20 Essex is seeking to further expand its commercial practice, while maintaining specialities in areas like shipping and public international law.
Pushing the boat out
“We have a legacy of being the leading international trade and shipping set,” practice manager Billy Brian says, before reminding us this set's work is now much broader than that: "The set is now recognised as a leader for complex commercial disputes."Chambers UK awards 20 Essex Street a top-tier ranking for shipping, as well as acknowledging its achievements in public international law, arbitration, insurance, and general commercial expertise. After shipping, civil fraud, banking and energy are the next three biggest growing areas of expertise.
Current pupils were attracted to the “international nature of the commercial work.” Recently two barristers acted for the liquidators of a Romanian bank seeking to recover a $130 million debt ordered by a Romanian court, obtaining freezing orders against the defendants in Turkey and the US. Members also acted for 12 retailers including Asda, the Arcadia Group and Morrisons in a competition damages case against Mastercard and Visa. On the shipping side, two barristers recently worked on an arbitration enforcement case related to a contract to carry goods between a shipowner and a charterer. Meanwhile, a silk acted for the owners of LNG carrier 'Al Khattiya' in a $50 million claim related to its collision with the 'Jag Laadki' off the coast of the UAE.
20ES has a substantial public international law practice, though pupils tend not to get involved in this area much. Sir Daniel Bethlehem QC recently led Kate Parlett in a case before the International Court of Justice over whether Chile is obliged to provide Bolivia with a link to the sea, given the latter became landlocked after the 19th century War of the Pacific. And Sir Michael Wood was instructed by the government of Slovenia in a (thankfully peaceful) maritime border dispute with Croatia.
Like some of its clients 20ES is keen to expand its territory and muscle its way onto other people's turf. “We want to continue to grow to become a magic circle set," says Billy Brian. The set has recently hired Paul Lowenstein QC from 3VB and Andrew Dinsmore from St Philips Stone to bolster its general commercial offering. It also recently brought in Jemma Tagg as director of strategic development – she was previously head of international relations at Slaughter and May. “She comes with an impressive law firm background and knows what clients want," says Brian.
Wanted dead or alive
Officially pupils do four three-months seats, though junior sources we spoke to had actually done a longer final six-month seat with one supervisor. Interviewees had sat with barristers with a variety of specialisms, from general commercial to fraud to shipping. “In the first three months you exclusively work for your supervisor," a source told us, "but that balance shifts over the course of pupillage.” This doesn't mean the first months are an easy ride – far from it: “In my first few months my supervisor had a five-day arbitration in the London Court of International Arbitration – I was involved in doing the first draft of the skeleton argument for the hearing, reading through the witness statements and gathering the documents together.” This source was also able to attend the hearing and “see how our case was argued and how the other side approached it.”
During their second seat, pupils are “exposed to a couple of other people in chambers – there's a list of barristers you need to work with so they can see your abilities and you can see the different cases they're involved with.” The work is generally a mix of live and dead cases. Pupils often work on live matters for their supervisors, while when working for other members “the work's not always live because they're giving you work to test you: historic cases that they think are useful.” This was fine with our interviewees, who explained: “I'm more worried about getting it right than whether it's a live case. I'm relieved that nobody is going to win or lose a case on the basis of what I write!” Generally tasks for other members fall into one of three categories: opinions, skeleton arguments or pleadings. Pupils said their average working day was 9am to 6.30pm, with some late stays till 8pm or so. Pupils aren't given keys to the building, which means “you can't access the building after hours or at weekends anyway.”
Pupils don't get on their feet in their second six due to the size and scope of 20ES's casework. Despite this, pupils found the work in the second six to be “stretching – it certainly provides the opportunity to learn as you go along. And some of it is just really hard!” Even baby juniors don't tend to get their own caseload. One told us: “Once I gained tenancy my former supervisor and a silk brought me onto a case I'd be working on as junior counsel.”
Although pupils don't get on their feet, there is the opportunity to demonstrate advocacy skills during four assessed advocacy exercises which all count towards the tenancy decision. These usually start after Christmas. One source explained: “You're given a set of instructions then you draft a skeleton argument and are pitted against your fellow pupil.” The exercises take place in front of a panel of three members, usually silks. Other than this “every piece of work you do is assessed, right from the beginning.” Come tenancy crunch time, the pupillage committee makes a non-binding recommendation which all members vote on. In 2018 all three pupils gained tenancy.
Pizzas with the PhDs
Pupillage recruitment is done through the Gateway. Prior to this, candidates must have completed an unassessed mini-pupillage at the set. “They are an opportunity for you as a student to look at chambers and decide if you want to spend the next 40 years of your life in that building with those people,” pupillage committee member Oliver Caplin points out. After the Gateway sift, the set invites around 20 applicants for a single interview, preceded by a written exercise which is sent to you at 9.30am and has to be returned by 4.30pm the same day. Applicants must also turn up an hour before the interview starts, to pore over a legal problem which is then discussed in the interview.
In addition to academic ability 20ES is looking for people to “show they understand and are interested in the type of work we do,” as well as demonstrating they have “an understanding of what it is to be a barrister at the Commercial Bar.” For instance, one thing to realise is that opportunities for advocacy are more limited at the Commercial Bar, so don't spend your interview blabbing on about how much you want to appear in court arguing a case. To give you an idea of who this set recruits: among the 15 or so members under five years' call all but two went to Oxbridge, three hold a PhD (all from Cambridge), two did the BCL at Oxford, and one went to Yale then lectured at KCL. In addition several graduated from overseas universities and four are qualified abroad.
So what's working in this nest of brainboxes like? Interviewees found the culture to be “genuinely very friendly.” One pupil reflected: “I've been made to feel welcome. Pupils were invited to two chambers drinks before we started, which was a good opportunity to meet members. Then in the first month junior members took us out for dinner to welcome us.” Another added: “Last week we had pizza on the rooftop with some juniors, which was a nice chance to unwind.” There's no tea, but chambers drinks is every Thursday.
“Try and learn another language before you come to the Bar," recommends practice manager Billy Brian. "Across the Commercial Bar so many disputes have an international element to them.”
20 Essex Street
20 Essex Street,
- No of silks 21
- No of juniors 49
- No of pupils 3
- Contact Daniel Clark, director of admin and finance, 020 7842 1200
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) Three 12-months pupillages
- Minimum degree 2:1 (law or non-law)
- Award £65,000
- Tenancies offered in the last three years In the last three years, 80% of our pupils have become tenants
We have a very high retention rate. We are not constrained by accommodation or levels of work. Any pupil who achieves the tenancy standard will be offered tenancy. In the past three years, over 83% of our pupils have become tenants.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2018
- Banking & Finance (Band 5)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 3)
- Insurance (Band 3)
- International Arbitration: General Commercial & Insurance (Band 2)
- Public International Law (Band 2)
- Shipping & Commodities (Band 1)