With just over 100 tenants, advocacy-centric Crown Office Chambers is the biggest common law set at the Bar, and it expects even bigger things from its pupils.
Following a 2000 merger between Two Crown Office Row and One Paper Buildings, a civil and commercial powerhouse was born. “You could also describe us as an insurance set,” mused one junior tenant, “because most of our work has something to do with insurance.” 'Insurance' covers a broad array of work though, and Chambers UK awards COC top rankings for health and safety, personal injury and property damage – all insurance-related areas. It also recognises barristers' expertise in product liability and professional negligence (again, both relate to insurance) and international arbitration. This last area, says pupil supervisor Dermot Woolgar, “is one which is growing. It's already an important part of what we do, so if working abroad is something that interests you, you'd have the opportunity to do so as a tenant here.”
Senior clerk Andy Flanagan makes an educated estimate of the spread of COC's work, venturing that around 40% is PI and clinical negligence, 24% construction and commercial, 24% insurance and professional indemnity, and about 12% criminal regulatory, health and safety, and environment. Barristers act for both claimants and defendants and a junior member explains what doing defendant-side work means in practice: “Your client is usually a large organisation and/or their insurance company, but the claimant can be anyone, which keeps the work interesting.”
Personal injury and clin neg abound at this set, along with commercial and insurance work.
COC's barristers frequently work with some of the world's biggest insurers. Ben Quiney QC recently persuaded the High Court that Allianz was right to decline to pay one claimant, on the basis that the latter's director had deliberately set fire to or procured arson of his business premises. Big bad blazes seem to crop up a lot in the set's insurance work, but where there's smoke there's not always fire: James Medd successfully acted as junior counsel for AXA in a long-running dispute against Ted Baker, regarding whether their policy covered loss of profits following employee theft (it didn't).
All pupils also get to experience a stint in personal injury. Silks and juniors who practise in this area are frequently instructed on high-value brain injury and orthopaedic-related liability claims. Head of chambers Richard Lynagh QC recently defended a company which provided a package of games for a 'health and fun' day for members of the RAF, during which an aircraftman suffered an accident that rendered him tetraplegic. Members have also dealt with asbestos-related disease claims.
COC operates outside the Pupillage Gateway (though it has in the past always accepted applications in line with the Gateway's deadline). Given this, there's no excuse for not tailoring your application as much as possible to this set in particular. Pupillage committee member Carlo Taczalski advises applicants to “tell us why they'd be an asset to this chambers, and show that they know what distinguishes us from a straight commercial set, or a straight criminal/regulatory/health and safety set.” From the 150 or so initial applicants, about 30 are selected for a first-round interview with two members of chambers. “It's based around the application form,” we're told, “perhaps with a couple of on-the-spot questions thrown in testing your ability to apply common sense to a situation.” To get your foot in the door and make it to the first round, a pupil advises not to underestimate your quirks: “Believing mooting experience and a First from an excellent university are enough is wishful thinking. Don't hide the things on your CV that have nothing to do with law” – things, that is, which show you are a strong advocate or a high achiever.
Ten to 15 candidates are invited to a second-round interview, where they face a panel of up to six members of chambers. Taczalski explains: “We give interviewees something like an insurance policy and say 'read it and then interpret this clause.' Or we might ask, 'how do you think this situation is going to be dealt with under the policy?' You don't need to know any law, but you need to be able to read the words closely and pick up on the nuances of our questions.” Two or three pupillage offers are then made.
"Don't hide the things on your CV that have nothing to do with law.”
Right from the beginning, pupils are also exposed to other members' work, usually their supervisors' room-mates'. A source reported spending “almost half” their time with their supervisor's neighbour, which meant “getting exposure to so many different things.” While pupils don't get to pick one supervisor over another, “there's a lot of flexibility in terms of asking to see things. I was taken to a conference with a criminal silk on corporate manslaughter, which was so educational,” one shared.
Court experience comes thick and fast once the second six kicks in. “I've been on my feet three days a week from week two of my second six,” a pupil told us proudly. “We receive all the training we need beforehand, but once they've prepped us, we're just flung in and off we go.” The cases taken on by pupils are “mainly road traffic accidents, but not exclusively. We also do MoJ Stage 3 hearings, in which liability has been admitted but the parties can't agree damages, so you argue on how much the personal injuries – like whiplash – are worth.”
The tenancy decision is announced in July, and “only people who have come in contact with the pupil” get to have a say. During the tenancy meeting members go through pupils' work, all of which is assessed according to a formal scoring system. Throughout the year, there are three written exercises and four advocacy exercises, the latter being “tricky but fairly standard applications similar to what you'll be doing once you're a tenant,” a pupil explained. After each exercise is completed, pupils are given “really detailed feedback.” You'll do well if you demonstrate you're “intellectually able, personable, able to inspire confidence in clients, and efficient with your time,” says Dermot Woolgar. There is room for error: a pupil reassured us that “if one of your exercises goes really badly, then there's still a decent chance they'll say 'well, the rest of your work is good' and won't penalise you.” In 2016, both pupils and a third-sixer took up tenancy.
“Everyone is sociable and keen to help each other out. This is a top set and the standards are high, but it's clear everyone wants you to do well. The ethos is modern and relaxed,” a current pupil told us. Every Friday, members, pupils and clerks get together for drinks in the upstairs conference room, which all agreed was a “great way to meet everyone and hear about their cases, but also to have a more sociable chat, for instance about how England is doing in the cricket.” Taczalski stresses that being a good communicator is a significant asset: “We see ourselves as specialists in advocacy rather than just black letter law, so it's particularly important to be able to communicate effectively with a broad range of people.”
A COC pupil's tip for the written application: “Be succinct! If you're not, you're automatically not displaying one of the key skills for success at the Bar.”
Crown Office Chambers
2 Crown Office Row,
- No of silks 22
- No of juniors 80
- No of pupils up to 3
- Contact Carlo Taczalski
- Method of application chambers’ application form, downloadable from chambers’ website
- Pupillages (pa) up to three per year, 12 months
- Income £65,000, comprising £55,000 award plus £10,000 guaranteed earnings
- Tenancies offered in last three years 8
Junior tenants also undertake a range of work with an emphasis on developing advocacy skills; in addition to working on their own paperwork and accepting junior briefs, junior tenants in their first years of practice are generally in court several times per week. Tenants have the opportunity to specialise as their practices develop, by which time chambers considers that their blend of early advocacy and advisory experience gives them the edge over their contemporaries at many ‘pure commercial’, and indeed ‘pure’ common law/personal injury sets. It also keeps work varied and allows members to make a more informed decisions to specialise in a given field or fields.