Civil and commercial set Crown Office Chambers stands out for its size, insurance work and the lashings of advocacy on offer.
A happy accident
Have you had an accident at work that wasn't your fault? If you've seen adverts with a similar strap line, some terrible acting and slow-motion slips or falls, you'll understand such misfortune means potential business for law firms – and by extension barristers – representing both claimants and insurers. Among other things, Crown Office Chambers is one of the best sets around for personal injury, though its cases can be of an entirely different magnitude to 'Terry's twisted ankle' – think asbestos-related industrial diseases and catastrophic brain injuries.
Senior managing clerk Andy Flanagan tells us that personal injury, industrial disease and clinical negligence matters make up 40% of the set's income. At their core, these PI cases are matters of insurance, and members further tap this vein with work related to property damage, health and safety, product liability and professional negligence, where insurance also plays a major role. “Probably 70% of the work we do has insurers in the background,” says Flanagan. “Many probably see us as an 'insurer chambers', and the majority of our work is on the defendant side, but we are trying to slightly redress that balance with more claimant work.”
Continuing the breakdown of work, Flanagan estimates 35% is construction, professional indemnity, international arbitration, commercial and other insurance work. “We do quite a broad range of things under the commercial/construction umbrella," says Flanagan, "from big property damage cases related to fires and explosions to construction arbitrations in the Middle East, and from leasehold renewal disputes to company insolvencies.”
Health and safety and environment work represent about 15% of income, while product liability clocks in at 10%. Members' toil doesn't go unrecognised: Chambers UK gives the set top rankings for PI, property damage, and health and safety, with international construction arbitration, professional negligence and product liability following close behind.
In one recent case, members successfully countered a charge of gross negligence manslaughter against the site manager of a construction project where a woman was crushed by a falling window frame; the manager was instead convicted of a health and safety breach. Another case had a member defending Tata Steel against group litigation brought by former employees of British Steel who claimed to have developed diseases like lung cancer from the fumes of the coke ovens. In yet another case, a member was instructed on behalf of the insurer Aviva to deal with the flooding of a property, where the floodwater had originated from the kitchen of celebrity chef Aldo Zilli's restaurant.
In a gown out of town for Crown
Pupillage secretary Carlo Taczalski tells us “pupils do seats which allow them to see commercial construction, PI, clinical negligence, health and safety, and other insurance disputes.” There are two three-month seats in the first six, while the second six is a single stretch with one supervisor. While supervisors act as the “gatekeepers” of a pupil's work, “you're also encouraged to do work for other members to fill in the gaps, so you can have as broad an experience as possible." Supervisors' roommates in particular are often more involved than other members. An interviewee told us: "I've been to two criminal trials, one of which was in Preston, just to see criminal health and safety work in practice.”
Pupils do a mix of live work and work their supervisor has already completed. Such 'dead' work is more common in the first seat. A source told us: “I drafted advices, defences and particulars of claim, and I got immediate feedback and got to see my supervisor's version. I was able to compare the two and slowly build up a portfolio of templates to help me learn good habits and iron out bad ones.” Pupils also “go to lots of conferences and Masters' applications, and if someone has an interesting trial on you're encouraged to go along to that too.”
"There's a lot more travel involved than I had expected."
The second six provides court experience in such volume that it's actually “the policy of the set to make sure you have two days blocked out each week to do work for your supervisor as well.” And it starts right from the off. One source told us: “My calendar was populated with court visits before I even started the second six. Being allowed out on my own was very exciting and made me feel I was properly doing the job.” One source told us: “There's a lot more travel involved than I had expected. Most of my cases have been in or near London, but I've been to the West Country and down to the South Coast too.” Pupils often pick up road traffic accident cases, dealing with applications to strike out and MoJ stage 3 hearings “in which the court decides the appropriate level of damages.”
Carlo Taczalski ventures that “most people here are quite fun and laid back.” That picture was backed up by our junior sources who told us “there's a very good open-door policy, both practically and figuratively. You can make social calls, borrow books or solve work problems." There's no chambers tea, but everyone does gather for "nibbles and drinks on a Friday, which is pretty indicative of the atmosphere. The hierarchy which is inherent in chambers is not so evident.” There's also a Christmas party and a women's drinks event.
As for the pupils, once source told us: “I met up with the other pupils before we started; we went for drinks and started a Whatsapp group. We're encouraged to be a supportive unit.” The set also has its own system to provide pupils with regular support. A source told us: “Last year's junior tenants are your 'aunts and uncles' – they are excluded from the tenancy decision so that juniors can ask stupid questions safe in the knowledge supervisors won't know about them. They handle pastoral stuff too – it's amazing to have the support of someone who knows the ropes.”
“Last year's junior tenants are your 'aunts and uncles'”
The tenancy decision itself is based on three written assessments and four oral advocacy exercises, as well as the day-to-day performance of pupils, summed up in reports from everyone they've worked with. We heard that “there is a grace period of a couple of months at the start of pupillage: any good work you do is still counted, but any absolute howlers aren't.” All the additional assessments mean “the biggest concern in the second six is balancing your own practice, impressing your supervisor and completing assessments.” Each oral exercise consists of an application – “just a very everyday regular thing” – while the written exercises require a fortnight of preparation: “two of them are chambers classics, while one is completely new.” Reviews at Christmas and Easter run through pupils' assessment results, letting them know if they're on track.
There are 100 to 200 hopefuls who submit an application to the set every year (outside the Pupillage Gateway). Carlo Taczalski is straightforward in his advice for the application: “Give evidence for what you are saying and be interesting – we don't want to be stuck with someone who is boring as anything! I particularly remember an applicant a few years ago who managed to evidence a whole series of things on their application form based on a certain memorable holiday.” We'd counsel against going on and on about your holidays too much – extracurriculars are probably a better pool in which to fish for evidence of your skills and abilities. Taczalski remarks: “It's important to not just come out of university with a First and nothing else.” Among the current most junior tenants are one individual who previously worked for an online start-up, one who'd spent time in the legal department of an oil company, one who'd interned with two international law firms, and the inaugural winner of The Times 2TG Moot competition.
Twenty to 40 candidates go through to the first-round interview, which “has historically been based more on the application form, but going forward may include a relatively straightforward contractual or tortious problem question.” Ten to 15 people go through to a second-round interview where they face a panel of six people. Interviewees are asked to examine some papers and prepare a piece of oral advocacy making an application as if they are in court. Then they face a series of questions, which are the same for everyone.
Senior managing clerk Andy Flanagan is the man who members have to thank for doing away with the use of 'sir' and 'ma'am' at Crown Office.
Crown Office Chambers
2 Crown Office Row,
- No of silks 23
- No of juniors 77
- 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.