If you're looking for top-notch commercial work at the Bar then look no further than Essex Court Chambers.
The only way is Essex
Essex Court Chambers is, rather confusingly, not actually located in Essex Court. Rather, it can be found just outside the Inns at 24 Lincoln's Inn Fields. It's just a few doors down from the weird and wonderful John Soane's Museum. And just as Soane stuffed his house full of countless awesome antiquities and works of art, so Essex Court is filled to the brim with prize specimens from the Commercial Bar. First junior clerk Ben Perry told us: “We're a full-service commercial set. We do everything from banking to shipping to commodities disputes.” The set is Chambers top-ranked for its commercial disputes work, as well as for international arbitration. Recently, its barristers secured a staggering $50 billion payout for shareholders of former Russian oil company Yukos in a case brought against the Russian government, the largest arbitration award in history.
Essex Court guarantees new tenants earnings of £100,000 in their first year.
When asked whether a particular type of person was attracted to such high-profile, high-paying commercial work, head of the pupillage committee Claire Blanchard QC had this to say: “There's no single type of person that works here. We come from a diverse range of backgrounds.” That said, junior members are not short of academic prowess: at the time of our visit, nine of the ten most junior tenants went to Oxbridge, all had Firsts and each had a slew of academic awards and prizes to show off. Being a high-flyer is a trend that feeds through to the senior end too, with an impressive four members making silk in 2015 and another in 2016, making the set silkier than a sultan's bedchamber. Also, in 2015 Essex Courter Simon Bryan QC was appointed Chief Justice of the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and three other British Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic, giving the set a bona fide statesman to add to its illustrious membership.
“Stand your ground – you will be challenged."
Lay clients include big corporates like Barclays and Deutsche Bank, but members also act for numerous individual clients. For example, in late 2015 Andrew Hochhauser QC advised Top Gear producer Oisin Tymon in his claim against Jeremy Clarkson and the BBC after his 'fracas' with the grumpy telly presenter. Many cases have an "international flavour" to them: members were involved in the the claim filed by Russian oligarch client Dmitry Rybolovlev – owner of AS Monaco FC – against Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier alleging fraud and money laundering through an offshore conduit. Barristers also secured a favourable settlement in a dispute among the owners of Britain's largest pitta bread bakery, ensuring the dough was kept in the right hands. The set's also Chambers-ranked for its shipping, tax, public international law, energy, fraud, and banking and finance work.
To pay the bills I have to pay
Essex Court usually takes four new pupils a year, though this isn't set in stone –“sometimes we have more, sometimes we have less.” It all depends on how many applicants fit the set's criteria. Claire Blanchard tells us these criteria include “promise in written and spoken advocacy, tenacity and the ability to work well in a team.” Essex Court uses the Pupillage Gateway and is relatively unusual in that it has only one interview round. This interview usually lasts about half an hour, with half of the time dedicated to discussing a problem question that candidates are given to prepare 30 to 40 minutes in advance. The problem is “not designed to test hard legal knowledge” but rather to “ascertain whether or not you have the skills to pay the bills.” Blanchard offered up an example of what you might be asked: “Something like, 'tell us about a situation when you had to persuade someone to accept your point of view'.” For more examples, check out the list of past questions on Essex Court's website. Our junior sources offered this advice as regards interviews: “Stand your ground – you will be challenged, so be prepared to fight your corner. Even if you're ultimately wrong, it's good to stand by your opinion.”
Ben Perry told us Essex Court views the whole of pupillage as “a learning experience" and as such, there is no cleft between the first and second sixes and pupils don't get up on their feet. Rather, they spend their first three months and last three months with their main supervisor, while in between they go all Pete Burns by spinning round, round, round (like a record) during Essex Court's 'rota', moving between six different supervisors, spending three weeks with each and sampling a rainbow of different practices.
“We're not on our feet because of the nature of the work we do and how big our clients and cases are."
Pupils do not get their own cases and are at the whim of their supervisors for assignments. Though this might seem restrictive, we were told this wasn't so. The first three months are a “grace period of sorts” and pupils spend the time working very closely with their supervisor. One source described a typical spread of work: “I did a lot of trial work; some of it was fraud-related and there was quite a lot of restitution work too.” Another source's assignments included “marine insurance, VAT, general commercial, shipping and banking work.” Interviewees told us that not having your own cases and not spending time on your feet isn't as prohibitive as it might sound –“we're not on our feet because of the nature of the work we do and how big our clients and cases are. We're encouraged to use pupillage to get experience and hone our skills.” Then, “once you gain tenancy, you're packed off to do a tour of the County Courts.” As part of pupillage, rookies undertake four training-focused assessments: one on conference skills – usually held in mid-December – and three on oral advocacy, the first of which takes place in February and the last in May.
When it comes to the final decision of who's made a tenant, “the members of the rota write a report on each pupil,” then they meet to discuss the reports as well as the assessments. After this meeting the group makes a recommendation to the head of chambers (currently Richard Jacobs QC) and that recommendation is put to a vote of all members. Claire Blanchard explains: “We do things this way because we think it's most fair: the people who make the recommendation are those who've seen a pupil's work.” During the run-up to this most tense of times, pupils are given the opportunity to work from home “so as not to feel too nervous about everyone knowing the tenancy decision except you.” In 2016 all three pupils gained tenancy.
Although they're part of a very well-oiled machine, Essex Courters do know how to let their wigs down too. Instead of afternoon tea, barristers have a more substantial chambers lunch to chow down on. This takes place every Friday and is “particularly well attended when fish and chips is on the menu.” It's an informal affair and a nice way “to catch up on all the latest chambers gossip.” Lunches aside, “the social scene's not mad – we don't go for drinks every evening,” a source said. “A lot of people have their own lives and everyone understands that.”
Though you'd be right to associate commercial law with a high-pressure environment, there's no prerogative for trainees to stay late every night. "Supervisors definitely don't encourage it, as they know it's hard to keep working consistently well if you're completely knackered. You can always finish off work at home in the evening or, if you have to, on the weekend.”
The Lord Chief Justice, John Thomas, was previously a member of Essex Court, as were Dame Rosalyn Higgins, Sir Christopher Greenwood and Lord Steyn. Pupils will be following in illustrious footsteps.
Essex Court Chambers
24 Lincoln's Inn Fields,
- No of silks 49
- No of juniors 38
- No of pupils at least 3
- Contact Hayleigh Liney or Joanne Cooper email@example.com
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) Up to four 12-month pupillages
- Pupillage award £65,000
- Tenancies 4