Marrying an informal, modern vibe to an appreciation of timeless traditions like daily tea and biscuits, Serle Court retains its reputation as one of the top commercial Chancery sets out there.
“We're the result of a merger between two sets in 2000 which had quite different practices, and that's something to bear in mind,” a member of Serle Court points out. The merger thrust together a Chancery and a commercial practice which have since become the sizeable, well-respected and “fully intertwined” chambers which Serle Court is today. One member adds that “our reputation has certainly been positively affected by figures such as Gavin Lightman, now Mr Justice Lightman; I've heard that there used to be queues of instructing solicitors trying to get five minutes of his time just so they could say they'd spoken to him about a case.” Others such as Michael Briggs, now Lord Justice Briggs, played a pivotal role in securing the set's core client base: “Many solicitors who instructed Michael worked at firms which still come to us today, largely thanks to that relationship.” With such a stellar reputation grounded in history, it's no wonder Serle bags ten rankings in Chambers UK 2016, most notably for its civil fraud, offshore, partnership and commercial Chancery work.
Chancery work may sound like a fusty Dickensian area of law but the work this set does actually relates to complex matters of international finance.
The concept of Chancery law is somewhat elusive. Even Serle's members admit that “it's difficult to give a definition,” but venture that “Chancery is traditionally linked to equity and the equitable remedies developed by the courts.” Examples of areas that fall under the umbrella are “probate – anything to do with wills – as well as Court of Protection work and trusts.” We also heard that “intellectual property and competition law are both Chancery even though they might normally be considered more specialist fields.” Sources were quick to point out that commercial and Chancery work interweave, so there are often commercial aspects to all the work just mentioned.
Offshore work – particularly in relation to offshore trusts in Jersey, Guernsey and the Caribbean – accounts for a “huge portion” of barristers' work. Serle's expertise ranges from company and insolvency litigation to the trusts aspect of divorce cases, via litigation relating to commercial fortunes, and the freezing of assets. Members have recently been involved in several multimillion and multibillion-pound trusts disputes, and a junior tenant who recently advised a firm in the Bahamas on a possible breach of contract involving a lender's incorrect valuation of necessary sums enthused that “offshore work keeps life very interesting and you get to learn about lots of different places.”
“Offshore work keeps life very interesting."
The biggest area of practice on the commercial side is civil fraud. One recent example of such work is the multimillion-pound claim brought by a fund manager managing assets ultimately owned by the Libyan state against its former CEO. Members are also acting for the defendants in the RBS rights issue litigation, involving claims of up to £4 billion arising from a rights issue (whereby a company offers its shareholders discounted stock) undertaken by RBS in 2008.
Mock 'n' roll
Serle Court is not part of the Pupillage Gateway, and applications for 2018/19 pupillages need to be made directly to chambers by a deadline of noon on 13 January 2017. Academic ability is critical if you want to be a Chancery practitioner, but Adil Mohamedbhai, a member of the pupillage committee, adds that "there's much more to being a successful barrister at the commercial Chancery Bar: we look for individuals who are also able to provide good client care." Twenty years ago barristers didn't need to bother with stuff like 'client care' – now they do.
The interview process consists of two stages. In the first round, candidates are interviewed by three or four barristers in a “relatively informal” setting; the focus is on “getting to know the applicant by asking about their background.” As part of the interview “there may be a logical reasoning question rather than a legal one.” During the second round, candidates are faced with a legal problem question in the form of an advocacy exercise – "in the past we've usually gone for a consultation-type exercise with a mock client, mock solicitor, and some mock papers to look at.” Candidates get 40 minutes beforehand to prepare.
“You do a fair amount of work for other members.”
Pupils lucky enough to win a place at the set sit with four supervisors over the year. “The aim is for you to experience all the major practice areas. If you have a particular interest then they try to give you some work to match,” a junior member recalled. Even while under a specific supervisor's wing, “you do a fair amount of work for other members,” but always with the security of your current supervisor acting as a buffer and “making sure the work is all productive and useful fare for pupils.” One pupil told us about “being involved in a long trial with a member of chambers who wasn't my supervisor,” explaining that “the more barristers you can work with, the better it is for your development, because they all have different ways of working.”
Tasks include “a lot of live work on whatever case your supervisor is working on” combined with work on “old court cases of theirs – say from County Court trials – that are closer to what you'll actually be doing as a new tenant.” Serle doesn't give pupils their own caseload in the second six, and advocacy during pupillage comes only in the form of exercises, which are “as realistic as they can possibly be,” according to one pupil. Not getting to spend time on your feet as a pupil was not a source of frustration among our sources, but was seen rather as a boon. “Most of what goes on in chambers is very complicated,” a junior member laughed, “so I was really glad to have a full year to figure out what I needed to do.”
Our sources were also satisfied with the pupil assessment process, commenting that “you get feedback on every piece of work you do. There are no fixed grading criteria, but every supervisor will give you the same sort of work many times so you have a chance to put the feedback into practice and track your improvement.” The decision is taken after the pupillage committee has made a recommendation to the rest of chambers based on feedback from everyone who's worked with the pupil, most significantly the four supervisors. A member of the committee said that the “secret to success” at this chambers is “enjoying the work. So if every day is a chore because you have to put up a pretence of enjoying the work when you don't, it's going to be difficult.” A pupil felt the main skills to demonstrate are “quality of work, time management, the ability to handle pressure, and not always settling for the first answer that comes to mind when conducting case research." In 2016, all three pupils took up tenancy with the set.
Hours during pupillage are pretty regular, with pupils expected to work from 9am to 6pm. This meshes well with a “culture of approachability, where everyone says hello, asks how you are, and tries to get on with you.” On the social side, “it's not like we're down the pub every night," observed a pupil, "but it's very friendly, and there's a good turnout at daily tea." In spite of the pivotal role of caffeine to the running of the event, chambers tea was described as a happy, stress-free time by our sources, with no pressure on pupils to attend. Overall, we're told, "chambers is very welcoming to pupils and involves you immediately.” From the moment a candidate is accepted, they are invited to chambers lunch, which takes place every term.
Head clerk Steve Whitaker tells us that “if all three pupils are good enough, all three will almost always be taken on. At the junior end there's an abundance of work.”
6 New Square,
- No of silks 24
- No of juniors 36
- 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 the Pupillage Gateway.
- Pupillages up to three 12-month pupillages
- Tenancies up to three per annum
Type of work undertaken