These commercial barristers work on colossal, complex and cross-border insolvency and restructuring cases and are successfully expanding their remit into other commercial areas.
Hip to be South Square
No other set comes close to rivalling South Square's dominance in the insolvency and restructuring field; it's single-handedly hogged the top spot in the Chambers UK rankings for 20 years now and handles some of the most high-profile bankruptcies and restructurings out there. For example, 14 of the set's members – that's just over a third – have been working on Waterfall Applications I and II brought by the Lehman Brothers administrators to clear up problems surrounding the distribution of £7.9 billion worth of assets.
Other high-profile cases of late include assisting on the €1.2 billion restructuring of Spanish company Codere Finance and the restructuring of Ukrainian steel group Metinvest. Several members are also handling issues concerning the fallout from the insolvency of Icelandic bank Landsbanki, while others are advising on a mega cross-border insolvency dispute in the Cayman Islands arising from the liquidation of the Saad Investments Company.
Domestic and cross-border restructuring and insolvency cases account for a high proportion of South Square's work, but the set also has a well-regarded business banking and finance practice. Chambers director William Mackinlay tells us: “Our work lies on a spectrum from pure insolvency to cases which do not directly relate to insolvencies but may stem from them, to pure commercial litigation. Insolvencies often lead to commercial litigation, civil fraud claims or company disputes, and we work on all of those.” Mackinlay informs us that just over a quarter of the set's work is pure insolvency, with banking and finance, commercial litigation, civil fraud and company law work making up the remainder. “Some of those cases include a hint of an insolvency, others don’t,” says Mackinlay.
There's also an increasing amount of offshore work through the London offices of global law firms and directly from offshore firms. South Square's other solicitor clients include magic circle and big international outfits, plus some smaller national firms. This gives juniors the opportunity to work on smaller, simpler cases in the UK in their own right as well as being part of teams dealing with larger cases.
Hvernig segir maður 'bankruptcy' á íslensku?
South Square's pupils aim to switch supervisors every six weeks but the set's flexible about the exact timing: “My supervisor was handling the Bernie Ecclestone Formula One fraud case so I stayed to see that finish while my co-pupil extended his first seat to finish a banking matter,” one junior tenant recalled. In every seat pupils tackle restructuring and insolvency matters but they stressed that “you're not dealing with the same stuff each time – far from it. Every supervisor has a specialism within insolvency. I've been exposed to insurance in one seat, equitable claims in another, and then did a seat working almost exclusively on fraud-related insolvency.”
“The cases we handle are so technical you need a full year to know what you're doing.”
The tenancy decision is made by the executive committee and is “very largely informed by the opinions of pupil supervisors and anyone else the pupil has done work for,” head of pupillage Martin Pascoe QC tells us. (Pascoe was replaced as head of pupillage by Tom Smith QC in 2017.) Although work isn't formally marked, pupils were very much under the impression that every piece counts towards the overall view of supervisors. It is, however, “made clear that mistakes are tolerated before Christmas as you're often encountering things for the first time.”
Before the tenancy decision is taken, pupils are sent back to spend time with their first supervisor to demonstrate they've improved on those first few weeks. The committee also takes into account four advocacy assessments undertaken by pupils. These see rookies submit skeleton arguments and then make an application – based on a real case previously handled by a junior – to a senior silk acting as a judge. In 2017 one of the two pupils gained tenancy.
Crossing the threshold of South Square feels rather like stepping through a space-time portal: from the outside numbers three and four South Square are all Georgian charm, with classic red brick façades, white sash windows and sweeping stone steps. Waltz through the front doors however and you'll find yourself in a modern, airy reception that wouldn't be out of place in a City law firm. Corridors are lined with black marble walls and meeting rooms are decked out with moody charcoal drawings of the City of London. Forget boy meets world, this is Bar meets corporate firm, a far cry from the chaotic austerity traditionally associated with the profession.
One interviewee noted of the set's culture: “It is a serious professional environment.” Pupils are expected to wear a suit at all times, though members are more likely to be found mooching around in more informal gear. Instead of afternoon tea, “we'll go out for coffee or lunch” and “people pop into each other's rooms for a chat.” The talk is rarely constrained to the latest legal goss: “Once you get to know people you spot their quirks: one of my supervisors loved surfing and cooking while another is an absolute wine connoisseur.”
“We want to test a candidate's reasoning and analytical powers."
As junior members have no say in the tenancy decision, “you can go for a pint with them and know that no-one is judging you,” one interviewee told us. This also proves handy when it comes to seeking advice. “You can always knock on a junior's door and ask for help,” one pupil told us, with one newly minted member adding that “pupils usually come and ask me all their stupid questions.”
South Square recruits outside the Pupillage Gateway and asks candidates to submit an application form which, among other things, asks them to rank from a set list the best qualities for a barrister to have. “There are no right or wrong answers,” Martin Pascoe tells us. “What we are looking for is an ability to clearly explain the reasons behind the choices you make.” The recruitment committee also wants to see “evidence of a candidate's motivation” on the application form. “You have to be very self-motivated to work at the Bar," Pascoe explains. "If someone has undertaken significant activities outside academic life, that suggests they have the ability and personality to stretch themselves.” Recruits come from a mix of top universities: among the junior juniors at South Square are graduates of Nottingham, UCL, Warwick, Oxford and Cambridge.
Around 40 candidates attend a first-round interview which takes place with two junior members and contains a legal question. “We test an applicant's ability to assess the problem, think on their feet and present an answer coherently,” Pascoe says.
The field is then halved for a second interview with several QCs. Aspiring pupils are given ten minutes before the interview to review a legal problem, although not one requiring prior legal knowledge. Once in front of the panel, “we dive straight into that question,” Pascoe says. “We want to test a candidate's reasoning and analytical powers and their ability to apply them to the question.” Pupils and juniors characterised this round as “very tough,” with one adding: “I didn't think I'd made it through. My advice is to listen carefully to the questions and not to be afraid to ask a question yourself in response if you're unsure of something. Think before you speak – it's fine to gather your thoughts before answering.”
South Square is known for its insolvency and restructuring work, but pupils tell us: “Insolvency intersects with so many other areas, you're never doing just insolvency law.”
3-4 South Square,
- No of silks 19
- No of juniors 23
- No of pupils 2
- Contact Pupillage administrator, 020 7696 9900
- Method of application
- Mini-pupillage: details www.southsquare.com/pupillage
- Pupillage: application form (available to download from the website)
- Pupillages (pa) Up to three – 12 month pupillage offered each year
Type of work undertaken