Prestigious Wilberforce excels at Chancery, offshore and pensions, but offers a broad practice and demands impeccable intellect.
Where there's a Will-berforce, there's a way
It was the first truly hot day of the year when we visited Wilberforce Chambers, so it was a welcome delight to step into a cool, minimalist conference room bedecked with Margaret Bourke-White-esque photographs of Lincoln's Inn. Apparently fitting out the premises with aircon “has been a logistical nightmare, because it's a listed building.” Wilberforce's digs date back to the 17th century, but the set is a sprightly 90 years old. Founded in 1928, it has grown into one of the country's premier Chancery sets. Like most things, it's got bigger and better with age and has broadened its horizons into other areas. Its best-known work revolves around pensions, offshore, traditional Chancery and commercial Chancery matters (all are top ranked in Chambers UK). Senior practice manager Danny Smillie breaks it down further for us: “Our key areas are professional liability, pensions, property, commercial, tax, and wills and probate, but we've made significant inroads with our civil fraud and insolvency offerings.” How? These two practice areas were boosted by the arrival of three silks and four juniors from 11 Stone Buildings when it collapsed in late 2015.
Wilberforce's Chancery supremos have been involved in some of the top cases in this mind-achingly complex area of law. A recent win came in Ingenious Games v HMRC, a case related to dodgy tax accounting in film and gaming LLPs – Wilberforce won the case for HMRC, which was worth a cool £1.4 billion. Another triumph was a win in the Makdessi Supreme Court appeal: Mr Makdessi had agreed to sell the appellant a controlling stake in the holding company of the largest advertising and marketing group in the Middle East. The case centred on a penalty clause, which is traditionally unenforceable under the 'penalty rule'. What made the case special was that for the first time in 100 years, the highest court in the land had to consider whether to change the penalty doctrine test.
Although Chancery law is a field entrenched in old English legal doctrines, Wilberforce's work is surprisingly international. There's a glut of offshore work on trusts and insolvency disputes related to tax havens like Jersey, Guernsey and the Cayman Islands, as well as Miami, Sydney and Hong Kong. One major case which was ongoing at the time of our visit was AHAB v Saad, a $9 billion (!) cross-border fraud tracing claim related to a Ponzi scheme which defrauded 280 banks out of a tidy $350 billion. The case is being tried in the Cayman Islands, and Danny Smillie told us that “it's turned into a 12-month trial, so our barristers are constantly going out there.”
Put your feet up
Pupils usually switch supervisors every two months to rotate around six practitioners. However, “sometimes the two months can be extended if there's something really interesting or big going on.” In the end most of the sources we spoke to had had four supervisors, but were anything but starved of variety. “I've seen loads of different matters. I found the pensions cases surprisingly interesting, and I also worked on a private property easement, tax and insolvency matters, and some expert determinations and mediations.”
"Members can't just grab a pupil and start causing havoc for them.”
Pupils work doesn't differ markedly between the first and second sixes, but it does change after the tenancy decision. Second-sixers don't get on their feet straight away, but do get some court experience later in pupillage. Pupillage committee member Julian Greenhill explains: “As our work is complex, six months is not enough time for pupils to get to grips with it all. So we want them to spend most of the 12 months of pupillage concentrating on paperwork and their supervisors' work.” Pupils do mix in some work for other members too, but don't worry about getting swamped. “Everything's controlled by the supervisors," says Greenhill. "Other members can't just grab a pupil and start causing havoc for them.”
A junior tenant told us that before the tenancy decision “you're likely to be doing first drafts of opinions, writing research notes and skeleton arguments, and drafting particulars of claim and defences.” On the big behemoth cases headed up by a silk (or two) pupils are more likely to be set “discrete research tasks into certain issues.” After the tenancy decision, we're told, “you take on more of the role of a junior tenant and can start going to court on smaller claims.” Some had marked the beginning of the transition by acting as de-facto junior for their supervisor on freezing injunctions. Others had "been to court three or four times for possession hearings” or become heavily involved with pro bono in the winding up court. “Pro bono is great because suddenly you get to do ten cases in one morning, after having only ever done three in your entire life.”
All work from day one counts towards the tenancy decision. “While there's no official grace period, they assess you against the standard of where you ought to be at any given time,” an interviewee said. Pupils get feedback after each piece of work, “a wrap-up session at the end of each rotation, and your supervisors write written reports on what you've done [which form the basis of the tenancy decision].” Pupils also do three advocacy exercises, usually in front of head of pupillage Martin Hutchings QC. “It's usually something like a summary judgment or relief from sanctions. Martin takes quite an interventionist approach and you have to think on your feet a lot.” In 2017 the set took on one of its two pupils as a tenant (and hired a third-sixer), having taken on both pupils in 2016 and 2015.
Your money or your lunch!
Wilberforce's barristers are scattered across several buildings on Lincoln's Inn's New Square, but most band together for a fortnightly chinwag at chambers lunch. “It's a great way to meet everyone, from QCs to people more at your level,” a junior interviewee said. Junior juniors organise an additional lunch among themselves for the week in between. “It's really informal – we sit in Lincoln's Inn Fields or go to Hall and pupils aren't expected to pay for anything!” There are also occasional drinks at the Seven Stars pub and a big annual junior event. "This year we're going to the Pink Chihuahua – no idea what to expect – I've just been told I can't wear flip-flops.”
The interview "isn't structured to test legal knowledge, but rather to gauge your grasp of legal principles.”
Around 150 pupillage hopefuls submit an application to chambers each year (Wilberforce recruits outside the Gateway). Up to 40 candidates progress to a first-round interview with two junior members, which features a legal problem. In addition, says Julian Greenhill, "there's an informal discussion in which we ask questions about the application form: what the applicant has done with their life, what interests them, why they are applying to us, and why they're interested in the Chancery Bar." Around 12 interviewees survive for a second interview with a silk and three other members where they face another legal question. Each candidate gets 30 minutes beforehand to prep the new problem, “which is more challenging." However, the interview "isn't structured to test legal knowledge, but rather to gauge your grasp of legal principles.”
The set wants candidates with high intellectual ability – most of its barristers have an alphabet of qualifications after their names, and all its juniors under ten years' call went to Oxbridge at some point in their studies (six did the BCL). Greenhill does caution that “plenty of people come to us with fantastic CVs but don't come across well in interview. We want people who can argue well and can respond well to what's going on in a discussion” A pupillage interview here isn't the most zen of experiences, but Greenhill reasons that “we need people who can handle the pressure."
This set is named after the mid-20th century judge Lord Wilberforce, descendant of the more famous William. Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton is also a former tenant.
8 New Square,
- No of silks 29
- No of juniors 37
- Method of application Chambers application form available from website
- Pupillages (pa) 2x12 months
- Award £65,000
- Mini-pupillages Total of 28 places
- Minimum qualification 2:1 degree
- Tenancies in last 3 years: 6
Type of work undertaken
It is our policy to offer pupillage only to those who we consider possess real potential to join us as tenants at the end of their pupillage. This means that we set high selection standards, take great care in our selection process and put a great deal of effort into providing an excellent pupillage. We carry out a process of continual assessment to determine the suitability of pupils as tenants rather than a separate, formal assessment procedure at the end of the pupillage.
We have a minimum requirement of a 2.1 degree in law or another subject and have a track record of taking on GDL and undergraduate law students, as pupils and tenants.
We choose to manage the application and selection process ourselves and are not members of the Pupillage Gateway.