Whether you have cravings for Chancery, a penchant for pensions or an offshore obsession, you'll need to be brilliantly brainy to work your way into Wilberforce.
Cardigans at dawn
“The work that's undertaken here is incredibly cerebral and everyone is very intelligent; but they wear it lightly and people are pretty down to earth really.” That was how one source explained their reason for applying to Wilberforce. The set's best-known work revolves around pensions, offshore and traditional Chancery matters with multiple members taking on high-profile cases in these areas; eight are currently involved in the mega Merchant Navy Ratings Pension Fund dispute concerning a £272 million pension deficit. Over on the traditional Chancery side several members were active on Earl of Cardigan v Moore & Cotton, a multimillion-pound trusts dispute over the Earl's Savernake Estate. Wilberforce's offshore links bring in work on large trusts and insolvency disputes coming through Jersey, Guernsey, the Caribbean and Hong Kong.
"There's such a variety on offer: I followed my supervisor to knockabout property cases in the County Courts and to a major case about a will in the Supreme Court."
Wilberforce's repertoire extends beyond pensions, offshore and traditional Chancery though (all of which are top ranked in Chambers UK). Members also handle commercial Chancery, fraud, professional negligence, real estate, charity and commercial matters. “We're also seeing an increase in regulatory work, particularly in relation to professional liability,” senior clerk Mark Rushton says, also noting an increase in commercial banking matters recently. “The current financial climate has produced an uptake of property litigation too,” he adds. “You only have to look out of a window across the London skyline and you can see how many new developments are cropping up” – which inevitably throws up disputes about delays, contracts and financing.
The aim is for pupils to switch supervisors every two months but “if someone has a fascinating case which you want to see the end of it's a flexible system." Ultimately pupils may end up sitting with four or five supervisors rather than six. But regardless of how many people pupils sit with we're told that “by the end you will have seen loads of areas." One source told us: "I'm only three rotations in and I've already witnessed pensions, professional negligence, private client, general commercial, property, insolvency, fraud and banking work.”
Rookies immerse themselves in whatever their supervisor is currently handling. Pupils attached to those on huge, all-consuming cases reported beavering away on research or undertaking practice tasks on older, completed cases. Those assisting their supervisor on smaller matters are more likely to attempt first drafts of pleadings, submissions and skeleton arguments. Occasionally pupils take on additional work for other members. “Everything still goes through my supervisor first – that's less awkward than turning down a grandee QC myself,” one source chuckled. “But when valuable experiences arise, my supervisor tells me to prioritise that over work for him.”
"... argue logically for and against a particular proposition.”
Advocacy training sees pupils pretending to seek an interim application from pupillage committee head Martin Hutchings QC who plays a “grumpy district judge.” Pupils are reviewed once every six months, but don't expect a gushing report as Hutchings tells us reviews are “not about patting pupils on the head. There's always room for improvement and we hope to see pupils significantly improve throughout the year.” In 2015 and 2016 both pupils were taken on as tenants.
After the tenancy decision in June pupils begin handling their own cases – think pro bono matters in the winding up courts or small trials in the County Court. Once you become a tenant, there's a decent combination of your own instructions and work on which you're led. "I've done a fair amount of advisory work and property cases by myself," reported one baby junior, "but I've also assisted on major commercial, company and shareholders' disputes.”
A Wilberforce welcome
The set is scattered across several buildings on the south side of Lincoln's Inn, but one source explained that “being spread out actually means that a couple of the members work really hard to ensure we socialise together.” A fortnightly chambers lunch provides “a good opportunity to touch base” and junior juniors organise an additional lunch among themselves for the week in between. Come Friday evening you'll find "everyone from QCs to pupils” mooching around outside the Seven Stars pub while those who can't stand still can join the barristers and clerks' netball or volleyball teams.
On a related note, one pupil told us: “We're advised very early on to build relationships with the clerks so I always make the effort to pop by for a quick chat.” Mark Rushton is proud that his clerking room is somewhere “young barristers aren't scared to enter.” Overall, sources described Wilberforce as “extremely welcoming – it's easy to stop and chat with everyone.” One interviewee elaborated: “I frequently visit other people's rooms to ask questions.” And as pupils don't spar for tenancy there's “no sense of competition. We share notes on supervisors and tips on how we could have done a better job on certain matters.”
Who has the power?
Pupillage may be free of competition but the pupillage recruitment process is pretty tough. Around 150 hopefuls submit an application form directly to chambers. Up to 30 candidates then progress to a first-round interview with two junior members, which features a legal problem. Around 12 interviewees survive for a second interview with a silk and three other members where they'll face another legal question.
“We're looking for people with great intellect but with more behind them than just having been to a good school or a particular university."
Martin Hutchings stresses that neither of the interviews' exercises are about legal knowledge: candidates should instead demonstrate that “they have the power to spot issues arising from a question and can argue logically for and against a particular proposition." Being able to identify, prepare and defend counterarguments is key, as is “the ability to closely analyse a particular text and give practical advice in relation to a problem.” All these skills are much in demand at the highly intellectual Chancery Bar. Hutchings continues: “We're looking for people with great intellect but with more behind them than just having been to a good school or a particular university." He adds that Wilberforce's growing bulk of offshore work means it has to appeal increasingly to an international market, something which will have to be reflected in the skills, interests and backgrounds of future pupils.
Sources reckoned that “aside from being incredibly clever, there's no typical pupil here.” A look at the CVs of Wilberforce's most junior members certainly reveals that they all went to very fine universities (mostly Oxbridge). Among the ten juniors called since 2010 are three who tutored at university before starting pupillage, two who studied overseas (in Paris and Australia) and another who was a reporter and presenter for BBC News. We'll let Martin Hutchings have the last word on this: “Barristers can play many roles these days: some are born to stand up in court while others are more suited to excellent written advocacy. Not everyone is right for every task we're instructed on so we need people with differing skills and attributes.”
To ease the transition from pupil to tenant Wilberforce is introducing an early-years mentoring scheme for new junior members.
8 New Square,
- No of silks 30
- No of juniors 37
- Method of application chambers application form available from website
- Pupillages (pa) two 12-month pupillages
- Mini-pupillages total of 28 places
- Minimum qualification 2:1 degree
- Tenancies in last three years 5
Type of work undertaken