If you enjoy getting your brain teased, consider Erskine Chambers, where mind-bending questions of corporate and insolvency law are the order of the day.
Erskine for it
For advice on company law, big businesses turn to big law firms, who in turn go to Erskine Chambers when they're stumped. “We've always been known as 'the company law set'," senior clerk Mike Hannibal reflects. (Hannibal was replaced as senior clerk jointly by Mark Swallow and Chris Reade in early 2016.) But the set's work is more varied: Erskine's practice can be roughly divided into company litigation work, corporate advisory work, and insolvency and restructuring, and spans both domestic and offshore instructions. So seriously does Erskine take its connections to City and offshore firms that it sends new tenants on two three-month secondments: one to the corporate department of a large City firm, and the other to a firm in an offshore (and frequently rather sunny) jurisdiction.
"People think that company law lacks human interest, but there are some great characters behind every company."
Insolvency cases range from “small bankruptcy petitions in Reading County Court,” to matters linked to economy-crippling meltdowns like those of Lehman Brothers and Anglo Irish Bank. Peter Arden QC recently worked on a case related to the near-collapse of the Co-op Bank in 2013 and two other members acted for failed Icelandic bank Kaupthing in a matter related to the sale of supermarket chain Somerfield. In one recent company law case, two members defended Viking River Cruises against a claim of several hundred million pounds over a so-called 'Bermudan statutory squeeze-out mechanism' by which a 95% majority of shareholders forced the minority to sell their shares.
Somewhat unusually Erskine's barristers also undertake advisory work on corporate and financial transactions. For example, members advised Vodafone on the disposal of its stake in Verizon and counselled the Qatar Investment Authority on its bid to buy Canary Wharf. Head of chambers Michael Todd QC recently advised Virgin Money on its £2 billion IPO, working alongside a partner at Allen & Overy. As well as working with the magic and silver circles, Erskine also gets a lot of instructions from large regional firms. Going forward, the set intends to build on existing relationships and promote its strengths in areas like financial services and asset recovery.
Pupillage consists of either three or four seats, the first of which is spent shadowing and doing work only for your own supervisor. At this stage “there's not as much pressure” and “you're given time to find your way.” When pupils switch to their second supervisor they begin to branch out and accept work from other members of chambers. “It's understood that you can't do work for everyone,” explained one baby junior, but the idea is for pupils to get exposure to as many different practice areas as possible. “The aim is for pupils to have worked for at least three quarters of members by the time of the tenancy decision,” explains pupillage committee member Ben Griffiths.
Pupils don't get to do any work in their own right, so “if your dream is to come to the Bar and be on your feet every day, this may not be the set for you." On the other hand, Erskine isn't “one of those sets where you're just given your supervisor's old papers to go over.” Even first-seaters do live work, and tasks range from “writing research notes and preparing the first draft of skeleton arguments,” to “going through transcripts and working out what questions the other side might ask.” Pupil supervisors are chosen from all the areas in which chambers practises, so pupils get a wide spread of work.
“As a barrister, you're always being assessed. You're only as good as your last case.”
Each pupil supervisor fills out a report at the end of every seat, which allows the pupillage committee to track a pupil's trajectory and make sure they're on the right path. While these reports aren't shared with the pupils themselves, pupils do attend a review at the end of their first seat. The tenancy decision is made nine months into pupillage. Every piece of work is assessed, and every member of chambers gets a vote in the decision, “so it's important that you try to produce your best work every time,” says Ben Griffiths. That said, “if you make a mistake on a piece of work for someone, we understand that that may not be a true reflection of your ability,” says pupillage committee head David Mabb QC. Pupils like the approach. “It's a realistic reflection of life in practice,” said one. “As a barrister, you're always being assessed. You're only as good as your last case.” The set took on its single pupil in 2015 and did not have any pupils in 2015/16.
Use your loaf
“Erskine is very intellectual, even by the standards of the Bar,” said one pupil, “so you need to enjoy dealing with problems that make your brain hurt.” Chambers recruits up to two pupils a year, with some years seeing the set take one, or even none at all. “We don't pursue growth for its own sake,” explains Mike Hannibal. “We want to make sure we retain our existing intellectual calibre.” To be in with a chance of an interview, you don't need to have done a mini-pupillage at Erskine. But David Mabb recommends doing a few “well-targeted” minis, either at Erskine or similar sets, in order to demonstrate an interest in company and insolvency law. Another thing that's a must is mooting experience. “We may not go to court every day,” said one junior, “but you do need to be a good oral advocate to work here.”
"You need to enjoy dealing with problems that make your brain hurt.”
If you make it through the paper sift of applications, it's through to the first of two rounds of interviews. The first round is “relatively informal” and “designed to test whether you can identify and articulate key legal issues.” Interviewees have 20 minutes to study a legal problem, which he or she then discusses with two members of chambers. The second round is similar, but “more thorough,” recalled a baby junior. It takes place in front of a panel of four or five barristers and sources recalled “feeling under pressure to defend my opinion, like you would in front of a judge.”
All our sources agreed that an ability to get along with everyone was important at Erskine. For a set which once boasted a silk nicknamed 'God' in the City, Erskine is refreshingly informal. “No one is required to make anyone tea or coffee, or indeed beverages of any kind,” joked one pupil of afternoon tea. Erskine's small size certainly helps: it has 30 barristers and a small clerks room, so “everyone knows everybody's name.” Barristers and clerks are on first-name terms and nobody calls anybody 'sir' or 'madam'. There's a rather law firm-esque “open-door policy,” although since we observed that a lot of doors were shut when we visited, this should perhaps be interpreted as an 'easily-opened door policy'.
Socialising is generally done on a one-to-one, rather than a chambers-wide basis, but Erskine does host “end of term drinks and at least two Christmas parties.” The first of these Yuletide festivities is a formal affair attended by all members (and their better halves), while the latter is less formal “and usually sees the clerks and juniors end up in a bar until the small hours.” The high point of the Erskine social calendar is undoubtedly the chambers ski trip, which takes place over the course of a (very) long weekend in February.
To boost younger members' profile among big law firms, Erskine runs a number of client events, which have recently included urban golf and 'ping pong and pizza' outings.
33 Chancery Lane,
- No of silks 10
- No of juniors 20
- No of pupils 1
- Contact Diane Cousins
- Method of application Application form on www.erskinechambers.com/pupillage
- Pupillages (pa)Up to two 12-month pupillages Income £60,000
- Tenancies Three in the past three years
Type of work undertaken