Tradition meets modernity at Serle Court, which promotes a “friendly, chilled vibe” while maintaining a stellar reputation for commercial Chancery work.
My name is Serle
It's the year 2000. The first series of Big Brother airs on Channel 4. George W. Bush litigates his way into the White House. The Millennium Bug turns out to be hype – it was a year of highs and lows, but one landmark event in the legal calendar was when 1 Hare Court and Serle Court merged. They combined a commercial practice with Chancery, and marked a rare marriage between a Lincoln's and Temple set.
In the present day, the set is wholly based in Lincoln's Inn and rakes in a total of ten rankings in Chambers UK, most impressively for commercial Chancery, civil fraud, offshore and partnership work. “The set has an excellent reputation,” one pupil highlighted. “I liked the fact it's a bit of a powerhouse in terms of both traditional and commercial Chancery.”
But what actually is Chancery work? “The nightmare question...” one pupil joked. Members of Serle Court broke down this notoriously tricky practice: “It has its origins in the principle of equity. Today that means everything ranging from general commercial litigation – company law, insolvency, real estate and IP – to wills, trusts, and land law.” Generally, the set “covers pretty much anything you could class as a business dispute, including big contractual disputes over multi-jurisdictional contracts.” In one recent case, Philip Jones QC successfully defended a holding company belonging to Sir Terence Conran and his five children against a £3 million claim from a non-family shareholder and former chief executive.
“I liked the variety, and the nefarious characters involved kept it interesting.”
On the commercial side, civil fraud makes up a large part of the set's work. One recent high-profile case was that of Constantin Medien v Ecclestone, a $100 million damages lawsuit in which the former chief executive of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, and other parties were accused of deliberately undervaluing Formula One in its 2005 sale to CVC Capital Partners.Our interviewees told us that across their pupillage they'd “done a huge array of different things. I liked the variety, and the nefarious characters involved kept it interesting.” Hehe.
Senior clerk Steve Whitaker highlights fraud, trusts, and company law as the heaviest streams of work flowing through the set. There's also offshore, insolvency, property and partnership work. Going forward, he explains “we have no wish to get bigger for the sake of it – that's not on the agenda at all.” That said, Whitaker also mentions “a trend at the Bar, more so than before, for barristers to move from one set to another.”
Serle Court has made a number of lateral hires in the past and in February 2017 commercial silk Jonathan Adkin QC returned to the set just seven months (!) after leaving for a rival. Maybe Adkin was attracted back by this: “It's really chilled here,” a pupil told us. “Everyone is super bright but nobody takes themselves too seriously.”
Serley bird catches the worm
Pupils do four seats of three months each. “The idea is that you sit with a variety of supervisors to see work across the full spectrum,” one source told us. Pupillage at Serle is non-practising, so the first and second six don't differ greatly, although sources reckoned “you're given slightly more work and responsibility in your second six. You do the first draft of a document and are responsible for a portion of a case – you start doing more of the things that will be required of you when in practice and work to live deadlines.”
One pupil appreciated that not spending time on your feet means pupillage “is exclusively focused on training, improving your skills and getting you ready.” Another felt “it broadly makes sense because as a set we do a lot of big complex litigation. This way you have the maximum opportunity to learn from others.”
Once you're a tenant, “you can be on your feet as soon as you want to.” Throughout pupillage, pupils work with supervisors on their live cases; a pupil would usually only work on a dead case if they needed or wanted exposure to an area that hadn't come up in live cases.
“Chambers tries to make up for the absence of a practising second six.”
Serle Court holds several formal assessed exercises during pupillage, including at least one oral advocacy exercise and one written exercise, usually an opinion. “Chambers tries to make up for the absence of a practising second six,” we were told. “The oral advocacy exercise is as close to the real deal as can be achieved without actually being in court.” A current pupil explained the process: “You have a week to prepare, and you submit a skeleton argument three weeks in advance as you would for a normal case. Then there's a hearing in one of the conference rooms – a silk usually acts as the judge with two members of the pupillage committee there to observe. You then make your application and answer some questions, then get immediate feedback.”
Besides these exercises, pupils are also guided by their pupil supervisor and given feedback throughout the year. After each three months there is a more formal review with the current supervisor before you are passed on to the next. “During these reviews, you also have the opportunity to comment on anything you think you need.” When asked if there was any kind of grace period, sources reflected that “no one expects you to walk into pupillage as the fully finished article – it's fine to make mistakes, just don't make the same mistake twice.” In 2017 one of three pupils gained tenancy.
Serle Court recruits outside the Pupillage Gateway, and the deadline to apply for a 2019/20 pupillage is 17 January 2018. Adil Mohamedbhai, a member of the pupillage committee, tells us the application process is “pretty straightforward.” The set has its own bespoke application form, which hopefuls fill in and submit.
If successful, applicants make it to the first round of interviews. “We usually interview 35 to 40 applicants, but that's not fixed. The first round is a relatively informal chat – it's to get to know you and ask some questions about your interests, although there is also usually a short question involving some legal reasoning,” Mohamedbhai explains. “The second round is for a smaller group, between ten and 12, and is more formal. There's usually an oral exercise of some sort – often a conference. It isn't to test applicants' detailed intricate legal knowledge, but rather serves to test reasoning skills, ability to convey answers in a clear way and to respond to questions from people on the panel who will be pretending to be clients or solicitors.” A former pupil joked: “You get the feeling the members are enjoying the exercise too!”
“It's usually a riot!”
In order to stand out from the crowd, Mohamedbhai highlights academic skills as essential, but emphasises “it's much more than that: you need to be able to express yourself clearly and have general people skills. Members tell us they like to work here because we're easygoing people and nice to work with, so from a recruitment perspective we look at that aspect as well. We want to make sure you fit into that 'Serle Court ethos'.” Current pupils reiterated this: “Being a good barrister is not just about being very smart. The emphasis throughout pupillage is on developing the other skills necessary for having a successful practice, whether that's client handling, client relations, managing your practice as a business, or knowing how to manage time and expectations.” Other qualities valued by the set include being confident, hard working, pragmatic, resilient and willing to work as part of a team. Oral and written advocacy skills are unsurprisingly high on the wish list as well.
When Serle Court's barristers let their hair down/take off their wigs, there's a fair amount to get involved in. “We have drinks every Friday in the clerks' room which are quite informal. There are also monthly drinks that are a bit more organised, and usually a bit earlier as people have families to get home to.” We also heard that baby juniors have been on ski trips together for the past few years. “We get along really well with each other – there's a real camaraderie,” sources reported. Serle also retains the Chancery Bar tradition of daily afternoon tea. “It's usually a riot!” pupils laughed. “Often someone will have been in court and have some hilarious anecdote to tell. It's also a good way to catch up with people.”
Serle Court derives its name from the old name for Lincoln's Inn's New Square. Henry Serle was a 17th century bencher and landowner responsible for construction of the buildings on the square.
6 New Square,
- No of silks 25
- No of juniors 39
- No of pupils 3
- Contact Lorraine Lister, 020 7242 6105
- Method of application Chambers application form, available from website or chambers. Not a member of Pupillage Gateway.
- Pupillages Up to three 12-month pupillages
- Tenancies Up to 3 per annum
Type of work undertaken