There's nothing old school about this commercial Chancery set's work – when it comes to offshore matters, it's top of the class.
Abra? Kadabra? Alakazam? When it comes to Chancery law the magic word is in fact 'equity', the noble concept of fairness and impartiality.How does that square with the cut-throat commercial world? Indeed, how does XXIV Old Buildings straddle the two spheres? Chambers director Sue Medder explains: “At one end you have our 'pure Chancery' work – wills, trusts and estates disputes – and at the other end there are commercial disputes that might concern contractual interpretation, boardroom battles for control of a company or even attempts to seize aircraft.” There is often, however, crossover when “equitable principles arise in the context of a commercial dispute.” Pupillage co-ordinator Edward Cumming weighs in: “We do deal with massive commercial disputes, but also act for individuals – clients might be fighting over granny's inheritance or trying to save their house. That's what makes Chancery so exciting and rewarding.”
"Not everything we do is in another jurisdiction, but an awful lot is.”
XXIV's members handle both traditional and commercial Chancery, and the set's ranked highly by Chambers UK in both areas as well as for aviation, civil fraud, partnership and offshore work – it's top tier in the last of these. “The international angle is certainly important here – not everything we do is in another jurisdiction, but an awful lot is,” pupils told us. These offshore matters are usually Chancery cases: one saw members defend private equity giant Carlyle in a $2 billion claim arising from the failure of a US hedge fund incorporated in Guernsey.
Massive cases like this can rumble on for years: senior junior Stuart Adair is representing Lloyds' shareholders suing the bank following its takeover of HBOS in 2008. The pupils we spoke to had a hand in cases brought by the Libyan Investment Authority against Goldman Sachs (a $1 billion undue influence case) and Société Générale (a bribery matter), while Stephen Moverley Smith QC acted for the defence in a claim brought by Swiss and Russian agrochemical companies to recover $45 million of alleged bribes.
Closer to home, Alan Steinfeld QC acted for Longleat heir Viscount Weymouth to successfully remove one of the estate's trustees. XXIV's work also includes purely commercial matters, such as a $60 million product liablity claim brought by Ethiopian Airlines when a lithium battery on a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner caught fire. Instructions come from a colourful patchwork of law firms across the country and globe.
Traditionally, pupils at No. 24 have sat with four different supervisors for three months at a time, though the structure may be shifting in future after the 2016/17 pupils sat with five. Work can come from across chambers, but supervisors act as gatekeepers,pupils told us. “Early on you'll mostly get tasks from them, but there's definitely access to a broad spread of work across pupillage.” Edward Cumming explains: “The big focus is on training not assessment. We recognise that every pupil comes in with a different level of experience and the work they do will vary.”
"Equity is the common thread throughout."
Some pupils lean towards Chancery (wills, trusts, 1975 Inheritance Act claims), some more towards commercial (banking fraud, contractual disputes) depending on their supervisors, while taking on tasks from other members makes for “a huge range over the year; although equity is the common thread throughout.” Most fledglings also get to spread their wings into aviation.
In the early going, pupils might “get handed a load of papers from a past matter and have to write an opinion,” though research on live matters becomes the priority over time. Our sources suggested there's “more of a gradual increase in responsibility than any one big jump.” Drafting advices, pleadings and skeleton arguments are all part of the learning curve, as well as trips to the Court of Appeal and other trials. Pupils are unlikely to get on their feet during pupillage, but there are some informal advocacy exercises to prep for future court appearances.
XXIV sets no formally assessed tasks: pupillage is a constant process of assessment. “It's a good even-handed way of doing things,” believed a pupil we spoke to. “It's not like you hear nothing all year. The way they run it helps to control the inevitable stress.”
At the end of each seat pupils have a review with their supervisor, each of whom submits a report to the pupillage committee. Feedback also comes from any other members who've worked with a pupil, though “tenancy is fundamentally determined by your supervisors.” The committee collates the reviews and puts forward a recommendation to chambers, who all vote on the final decision. “There's no competitiveness between pupils,” our relieved interviewees told us. “The ideal scenario is keeping everyone on.” Unfortunately neither pupil gained tenancy in 2017; the set did take on two third-sixers though.
Premises and name aside, there's not much old left in Old Buildings: chambers tea is a tradition long since left behind and “nobody's addressed anyone as 'sir' or 'madam' – it's first names all round. There's a stereotype that Chancery sets can be fusty, but that's not the case here.” The relationships between pupils, barristers and clerks tend to be “pretty matey” and certainly not restricted to work. “People are definitely sociable," a rookie told us, "and they bring us pupils along when they get together.” Members often take pupils for lunch in the nearby Lincoln's Inn Great Hall once a week.
Working hours for pupils are typically 9am to 6.30pm, when “everyone will tell you to leave – the late nights are to come when you're a tenant!" We did hear that "closer to the tenancy decision you might work later sometimes.”
In with a Chancery
“There certainly isn't a preferred XXIV type,” but pupils suggested “the common quality is high achievement.” We'd add that the set's juniors are a pretty Oxbridgey bunch. Though Chancery is a very cerebral area of law, just being a law geek won't take you far – the set frequently takes on non-law grads (seven of the ten most junior tenants did the GDL), and some practical experience helps too: before gaining pupillage one current junior worked as a management consultant, one was a researcher for the Law Commission and one lectured at university.
“Soft skills are as important as anything else.”
The application process kicks off with candidates submitting a simple form explaining why they desire pupillage at the set and completing an online aptitude test. The top 16 test performers automatically go through to a 15-minute interview with a three-member panel; of the next best 32, a further 16 are chosen for interview based on their form. Sources recommended applicants “don't stress about the level of legal knowledge you have” going into interviews, as XXIV takes into account that GDL students in particular might not have the same knowledge as law grads.
The 12 brightest pupillage prospects progress to an assessment day testing their written, oral and negotiation abilities through a series of tasks. “Soft skills are as important as anything else – you have to be able to get along with people and work as part of a team.” In between assessments, members mingle among the applicants to provide the chance to get to know chambers. Those who'd survived the process reported “the set made it as comfortable as it could be. Having said that, you do feel very scrutinised throughout which gives you a lot of faith in the integrity of the process.” There are normally just two pupillages on offer, so competition for a spot is tight.
The application deadline for XXIV is far earlier than most –27 November 2017 to start in 2019. Edward Cumming explains: “It's to allow enough time for our rigorous interview process.”
XXIV Old Buildings
24 Old Buildings,
- No of silks 12
- No of juniors 28
- No of pupils 2
- Contact Edward Cumming
- Method of application Online application form. Please see www.xxiv.co.uk for guidance
- Pupillages (pa) 3
- Tenancies Usually up to three per year
- Other offices Geneva
Type of work undertaken