This icon of the Commercial Bar sprays out in various directions, a bit like the fountain it overlooks.
Drenched in accolades
“The atmosphere hasn't changed,” senior clerk Alex Taylor tells us of Fountain Court today compared to when he first joined straight from school as a 16-year-old in 1979. “It's supportive, friendly and open, with outstanding members.” But “exciting” developments over the past year or two mean “there's real momentum” at this top commercial set right now: significant lateral hires (QCs and juniors), the launch of a Singapore office, a new commercial crime practice and – the change most affecting people's daily lives here – major expansion into sparklingly renovated offices next door in the building vacated by 39 Essex Chambers (who've moved to Chancery Lane). “It had always been our ambition to get everyone under one roof,” says Taylor, referring to the two annexes near the main office. “We didn't want to lose this iconic location, and it was always the dream to get next door as well. It provides surety over the next decade or two and room to expand.” We got the tour and can report that the new digs are modern, airy, air-conditioned, have a smart clerks' room at the centre of operations, and even boast showers in the basement for the keen cyclists here. Six or seven months of renovations were completed in July 2016, with walls knocked through to connect the old building with the new. The fountain that gives the set its name has been an oasis of tranquillity behind bustling Fleet Street for over 300 years.
"Baby juniors volunteer at the Bethnal Green Legal Advice Clinic on Thursday nights. It's worth doing though it's hard to fit in – you see things you wouldn't otherwise see. The quid pro quo is you don't pay members' fees for the first year of tenancy."
Fountain Court has more than its fair share of illustrious members who have gone on to jobs like Lord Chancellor, Attorney General and very senior judge – Tom Bingham, Leslie Scarman and Henry Brooke, to name a few. “We've lost a couple to politics – Lord Goldsmith and Lord Falconer – though we still work with them both,” adds Taylor. One newish tenant described FC as “the set with the best pedigree of those I applied to,” while a current pupil said it's “high-achieving, at the top of its game.” Indeed, Chambers UK ranks all FC's core practice areas in either Band 1 or 2 – among the best in the land. These include banking and finance, insurance, aviation (“baggage handling claims, flight delays”), general commercial dispute resolution, professional negligence (“a great area for juniors to cut their teeth”), and fraud. “It's difficult to define our work as there's lots of crossover between banking, insurance, regulatory... it's multi-category. The lion's share is banking or finance-related.” But dig a little deeper and you'll find more than you might expect from a finance-heavy practice, like sports law, oil and gas, and “some judicial review and public law work – people wouldn't think we'd work with Leigh Day, but we do.”
One long-running, complex litigation involves shareholders in Turkcell, Turkey's biggest telecoms operator: Fountain Court is representing the Dutch subsidiary (Sonera) of a Scandinavian telecoms company (Telia), and was instructed by Sullivan & Cromwell in New York, while the court is in the Caribbean. Elsewhere, Clifford Chance instructed FC barristers to represent Monaco-based Unaoil in its SFO bribery investigation, and the set recently won a major judgment for Sumitomo Corporation in a dispute involving energy assets.
Kingdom of the mind
Previously all applicants were required to complete a three-day assessed mini-pupillage before applying, but because the Gateway timetable has moved, those applying in 2017 for pupillage starting in 2018 won't have to. Things will revert to normal after that. You should note, however, that two-day minis continue to be available and you should try to do one if you can. Written applications are sifted in a “double-blind review – two members of the pupillage committee review them, with names removed.” The current application process has two interviews. The first is a 15-minute “ice-breaker” to chat about your CV and interests, with an analytical question thrown in for good measure. “It's fairly informal, with questions you should expect like 'why the Bar?' and 'why this chambers?', plus one topical non-legal question we ask everyone.” Make sure you read the papers that morning: when smoking legislation hit the headlines, for example, the question that year was 'should smoking in public places be banned?', and you can expect something similar.
"It levels the law and non-law applicants."
Around 12 to 15 candidates are invited back for the final clincher, a 40ish-minute interview before a panel of four to seven members of varying seniority. “It sounds intimidating but it's actually not,” committee member and pupil supervisor James Duffy reassures us. Beforehand, you're given “a problem that's legal in nature but doesn't require legal knowledge – in fact, you're not allowed to cite law, so it levels the law and non-law applicants. You present an argument – it's an advocacy test – and members then ask challenging questions.” The case study usually invokes the laws of fictional European country Ruritania. “Then there's another moral question” which tests candidates' “ability to think on their feet.” Niamh Cleary, another pupillage committee member, says: “It tends to be topical, like doping in sports. In my year, the News of the World had closed down and the question was about the rights of journalists.” We heard another recent topic was whether voting should be made compulsory.
Neither fish nor fowl
The first three months of pupillage are unassessed; pupils do 'live' work, only for their supervisor, and there are no formal assessments like advocacy or written tests. Current and former pupils explain: “I didn't do a single piece of dead work. There are no artificially created exercises. This helps camaraderie – you know you are not competing with others on a piece of work.” Each pupil sits in a new supervisor's room for their first three seats, then returns to their first supervisor for the last seat. “After Christmas most of your work is for other members. You'll have worked for 20 to 25 by the end. You learn a lot working with different barristers. Your supervisor is the gatekeeper for your workload, makes sure the Bar Standard Board boxes are all ticked, and ensures you're not working too much for the same person. The aim is not to overload you.”
Members give feedback to the pupil and to the pupillage committee, who by tenancy decision time in June/July will have a dossier of 20 to 25 reports to review. Pupils' written work is assessed – the core of which includes skeleton arguments, legal research notes and pleadings. Although they attend court with other members, pupils don't spend time on their feet and aren't assessed on oral advocacy. They also get regular informal feedback, and a mid-pupillage review around February “looks at reports to date to see if there are any problems or areas the pupil is missing out on.” Each piece of work “typically lasts three to five days, though a barrister may say, 'Do the best you can on this in a day.'” In 2016 three of four pupils gained tenancy.
"Occasionally I'd work a day on the weekend, though this wasn't imposed."
Getting on with people and doing high-quality work rather than putting in needless hours are the keys to success, we heard: “As there's no distinction between the first and second six, work continues in the same vein. I was given as much time as I needed to do a good job. I can't remember a member ever chasing me or moving a deadline forward. Occasionally I'd work a day on the weekend, though this wasn't imposed. It happened if I felt I needed to catch up on written work, for example if I'd been in court in the week. You're not expected to do this – if anything, it's frowned upon.”
What makes a good applicant? “Academics are number one. Then, demonstrating interest in advocacy, like mooting, and having something of a hinterland, a life.” CVs with “only law on them” are less appealing: “We're interested in that trip to China and other travel.” Culturally, “we're quite a diverse bunch that can't be pigeonholed, with views and tastes across the spectrum, from people who are into high-brow classical music to those who like talking about the latest episode of 'The Killing'.” As one mark of collegiality, there's a tradition of pupils and juniors “going for fish and chips every Friday lunchtime at Inner Temple Hall. Certain QCs still go too!”
“We're friendly and work collaboratively. Pupils aren't competing against each other. We don't want Michael Gove-style backstabbers!”
Fountain Court Chambers
- No of silks 34
- No of juniors 45
- No of pupils Currently 4
- Contact Lucy Scutt, pupillage co-ordinator, [email protected], (020) 7842 3702
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) up to four 12 month pupillages
- Pupillage award £65,000
- Tenancies over the last 8 years 20 out of 25 pupils have been offered tenancy
A mini-pupillage usually lasts two days, during which time you will sit with two or three members and learn about life at Fountain Court Chambers. Although mini-pupillages will not be formally assessed or be a precondition to taking part in the application process for 2018 pupillages, applicants for pupillage are strongly encouraged to apply for a mini-pupillage. Fountain Court will contribute £150 towards your expenses upon completion of your mini-pupillage.
There are three mini-pupillage rounds each year (over the Christmas, Easter and Summer University holidays).