Whether it’s oligarchs, oil, banks or brassieres, One Essex Court is the slickest outfit in town when it comes to high-value international commercial disputes.
Discovery One (Essex Court)
Marking its 50th birthday in 2016, One Essex Court has spent the past half-century forging a reputation as one of the most polished commercial sets in the business. Sleek, monochromatic and boasting some truly bijou boardroom nibbles (bergamot-infused organic chocolate anybody?), its Middle Temple digs ooze a futuristic clarity and sophistication that wouldn’t look out of place in a Kubrickian space odyssey.
OEC’s astronomical reputation for commercial litigation, banking and finance, civil fraud, international arbitration and energy has earned it Chambers UK rankings in the top two tiers in these very competitive fields. Below these main money-spinners, further acclaim is garnered by a throng of specialists dealing with competition, tax, insolvency and intellectual property disputes. The set also has an office in Singapore, and most instructions contain some kind of international element, leading one interviewee to joke: “You won’t be dealing with any quibbles between English shoemakers here!” 'Cobblers!' we wanted to cry in reply, but this source was right: if you’re looking to work on high-value international disputes for banks, investors, commercial enterprises and wealthy private clients, then One Essex Court is definitely worth checking out.
Senior clerk Darren Burrows says he tries to get even this set's “busiest and most revered members” to take on the mantle of supervisor.
One recent case saw barristers combine their insolvency and financial nous, successfully winning €26 million in damages for a company which had invested in Danish bank Roskilde before its 2009 bankruptcy. Closer to home, civil fraud and banking have been keeping head of chambers Lord Grabiner QC busy: he was recently commissioned to investigate the Bank of England’s potentially fraudulent liquidity operations between 2007 and 2008.
Competition law is one of the areas OEC is seeking to strengthen and expand. The high-flying team recently acted for Ryanair in a damages claim against Esso Italiana. Apparently Esso had been in cahoots with a number of other jet fuel suppliers, forming a cartel which pushed up prices for its airborne Italian clients. Fossil fuels are also big business for the energy team, whose stock of direct advisory work – BP and Shell are just some of the big multinationals on the books – is complemented by instructions involving some very wealthy individuals. A lucrative recent example saw members defend Russian oligarch Leonid Lebedev against an anti-suit injunction application. Lebedev had previously raised a $2 billion joint venture sale claim against fellow oligarchs Viktor Vekselberg and Leonard Blavatnik, and disputed the opposition’s attempt to stifle his claim.
Unusually, OEC offers a specialist IP pupillage alongside its four regular commercial pupillages. Recently, a rather racy IP case saw members defend Victoria’s Secret in a trademark infringement dispute relating to its ‘PINK’ lingerie range, a brand which didn’t sit particularly well with luxury London shirtmaker Thomas Pink. Senior clerk Darren Burrows revealed that OEC may not offer the IP pupillage in every year to come, but that chambers is considering setting up a similar specialist competition pupillage in future. So watch this space, competition lovers.
“Evidence of intellectual excellence is one thing, but knocking it out of the park is another."
Whether it’s IP, competition or commercial work that interests you, the application process is fairly universal. From the 200 or so applications that OEC receives in a typical year, roughly 50 plucky hopefuls go through to a first-round interview. Candidates are given 90 minutes to scrutinise a problem question, which is grounded in either commercial or IP law. A copy of Chitty is provided, but “the intention isn’t to assess detailed legal knowledge,” says Burrows. Interviewees then discuss their views on the problem with a panel of four barristers and a clerk. “We’re looking at how candidates deconstruct and analyse this very difficult problem in order to provide commercial and pragmatic legal advice," says Burrows. "You need to show that you can quickly process complex propositions, break them down and apply common sense in a way that is clearly expressed and coherently structured.” The interview ends with a few CV-based questions, after which up to 12 candidates are invited back for a second-round interview.
Candidates won’t be invited to interview without an excellent academic record. According to pupil supervisor Orlando Gledhill, “evidence of intellectual excellence is one thing, but knocking it out of the park is another. A distinction on the BCL, a few prizes, or coming top in your year are all things which add a bit of lustre to an application.” It's worth pointing out that two of the four 2015/16 pupils were Vinerian Scholars.
One Essex Support
“The pupillage covers all manner of sins,” piped up one pupil. “They seem to choose supervisors with fairly broad scopes of practice.” Pupils’ first two supervisors take them on for three months apiece, with the third supervisor on the job for six months. “At the start of pupillage, supervisors are very protective,” said one pupil, “so it's the norm to work from 9am to 6pm.” But it’s no easy ride, and rookies are “always busy shadowing supervisors in court, or drafting skeletons, pleadings and letters.” These tasks are always on active cases, which pupils find is “a lot of fun, and makes you feel engaged in the case.”
Unusually for a large commercial set, One Essex Court allows pupils to spend time on their feet in the second six: the clerks seek out small claims in the County Courts especially for pupils to deal with. Taking on this work is a big step up, say pupils, “as you have to start juggling small pieces of your own work with supervised tasks.” While this may sound intimidating, we were told “the clerks are fantastic and really proactive.”
Six months in, pupils are given a few pointers as to what they’re doing well and what they should look to improve in an official progress review. That's not to say that newbies are left guessing in their first two seats: one baby junior told us that “supervisors are great at giving impressively detailed feedback on an ongoing basis, no matter how small the piece of work.”
"If you treat every piece of work as if your future depends on it then you’ll push yourself harder.”
The tenancy decision is informed by official reports written by the pupil supervisors. Any work done for other members of chambers is also scored, and these are compiled with supervisors’ reports and handed to the tenancy committee. The committee then makes its tenancy recommendation. Our sources appreciated the lack of standalone assessed exercises, because “in real life you can’t just do a few terrible pieces of work and then nail a final exercise. Placing a greater focus on prolonged assessment makes pupillage a genuine reflection of life in practice. If you treat every piece of work as if your future depends on it then you’ll push yourself harder.” In 2016 the set made tenants out of all four of its pupils.
In keeping with its space-age decor, OEC’s social atmosphere is fairly forward-thinking. Despite members' lofty academic backgrounds, "in no way does this set fit into that stereotypical public schoolboy old-world chambers mould,” said one source. “It feels very egalitarian, and very friendly too.” Afternoon tea has made way for Friday drinks, which usually attract a good bunch of members, and the occasional silk to boot. You don't need to expect the third degree though, reported one junior member, “because irrespective of who you talk to, you never feel you’re being assessed.” This friendliness transfers into the working dynamic at chambers, which sees “people pop their head around your supervisor’s door to talk things over and bounce ideas around. It means that when I have questions, I feel more comfortable paying senior members a visit.”
A member of the pupillage committee told us: “We’re not looking for people who fit a stereotype. We are looking for people who meet our criteria, regardless of background.”
One Essex Court
One Essex Court,
- No of silks 35
- No of juniors 63
- No of pupils 5+
- Contact Joanne Huxley, secretary to the pupillage committee
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) five plus of 12 months
- Required degree grade ordinarily a first class degree (law or non-law)
- Income award of £65,000 plus earnings during second-six
- Other offices Singapore
Type of work undertaken