Let's spill the tea on 3VB: this is a high-flying commercial set where you can get on your feet early with significant international work and a peachy culture.
3 Verulam Buildings pupillage review
3VB isn't your run-of-the-mill commercial set, as this interviewee happily declared when they told us why they joined: “It was among the small handful of chambers that offered me the work I actually wanted to do.” So if a mix of international and civil fraud, commercial disputes, international arbitration, big insolvencies, professional negligence matters and more appeals, then you're in the right place. The set is also at the forefront of the newly utilised Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs). Senior practice manager Stephen Penson explains that this kind of work entails looking into “alleged criminals that suddenly have a portfolio of properties – we look under the bonnet and establish if the money comes from drugs or laundering. However, this is only part of our fraud/commercial work.” There’s also some high-profile art-related work available: “One of the largest pieces of litigation we did in that space was over whether a Caravaggio piece was genuine or not and what impact that had on the price.”Chambers UK Bar rates 3VB highly for its work in banking & finance, commercial dispute resolution, financial services and civil fraud, but also bestows significant praise on the set's expertise in areas such as IT, offshore matters, insolvency, public international law, international arbitration and insurance.
During the COVID pandemic, Penson tells us 3VB was "lucky because our ordinary work stayed consistently high throughout despite the obvious difficulties caused to many sectors, and there was also some work that was generated by the pandemic." The set saw an influx of business interruption insurance matters, as well as advisory work that addressed how COVID-based Supreme Court decisions would affect clients. Insolvency work hasn’t necessarily boomed due to the “safety nets put in by the government. Once those disappear and the tide goes out, I imagine we’ll see the debris,” Penson predicts.
“We look under the bonnet and find money from drugs or laundering.”
3VB’s practice extends across a global scale: Jonathan Nash QC was recently instructed by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to help appeal an arbitral award of over $200 million on the grounds of fraud. Meanwhile, Christopher Harris QC and the team worked on an investment treaty arbitration brought by the Republic of Kazakhstan against World Wide Minerals tied to a long-running dispute from the late 90s regarding a Soviet-era uranium mining and processing facility. Matthew Hardwick QC et al recently represented bankrupt company Solo Capital Partners against the Danish customs and tax administration SKAT in a matter involving 98 defendants claiming deceit and negligence totalling over £1.5 billion.
Penson tells us that 3VB has made some “very canny lateral recruits as of late – and that’ll be continuing.” The set is also focusing on organic growth and takes on four pupils a year; however, Penson tell us that “we might be revising [that number] to take more soon. The number of pupils we take on is under review due to the huge amount of work available at the junior end of chambers.” Another form of growth involves being “progressive about what we offer beyond the law.” As well as doing corporate social responsibility (CSR) work, 3VB is home to IADRU (International Advisory and Dispute Resolution Unit), which “sounds very secret agent.” The team works pro bono for “emerging markets – we help to develop the Commercial Bar in different countries in Africa.” Penson tells us that it’s “a pleasure to use our good fortune to help.” Closer to home, 3VB has implemented initiatives to bring pupils at nearby schools into chambers to give them a taste of life at the Bar. Member of the pupillage committee David Head QC tells us: “We welcome people from all sorts of backgrounds and are very keen to look at anyone who wishes to join us.”
The Pupillage Experience
3VB's pupillage is broken down into four seats that last three months each. Each pupil supervisor has various specialisms, so pupils “sit in their room and do whatever they do. You get to see quite a lot of work very quickly.” The first six is a “steep learning curve,” according to this source. Most work is done for the supervisor, with pupils starting off writing research notes and skeleton arguments. They then become more “proactive once your feet are under the table” and get to draft the likes of witness statements and particulars of claim. “At times I was treated as a junior barrister and was trusted with making sure I got all notes from the hearing to propose what to put in the closing argument,” one interviewee recalled.
The second six is “hugely different in terms of what’s required of you. You’re encouraged to be on your feet as much as you can handle.” This is somewhat of a rarity for commercial sets. Clerks give pupils “small bits of work,” usually tied to the County Court, which pupils run “alongside your other led work with people in chambers.” Though small, the County Court work was described as “really important because eventually you’ll have to do a big summary judgment in Commercial Court and the County Court helps prepare you for that.” Practising in the second six is “something everyone really looks forward to – but you don’t realise how important it is until you get that first instruction and run your own ideas past your supervisor.” Once qualified, juniors “see a real focus on being an advocate” at 3VB. “You’d be surprised at the practice profile here – at other commercial sets you don’t get on your feet very often, but at 3VB you could be in court once or twice a week if you wanted to.”
“..a real focus on being an advocate.”
Each supervisor writes a report on their pupil, while other members who have worked with the pupil also provide feedback on performance. All of this is taken into account in the tenancy decision alongside the pupil's performance in advocacy exercises completed throughout the year. “We do four in total but the first is unassessed. It lets people get an impression of it as it’s quite intense.” Fortunately, we heard that feedback is given in spade loads – “it gives you more of a chance to recover from your mistakes so you’re never playing catch-up. It’s very holistic.” The exercises are designed to bring out the best in pupils – “if you under-perform, they get you to do more of them rather than just putting a black mark against your name. There’s no unnecessary stress.”
David Head QC tells us that “we recruit pupils with the expectation that they’ll be good enough to be tenants and hope to take all our pupils on.” For a long time, 3VB has recruited “almost all of our pupils.” This means that “pupils aren’t in competition with each other. We hope that reduces the pressure – we’re keen to take away as much of the stress as possible.” In 2021, 3VB gave tenancy to three pupils.
3VB was described as a “genuinely friendly place: if you ask someone for a coffee, they always say yes.” Pupils feel respected, with one explaining that “people are keen to listen to me and my opinion on legal issues.” Social-wise, pupils have a WhatsApp group and organised their socials online during lockdown, “which wasn’t quite the same.” Since restrictions eased, they’re “trying to see each other as much as possible. We’re having a chambers party once the restrictions allow it to happen.” With regards to hours, we heard that the pupillage committee “really doesn’t want pupils to be overworked.” Pupils tend to finish work sometime between 6pm and 7pm, “sometimes later.” But once they’ve gained tenancy, “I’d be surprised if a commercial junior would ever finish by 6pm.” If someone’s overworked, seniors will “immediately tell you to stop and take a break – there’s a big focus on mental health.”
The Application Process
3 Verulam Buildings recruits via the Pupillage Gateway – in 2021, the set received over 140 applications. “We certainly expect applicants to have done a mini-pupillage with us,” Head explains. “It’s an important part of recruitment and we do look at mini-pupillage reports and assessed work carefully when deciding who would fit with us.” Applicants apply with a CV to the mini-pupillage committee, who look for three main criteria: high intellectual ability (“the commercial work we do is pretty hardcore”), oral advocacy and “the right temperament and interest in our work.” During minis, mini pupils are given “real work – I was given the opportunity to express my opinions and help my supervisor.” Supervisors take mini pupils to lunch “and invite others – the atmosphere was relaxed and people were giving their honest opinions about 3VB and my choices.”
The pupillage interview process consists of two rounds. The first round sees 35 candidates invited to complete a 30-minute interview. “In relation to the first-round interview, we ask people about their CV and studies in the past,” Head tells us. The team especially looks for high academic results, “as well as mooting, drama experience or being on a student body.” Interviewees are sent a Court of Appeal decision or discussion point two weeks prior and are “asked to think about it in advance and be prepared to talk about it.” We heard that the panel “weren’t adversarial at any point. They didn’t put me in an awkward position, but they still pushed and challenged what I was saying. It’s not something you can just go into lightly prepared.” Commercial awareness will also be under the microscope. Head tells us the panel is looking for “evidence of resilience and determination to practise in this particular area, with knowledge of what’s flying around in the commercial field.” Pupils told us perfection isn’t everything: “They’re looking for someone who isn’t the best already but is willing to admit when they’re wrong and remedy their mistake quickly.”
“It’s not something you can just go into lightly prepared.”
Around 15 to 20 candidates are invited to the longer second-round interview. Head tells us that applicants are given “a problem question to consider approximately two hours before the interview starts, and they will typically be asked detailed questions about the problem during interview as if they were a barrister giving advice in conference.” Those without a law degree shouldn’t be put off – “everything they need is within the few sheets of paper we give to them,” Head explains. "We have generally found that law graduates have been no more successful than non-law graduates in our recruitment processes.” The panel roleplays as clients at a conference, “and you go in as if you’re advising them,” which Head says is “a pretty good way of allowing people to show themselves at their best.” Being in front of a panel of around seven people can be initially “intimidating – it’s impossible to even look at everyone!” Interviewees are asked questions and the panel “interrogates your reasoning under pressure and your ability to focus on how you deliver an answer.” However, the panel are “not unnecessarily adversarial. It was still a good atmosphere that allowed me to put forward my best points.”
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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2021
- Banking & Finance (Band 1)
- Chancery: Commercial (Band 3)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 1)
- Financial Services (Band 1)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 1)
- Information Technology (Band 2)
- Insurance (Band 3)
- International Arbitration: General Commercial & Insurance (Band 3)
- Offshore (Band 3)
- Professional Negligence (Band 3)
- Public International Law (Band 3)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)