements like that.” A baby junior adds: “You do need to have done well at university, but if you're really good, it doesn't matter where you've come from.”
Take the cake
Rigorous assessment is not something which ends when you step through Brick Court's doors as a newly minted pupil. Pupillage here is heavily assessed, as Brick Court believes in standardised, formal tests to ensure fairness when it comes to the tenancy decision. Monthly advocacy exercises take place between September and April/May. The first two are unassessed, “which was really helpful,” a pupil told us, while the rest are formally evaluated.
In March and June, pupils undertake a total of six written exercises, also assessed, which take a week each. “We assign them at 9am on Monday morning and they're due at 5pm on Friday," says Mike Bools. "That's to avoid people spending their weekends working.” All pupils get the same piece of work and you should have enough time to complete it. A pupil reported: “Your time is protected during those five days and you aren't given any other tasks.”
"I've become so much better at advocacy."
Pupils sit with three supervisors during their time at Brick Court, one from each of the three main practice areas. "Often there's some crossover into other areas too," a source informed us. Pupils assist their supervisors with whatever they are working on at the time and attend court with them perhaps once every three weeks. One interviewee had “seen a trial from start to finish, which was amazing – it got very lively!”
It's increasingly rare for Brick Court's pupils to be given any of their own cases or spend time on their feet (though we hear it can happen). With this in mind, a current pupil assured us that “the advocacy exercises go a long way in making up for not spending time on your feet. You receive extensive feedback each time. I've become so much better at advocacy during my time here.”
One interviewee described the social scene at Brick Court as “a steady stream of parties and events, often including clients too." And, "although there's no enforced socialising, when there's a big event like a book launch or even just a seminar, pupils are always invited.”
There are no dusty traditions like daily tea here, but members understand the importance of fine confectionery and we hear that classy cakes from Konditor & Cook are brought in for special occasions. At lunchtime “gaggles of people” leave chambers to head out for a bite to eat together, while “the pupils are really close.” Recently, the current cohort bonded over the unfortunate consequences of the “dangerous” scheduling of a juniors' Christmas party the night before the main chambers shindig. Hair of the dog, anyone?
“If we all meet the standard, we're all kept on. If none of us do, none of us are. So there's no sense of competition among pupils.” In 2017, two of three gained tenancy.
Brick Court Chambers
7-8 Essex Street,
- No of silks 41
- No of juniors: 47
- No of pupils 4 (currently)
- Contact Mrs Lyana Peniston, pupillage manager, 020 7520 9881
- Method of application: Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) Four 12-months pupillages
- Tenancies: 7 offered in the last 3 years
Brick Court is fully committed to equality of opportunity and considers it important that family and professional life should be compatible. We are particularly proud of the fact that all female tenants with children have continued in practice at Brick Court.