20 Essex Street - True Picture

This set has built a strong reputation for itself at the Commercial Bar; specialisms include shipping, international arbitration and public international law.

Essex Bomb

“The badge we are looking for is that of a set working on complex multiparty, multi-jurisdictional commercial disputes,” a senior source at 20 Essex Street told us. The set's ability to work on such cases is strongly linked to its long-established reputation for international arbitration, public international law and especially shipping, for which the set is top-ranked in Chambers UK. One source pointed out how abilities in these areas are leveraged to attract other work: “If an oil company instructs us on litigation related to one of their oil tankers, and then they have a dispute to deal with afterwards related to oil production, then they can turn to us too.” 

This approach has allowed the set to successfully build up a solid position at the commercial Bar in the last 15 years and it wins Chambers UK rankings for both general commercial work and banking and finance. The three areas where the set sees most potential for strategic growth are energy, banking and civil fraud. Lateral hires are a part of this strategy: for example in late 2015 the set brought over energy silk Gordon Nardell from 39 Essex Chambers.

Around a third of 20ES's members have a shipping and commodities practice. Members were recently active in the Supreme Court on Bunge v Nidera, acting for the buyers of a cargo in a dispute with the sellers over the interpretation of a contract under trade association rules. There are some wet shipping cases too: for example, two members recently defended the underwriters of the oil tanker 'Brillante Virtuoso' against a Commercial Court claim over the ship's attack by pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Other cases mix shipping/commodities work with other specialisms like fraud and energy: three members acted for Romanian oil company Petrom in a claim against Glencore over suspiciously mixed oil delivered to Romania by ship in the 1990s.

“I chose this set for its international commercial litigation and arbitration work and its public international law practice.”

As this case suggests, there's lots of international work to be had for pupils at 20ES. “I chose this set for its international commercial litigation and arbitration work and its public international law practice,” a pupil told us. On one recent international matter two silks acted for the Libyan Investment Authority in a $1 billion Commercial Court claim against Goldman Sachs over derivative contracts disputes. Barristers are frequently active on arbitrations too and while most work is confidential, we can tell you that one silk is involved in a battle over two gold mines in Armenia. Meanwhile, the set's eight public international law experts are instructed mostly by governments but also by businesses and other institutions. Members have recently worked on cases related to nuclear disarmament, the Mau Mau uprising, Italian marines being held in custody in India, oil investments in Russia, and allegations of torture in Egypt.

It only takes a mini

For a pupillage at 20 Essex Street you apply via the Gateway. Previously all applicants had to have completed a mini-pupillage before being considered for pupillage. This requirement has been dropped for the moment. However, minis are “strongly encouraged” – in 2017 the deadline to apply for a autumn/winter place was 30 June, and for ones in spring 2018, it's 30 November. On a mini you can expect to sit with two supervisors over two days during and to discuss legal issues and learn about life at 20 Essex Street and the Commercial Bar.

There's just a single interview round which around 25 applicants are invited to – it's 30 minutes in front of four members. Applicants face an abstract legal problem question which they are given ten minutes in advance to prepare. “You don't need to know any case law – the basic contractual or statute information is provided. We are looking to test analytical reasoning,” says pupillage committee member Susannah Jones. The question involves providing advice to a client on the basis of an imaginary statute and set of facts, for instance “related to a change in gun legislation in a fictional country.” Interviewees are given five minutes to talk the panel through their advice and are then asked questions on it, before facing several competency and CV-based questions too.

Pupils sit with four supervisors for three months each and are exposed to the full range of chambers' work. “My first supervisor had a broad commercial practice with an emphasis on energy and arbitration,” a baby junior told us. “My second had a commercial and commodities practice, and my third did banking, finance and shipping.” In addition, a pupil told us they had worked for around ten other members during pupillage. “I wrote an insolvency opinion related to the Arbitration Act for an insolvency silk,” a pupil told us, “and I was involved in a few public international law cases too.” Working for other members is a requirement and is organised by supervisors.

“The first time I ever wrote a defence was for a QC.”

“Towards the end of the first seat the work becomes more complex,” a pupil told us. “After Christmas I would be drafting a skeleton argument for a trial as well as opinions and pleadings.” Rookies work mostly on live cases and were impressed by the volume and level of feedback they received. “The first time I ever wrote a defence was for a QC,” a baby junior recalled. “When I had completed it he made a point of sitting down with me in the library, taking out all the relevant statutes and going through my defence line by line comparing it to what he had produced and giving me commentary.” Pupils also shadow their supervisors in court or at arbitrations whenever they go, which is perhaps three or four times a seat.

Given the size and scope of 20ES's casework, pupils do not usually spend time on their feet. Once you're the “finished article" and start as a junior tenant you can expect to be in court once or twice a month, for instance on small commercial claims, company/insolvency hearings or charter party claims.

There's no T in Thursday

There are four assessed oral advocacy exercises during pupillage. “You're given the papers two or three days beforehand and are asked to write a skeleton argument,” Susannah Jones told us. “The pupils then go up against each other in a scenario designed to mimic a hearing or court case.” The reports on these exercises are looked at alongside reports from supervisors and other members pupils have worked for by the tenancy committee, which makes a non-binding recommendation on tenancy. A meeting of all members then makes the final decision. In 2017 one of the set's three pupils gained tenancy after all three did in 2016.

20 Essex Street's chambers tea has been replaced by Thursday evening drinks on the premises. “Sometimes four or five members will go along; sometimes it will be everyone,” a pupil told us. “You make friends with people very quickly.” Given the set has many eminent silks – two have knighthoods for their work at the Foreign Office – we wondered if this made the set a hierarchical place to work. “It's not like that,” a baby junior assured us. “If I tried to call one of the members with a knighthood 'Sir' they'd laugh at me. There is no division here between those members who have a knighthood and, uhm, those who don't.”

Members are a mixed bunch in other ways too. “Some people like to go to the opera and others like to jam with their band on the electric guitar.” Really? “Yes, head of chambers Chris Hancock plays electric guitar, and he has an electronic drum kit in his office.”

“Pupillage is definitely hectic. You put a lot of pressure on yourself, but pressure is not imposed on you by anyone else. You're not given keys to the building and if you're still working at 6.30pm you'll be asked, 'Why are you still here?'”

20 Essex Street

20 Essex Street,
Website www.20essexst.com

  • No of silks 20
  • No of juniors 47
  • No of pupils 3
  • Contact Daniel Clark, director of admin and finance, 020 7842 1200
  • Method of application Pupillage Gateway
  • Pupillages (pa) 12 months - 3
  • Minimum degree 2:1 (law or non-law)
  • Award £65,000
  • Tenancies offered in the last three years In the last three years, 83% of our pupils have become tenants

Chambers profile

20 Essex Street is one of the leading international commercial law sets. Our members are at the forefront of developments in a wide range of areas of law, including: banking and financial services; civil fraud; energy and natural resources; European law; competition; insolvency and restructuring; insurance and reinsurance; international commercial arbitration; public international law; private international law; public law; shipping law; commodities; sport; and arbitration and mediation. The nature of members’ practices is truly international and since 2009 we have maintained a fully staffed annexe in Singapore.

Pupil profile

We aim to recruit the best candidates, based on merit. We are looking for individuals who demonstrate the aptitude and desire to succeed in our areas of expertise. Successful applicants will have excellent intellectual and analytical skills (typically but not invariably evidenced by a first class degree although not necessarily in law), be articulate and persuasive both orally and on paper, be able to work under pressure and have strong inter-personal and teamwork skills.


We offer up to three 12-month pupillages a year starting in mid-September. The year is split between four pupil supervisors. During the first three months, the pupil will work almost exclusively for his or her supervisor. Thereafter, and increasingly as the year goes on, the pupil will also work for other members of chambers (of all levels of seniority). Pupils also take part in a programme of in-house advocacy exercises, as well as attending the advocacy training organised by their Inn. Chambers pays the costs of the compulsory courses for pupils. Pupils are also encouraged to work for FRU and undertake at least two FRU cases before starting pupillage.
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.


We consider a mini pupillage with Chambers to be a valuable experience and strongly encourage pupillage applicants to apply for a mini pupillage in advance of their pupillage application. We typically offer up to forty two-day non-assessed mini pupillages in a year. Applications for mini pupillage are via our on-line application form at www.20essexst.com/recruitment/mini-pupillage.

Pupillage award

We offer an award of £65,000 per annum. Our pupillage award scheme is split into two parts. In respect of the ‘first’ six months, the award is £43,350. The balance of the award, £21,650, is paid in respect of the ‘second’ six. Pupils are permitted to draw down up to £25,000 of their award before commencing pupillage.

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2017

Ranked Departments

    • 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)