Bristol's St John's Chambers offers specialist pupillage in three areas: family, commercial/Chancery and personal injury.
One hundred miles west of London, away from the barristers clustered in the Inns of Court, sits St John's Chambers in the heart of Bristol. And much like the city it resides in, the set feels modern and forward-thinking, with “none of the traditional idiosyncrasies of the Bar.” Temple Meads station and the city centre are a stone's throw away, while the local courts are all within easy reach too. Senior clerk Derek Jenkins tells us: "One of the reasons I came to Bristol was the real energy I felt existed to get this set going so we could compete with London. What we want to do is to make sure the best work available in our area is coming to our chambers."
The set covers three main broad areas: personal injury and clinical negligence, family and commercial/Chancery. Each is its own team and all these areas score top marks in Chambers UK for the West. The commercial/Chancery team is split into property, wills and trusts, and commercial subgroups, and there are also separate smaller public law and employment teams.
The Chancery practice sees a variety of matters crop up. One case was a fight between siblings over the executorship of their late mother's will, where the successful claimant sought an order to remove her brother as executor and require him to account to the estate for losses sustained as a result of his wasteful use of its assets. On the commercial side, one barrister recently represented eye doctor Amar Alwitry in a case against the government of Jersey, claiming he was dismissed for raising patient safety concerns related to the timetabling of operations at Jersey General Hospital. The practice also covers partnership, probate, property and trusts disputes.
The personal injury and clinical negligence team acts for both claimants and defendants. Areas covered include catastrophic injury, surgical errors and dental negligence. Barristers recently defended Wales' Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board during an inquest into the death of an elderly patient with dementia. The family practice covers public and private law children disputes and care proceedings, as well as matrimonial finance. All the cases are confidential, but we can tell you they range from multimillion-pound divorces to dramatic mental health and abuse issues.
The power of three
Pupils at St John's specialise from day one. There's usually one in both commercial/Chancery and personal injury, and every other year there's one in family. Occasionally there'll be a pupil in a more specific area, like planning. This set up was praised by pupils and baby juniors who felt it alleviated any competition. One said: “It's the best of both worlds – I'm friends with my co-pupils and we keep each other pepped up. At the same time there's no competition for tenancy between one of us who wants to work in personal injury and one of us who wants to do commercial/Chancery.”
"I'm friends with my co-pupils and we keep each other pepped up."
Pupils have one supervisor over the 12 months, but pupils also do “at least one piece of written work for each member of their team.” Sources agreed “members are very good about giving you feedback and taking the time to sit down with you to go through your work or show you theirs.” One also mentioned that “if a pupil does a piece of work that's not quite right, rather than storing that up for nine months until the tenancy decision, the barrister will ask you to do another piece for them.” As a result, there are no formal assessments for tenancy.
To decide on tenancy, each team has a meeting prior to the all-member meeting in which “everyone is encouraged to share their experiences of the pupil.” A recent tenant explained: “The emphasis is on quality of work first and foremost. Then there's always consideration of how that person is going to get on with solicitors and lay clients.” The clerks get feedback from solicitors and local judges if pupils have appeared before them – “though I didn't know that at the time!” one former pupil laughed.
After the team makes its decision, it recommends the pupil to chambers if they fit the bill. In the all-member meeting “there would have to be some pretty extreme circumstances for chambers to say no if the team has said yes.” In 2017 two of the three pupils took up tenancy.
Pupillage looks ever so slightly different depending on what team you're in. A commercial/Chancery pupil “focuses largely on drafting pleadings and writing advices for supervisors and other members” for the first six months. Meanwhile, a family pupil described their first six as “much more court based than paper based. There's less paperwork and a lot more time spent with your supervisor in court.” Nevertheless, for all pupils the shift to the practising second six is “quite dramatic.”
All pupils find themselves in court regularly during the second six. One told us: “You work on your own cases, while still shadowing your supervisor and doing work for others.” Sounds pretty stressful, but such is the life of a barrister. All pupils, regardless of team, tend to take on road traffic accidents, small claims, and domestic violence protection order.
Beyond the Gateway
St John's recruits outside the Pupillage Gateway. There's a paper application form followed by two rounds of interview. Former pupillage committee member Nick Pointon explains: “The first interview is quite personal – we ask about an interviewee's motivation for coming to the Bar, why they want to join us in particular, and what they consider their strengths and weaknesses to be.”
Those who make it through to the second round should prepare for a more “skills-focused interview.” Candidates are given a case to look at beforehand and asked to read and analyse it to discuss at interview. This is done to “test reasoning and analytical skills,” according to Pointon. Pupils recalled the process being “fairly rigorous.” The set looks for six or seven competencies including legal analysis – "in part that does mean getting the law right,” Pointon points out.
“We are looking for people with a connection to the South West.”
As for other qualities the set looks for, unsurprisingly “academic excellence is part of it.” At the time of our visit, two of the set's three pupils had a First – the third had a PhD. All three went to top unis: Oxford, Bristol and Leeds. Other than good academics, a baby junior reckoned candidates need “a bit of common sense and the ability to deal with individuals on an emotional and personal level. You need empathy to be able to relate to clients.”
A mixture of book smarts and people skills is evident when looking at the backgrounds of the 2016/17 pupils: one previously wrote for the Law Reports; one set up a Lottery-funded legal advice partnership in Exeter; and one was an academic lecturer specialised in classical music who has contributed to Radio 3's Composer of the Week. Senior clerk Derek Jenkins adds: "We are looking for talented people with a connection to the South West."
“Chambers is pretty large at the junior end currently, which makes us quite sociable," one source said. "Bristol lends itself to that as we don't live too far away from each other.” On the social side there are a few chambers-wide events, including a black-tie Christmas party and a rather less formal summer party. Beyond this there are “drinks as and when on an informal basis – junior members are really good at making pupils feel welcome by taking us for drinks and lunch.” The hours barristers work vary from day to day – “it's impossible to put a figure on it.” Pupils and baby juniors agreed that “you do the hours that you need in order to do the work to the standard required.”
Pro bono work is not a requirement but is encouraged in pupils' second six: "There's a lot of court work for pupils, but less in the way of written advice. Pro bono is a good way of doing that."
St John's Chambers
101 Victoria Street,
- Contact Isabelle Mills, [email protected] co.uk
- Method of application Application dates found on our website
- Pupillages (pa) 2
- Minimum qualification 2:1 degree
- Tenants 83
- Tenancies in last 3 years 6
Types of work undertaken