If you're looking for a set doing a range of commercial litigation, from international headline-grabbing cases to delayed flight claims, the only way is One Essex Court.
Essex on fire
Situated in Middle Temple, One Essex Court exudes a modern sleekness at odds with its olde-worlde surroundings. But, like the excellent boardroom biscuits we sample every time we visit, some things have remained reassuringly constant and in no need of a face-lift – this applies to the set's impressive reputation for all things commercial law. OEC continually achieves top-tier rankings in Chambers UK for commercial dispute resolution, energy and civil fraud, as well as impressive marks for intellectual property, international arbitration, banking and finance, and competition.
The set has more silks ranked in Chambers UK than you can shake a big floppy wig at: around ten are ranked for each of banking and finance, energy, and fraud, and over 20 for commercial disputes. Those 20-plus include stars of the Bar Lord Grabiner and Laurence Rabinowitz. Grabiner – who is also head of chambers – recently acted for Saudi prince Abdul Aziz, son of the late King Fahd, in the Court of Appeal in a case about an oral agreement to pay £12 million to Janan Harb, the king's ex-wife.
“Contractual disputes are the main thrust of what goes on here.”
This case illustrates senior clerk Darren Burrows' point that within the set's key areas, “contractual disputes are the main thrust of what goes on here.” Pupils felt “the work is hugely varied” but explained that “what unites all the work here is that it involves businesses disputing some kind of commercial issue or another.” For example, one recent case saw members represent Hewlett-Packard in a $5 billion accounting fraud lawsuit against former executives of Autonomy, the British software firm HP acquired in 2011. In the Commercial Court Richard Boulton QC recently acted on behalf of 11 major UK retailers, led by the Arcadia Group, in a case against Visa and Mastercard over allegations that the two companies charged retailers anti-competitive credit card fees.
Pupils were drawn to OEC for its “excellent reputation and high quality of work,” and the fact the set is “right at the top of the tree for general commercial work.” The range of work on offer appealed too. Darren Burrows says junior tenants shouldn't aim to specialise too early: “I recommend they keep their practice broad and find out what they enjoy. If they want to specialise they can do that later on.”
Looking to the future, Darren Burrows describes the set's strategy as threefold: “One, to ensure that we're recruiting the very best people coming to the Commercial Bar. Two, to ensure we have close relations with our solicitor and other professional clients. And three, to make sure we're responsive and imaginative in how we charge for our services." Burrows identifies "a challenging landscape as far as fees and charges go, which means we need to be willing to offer novel fee arrangements. Price has become a more important tool for winning clients.”
Get up, stand up
Pupils sit with three supervisors – two for three months a piece, then the final supervisor for six months. “I mainly assisted my supervisor with their live work," a baby junior recalled of their first six. "If they were going to court, I'd go with them, or if they were writing a skeleton argument, I'd assist with that.” Occasionally pupils are put on dead matters if there's an area they haven't been exposed to yet, but “if something live is going on, that's always the preference.” As well as working for their three supervisors, pupils also do some work for other members. “I did about ten pieces of work for others, often legal research,” one interviewee reflected.
"It was a terrifying experience, and the fear never really goes away."
In the second six, pupils also get up on their feet to try their hand at cases of their own – the clerks seek out small County Court claims especially for pupils to sharpen their teeth on. “I think I went to court maybe four times during pupillage,” a recent tenant reflected. "It was a terrifying experience, and the fear never really goes away, but you get better at dealing with it. The first time I went to court I was up against a barrister at another commercial set in a claim over a delayed flight. I got to cross-examine witnesses and make legal submissions.”
Current pupils admitted: “It's not loads, not like a criminal pupillage where you're in court every day. And appearances do get cancelled sometimes.” But sources appreciated the effort the clerks go to in order to get pupils on their feet: “The good thing about doing your own court work is that when you finish pupillage, you have some sense of what it's like to go to court by yourself.”
There are no formal assessments at OEC – “over the course of the first nine months, any work you do is assessed. The supervisors write a report at the end of each seat which is then fed to the pupillage committee. The committee reviews that and makes a recommendation on which all members vote to decide on new tenants.” Sources saw this process as “a constant stream of steady pressure, rather than particular instances of very high pressure.” Pupils also appreciated that “focusing on mistakes is definitely not what chambers does. Mistakes are probably only ever taken into account if you make them more than once.” In 2017, all three pupils gained tenancy.
OEC also offers a specialist IP pupillage alongside its four regular commercial pupillages. “We do a lot of trade mark disputes for businesses looking to protect their brands, as well as copyright and patent cases,” an IP pupil explained. For example, a pupil recently worked alongside several barristers in an appeal brought by British American Tobacco against the judicial review challenge to the introduction of plain cigarette packaging. “It was very interesting to gain some experience of judicial review," one pupil enthused. Meanwhile, another member won a case for an eco-friendly black cab manufacturer, whose design had been challenged by the London Taxi Company which (unsuccessfully) claimed the design of black cabs was unique.
“There seems to be reason to celebrate things very frequently."
Irrespective of area, all applications are made through the Pupillage Gateway. This is followed by two rounds of interviews. In the first, applicants are invited to chambers an hour and a half before the interview and asked to tackle a legal problem question, which is "challenging, but lends itself to being dealt with at different levels,” according to pupillage committee member Anna Boase. Interviewees get a copy of Chitty as a reference point. “We don't expect them to cite detailed case law, " says Boase. "We provide it in order to provide a level playing field for everyone whether they are doing the GDL, have completed a PhD or practised as a solicitor."
Those examples give you an idea of the calibre of OEC's successful applicants. Among its most junior members are an ex-solicitor, three former university lecturers/tutors, two Vinerian scholars, two individuals who'd been called to the Bar overseas, and one who had over a dozen prizes and scholarships to their name. We also noticed that one baby junior had previously interned at The Economist, while a current pupil had interned at Credit Suisse and BlackRock before pupillage.
Back to the interview process: candidates present their answer to the legal problem question orally in the first interview “in the same way a barrister would present advice to a client.” This is followed by some CV questions. Pupils felt “everything was focused on legal aptitude rather than competency questions– the process is aimed at finding out if you'd be a good barrister based on how you reason through a problem.” The second-round interview follows the same pattern as the first, again in front of a panel. As we indicated above, the set values a good academic record – “the work is very complicated and requires you to think about a lot of information at the same time, pick out what's relevant, and get to an answer when there are many potential competing answers.” Smarts aside, Anna Boase says “pupils need to be able to work effectively with our solicitor clients and as part of a team.”
Perhaps for this reason, and despite members' impressive intellectual prowess, interviewees insisted “everyone at One Essex Court is down to earth and there's a relatively informal atmosphere.” Traditional afternoon tea is replaced with Friday drinks. “People go down to the basement, and there's a fridge full of beers and wine," one interviewee reported. "A whole range of people attend – you can have conversations with silks as if they're ordinary people!” And if that's not enough, “there seems to be reason to celebrate things very frequently. There have been at least three big parties during pupillage so far!”
One Essex Court also has an office in Singapore to support its barristers and arbitrators who regularly work there and in the wider region.
One Essex Court
One Essex Court,
- No of silks 38
- 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