This Bristol set offers pupillages within dedicated family, commercial/Chancery, and personal injury teams.
Sat in the middle of Bristol's Queen Square in summer 2015 was Judge Lamb. He was not a lost member of the High Court bench, but rather a brightly painted Shaun the Sheep model, decked out in wig and red gown. Like similar Shauns dotted across Bristol this one has been sponsored to raise money for Wallace & Gromit's Children's Foundation. The sponsor was St John's Chambers, a set firmly embedded in the Bristol business community.
Founded in 1978, St John's is now one of the biggest sets in the South West, and receives eight top-tier Chambers UK rankings in the region, covering all its main practice areas. Its work is broad –“we do pretty much everything apart from crime,” said a junior member – and focuses on five core areas: personal injury and clin neg (good for 30% of revenue), commercial/Chancery (also 30%), family (28%), public law (8%) and employment (4%). Each of these is a distinct team which sits in a separate part of the building and has its own head. The commercial/Chancery team has recently been split into three sub-groups: company/commercial, property, and will and trusts.
“Many thought the Jackson reforms would make our personal injury work disappear at the junior end, but in fact it's increased,” says chief executive Derek Jenkins.
The Chancery practice throws up some of this set's most interesting matters. For example, in the so-called 'cowshed Cinderella' case, Leslie Blohm QC helped a farmer's daughter win £1.3 million in compensation from her own parents, after she had worked on their West Wales dairy farm for years being paid hardly anything and was then cut out of their will. Members have also worked on boundary disputes, disciplinary proceedings, shareholder tiffs, trustee claims, and a case which revolved around whether a landowner could close the gate on his driveway (given it was a right of way).
Commercial barristers act on matters related to finance, technology and contracts; one member recently defended Cornwall Council against a claim related to the flooding of a holiday camp.
Personal injury and clin neg barristers act mostly for claimants in cases related to brain injuries, road accidents, accidents at work, and slips and trips. Members recently represented a women who was left paraplegic after falling off a horse, a market trader who was run over by a bin lorry by his stall, a disabled child burnt during a school cookery lesson, and a postwoman bitten by a dog.
Most of the set's family work is confidential, but we can tell you members have recently worked on everything from care proceedings to private rape claims, via multimillion-pound divorce cases.
Don't be sheepish
St John's gets its pupils to specialise from the off: pupillages are undertaken in one of the five teams mentioned above. The usual set-up is for there to be one pupil in commercial/Chancery, one in PI and one in family (though legal aid cutbacks mean the family pupillage is now to be offered every other year). Other arrangements do happen: for example in 2014/15 one pupil specialised in public law. “For the right person it might be possible to organise a pupillage focused on more than one area,” pupillage committee chair Dianne Martin told us in 2015 (she has since stepped down from the role), “but in practice this tends to be unrealistic as the sheer volume of legal legwork to deal with would be too great. In addition, many or our solicitors are themselves specialists in one particular field and are looking to instruct equally specialist counsel.”
Pupils usually have one single supervisor for 12 months, though they also work for other members within the team. “To start with, this was arranged by my supervisor,” one pupil reported, “but as I've got to know people I've started to email other members to ask them for work.” Pupils are expected to do at least one piece of work for every team member – perhaps as many as 20 or 25 barristers. “It is a question of ticking everyone off from December onward – there are still a few I need to do work for now,” a pupil told us in July.
“An excellent first experience at being an advocate."
In their second six, pupils are on their feet quite a bit. A baby junior recalled: “I did first appointments in children cases, infant approvals and some financial dispute resolution.” A pupil told of how they'd worked on one odd-sounding case which involved “my client claiming for dognapping, while the counterclaim was for sheep worrying.” Commercial/Chancery pupils spend less time on their feet than their family or PI peers, but regardless of what team they're in all pupils get tasked with RTAs, small claims and Domestic Violence Prevention Orders. These last matters might land in your lap with just a few hours' notice and are “an excellent first experience at being an advocate: rushing off court, not getting in a flap, and boxing your way to the front of the queue at the Magistrates' Court.”
The cream tea brigade
Pupils have reviews with their supervisor every three months, which “gives you a good indication of where you stand and any points you may need to improve on.” The making of the tenancy decision is a fairly straightforward affair: the decision whether to keep a pupil on is made by the practice group in which they work, leaning heavily on the supervisor's views. The team makes a recommendation to chambers as a whole which takes its official decision in September; but we're told that once each team has made up its mind in August pupils will have a pretty strong idea of which way the wind's blowing. The 2016 tenancy decision hadn't been made when we went to press, but all three pupils were offered tenancy in 2015 and nine out of ten were kept on over the four years prior to that. St John's also sometimes takes on a third sixer.
If the tenancy decision is a relatively straightforward and informal affair, the initial pupillage application is quite the opposite. Around 30 applicants are invited to a first interview; in 2015 this was expanded to include a case to be prepared in advance, with applicants told they'll be asked questions about the case and would have to argue either for or against the ruling. “It's a factual case and doesn't give anyone in a particular field an advantage,” Dianne Martin told us. This is followed by around 20 minutes of CV-based questions. The second interview revolves firstly around a legal problem question, for example in relation to an infant settlement. Interviewees are also asked to pick one of several cases (covering each of the set's practices), and are then questioned on it. “I was given a set of papers on a Tuesday for an interview on Saturday,” recalls a pupil. “The task at hand involved making representations to a judge in a made-up case. One of the members played a cantankerous judge – he was a bit of a character shall we say.”
“The task at hand involved making representations to a judge in a made-up case."
A question about links to the local region is a standard part of each interview. “But just saying you went to university or school in Bristol without showing a clear interest in our practice is not enough,” Dianne Martin told us. “Nor would we suit people who are clearly in love with London or, for example, want to do international family work, which does not form a large part of our practice.” So having some kind of tie to the area is no bad thing, but not a requirement. For example, while a baby junior grew up in Devon, we also interviewed a pupil who hailed from County Durham.
“Pupillage is hard work,” recalled a baby junior. “Expect to put in the hours.” A pupil told us their normal day lasts from 8.30am to 6.30pm, “sometimes longer” especially when travel is involved. The set's commercial/Chancery pupil gets to break up their Friday with afternoon tea at 4pm. “It's probably sort of an obligation for me to go if I'm around,” they reported, “but it's good to get away from all those dusty books!” By the sound of it tea isn't a terribly formal affair: “I used to sidle in and steal a piece of cake when I was a pupil,” a baby junior revealed. Barristers in other teams occassionally club together for Friday drinks, and juniors like taking the pupils out for lunch.
Like many barristers, some at St John's enjoy eccentric hobbies, including beekeeping (“a very Bristol thing to do”) and freediving.
St John's Chambers
101 Victoria Street,
- Contact Isabelle Mills isabelle.mills@stjohnschambers. co.uk
- Method of Application Application dates found on our website
- Funded pupillages (pa) 2
- Minimum qualification 2:1 degree
- Tenancies in last three years Six
Types of work undertaken