If you chance upon Chancery Lane, you’ll find 39 Essex Chambers – a set that offers its pupils a whistlestop tour of civil liability, environment, commercial, and public law.
39 Essex Chambers pupillage review 2024
“If I were to try and display the work that we do in a pie chart, it would look like a trivial pursuit board!” 39 Essex’s CEO and director of clerking Lindsay Scott jokes, adding: “We are an exceptionally broad set, so it’s more a question of what we don’t do!” In fact, aside from crime work and family law, there isn’t much that isn’t covered at 39 Essex. With barristers operating out of the set’s offices in London, Manchester, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, 39 Essex is one of the largest sets you’ll find in the capital. “Our practice has continued to get bigger,” Scott continues. “As practices develop, we develop with them. We now have a dedicated sports practice, and we are one of the only chambers that offers a specialism in fire matters.”
“...we are seeing more multi-jurisdictional cases across all our areas.”
With this breadth of practices, it shouldn’t surprise you that 39 Essex scoops up a wealth of Chambers UK Bar rankings, including top-tier nods in environment, personal injury, professional discipline, community care and Court of Protection (health & welfare) work. The set also receives high praise for its work in areas such as civil liberties & human rights, data protection, education, international arbitration, immigration, and local government (to name a few). In a particularly high-profile recent case for the set, James Strachan KC acted for the Department for Transport to help advance the case for extending the HS2 rail line from Crewe to Manchester; Strachan dealt with numerous petitions from local authorities and appeared in front of Parliamentary Select Committees in the House of Commons and House of Lords. On the civil liberties side of the practice, Jenni Richards KC acted for a widower before the High Court to prevent the potential destruction of embryos created during IVF treatment; the client was seeking to use an embryo created with his late wife to have a baby via a surrogate – a move the High Court ultimately ruled as lawful.
As Scott puts it, 39 Essex Chambers is working to meet a changing set of client needs post-pandemic: “It’s a different world, and we need to align ourselves with our clients’ expectations. The world is getting smaller with increasing globalisation, and we are seeing more multi-jurisdictional cases across all our areas.” For Scott, there are other positives that have emerged through the challenges imposed by the pandemic: “There have been silver linings. We are now paper-light, for example. With electronic court bundles and barristers working remotely, we are using much less paper. We are much more flexible too, which has led to more efficiency.”
The Pupillage Experience
Each pupillage at 39 Essex covers the same four seats: civil liability; commercial & construction; environment & planning; and general public law. The order in which pupils complete the four seats varies, but in the end “you’re likely to have spent around two and a half months in each of the first three, then probably a bit longer in the last one,” one pupil explained, before offering this advice: “Go into your pupillage with an open mind, and you’ll pick up things that will be helpful later on!” Indeed, the opportunity to get exposure to a broad church of practices was a big part of the draw for many of the set’s pupils. As one junior member put it: “Ultimately, I decided that I did want to do a mix at the beginning. There are some people who want specialist pupillages, but I wanted that broad experience to figure out what I was good at.”
“...a very hands-on supervision style.”
“The first six for me was a bit of a learning curve,” a source recalled, and not without good reason. Pupils at 39 Essex can find themselves working on anything from drafting a skeleton argument or court schedule, to preparing an initial set of cross-examination questions. The idea, interviewees told us, is to provide pupils with substantive tasks and exposure to “a bit of everything”: “There were times when I would be assisting on a live case that my supervisor was leading, but they would also bring out past cases that would equip me with the skills I would need to practise.” This contributes to what Kate Grange – one of the heads of pupillage at 39 Essex – describes as “a very hands-on supervision style.” Pupils are expected to be in chambers a full five days a week, but so are their supervisors: “It’s so important for learning that the more experienced barristers are in alongside them. There was of course a period during the pandemic where this wasn’t the case, but our in-person set-up was eased back in pretty quickly, because we found that the pupils wanted to come in,” says Grange.
The second six is split between two seats in which pupils begin to actively practise and take on some of their own cases: “They tend to be smaller hearings that last maybe half a day,” an interviewee explained, “and you tend to have around two scheduled court days a week, mostly in civil liability cases, so road traffic accident matters make up quite a large proportion.” Clerks do need to run any proposed extra court time by the pupil’s supervisor first: “Our supervisors very much control how much work we're doing, but that’s so they can take a look at what we produce, and it was a relief not to be in court every day at that stage!”
“...they are looking for an upwards trajectory.”
Pupils are given feedback on every piece of work that they do, but pupils are also given written assessments during each of their four seats at the half-way and end-of-seat point. Pupils are assessed against the pupillage criteria. In the final seat, pupils are graded, and at the very end of pupillage the pupillage committee considers all of the seat assessments when deciding whether to recommend an offer of tenancy.
As a general rule, the tenancy decision won’t come as a surprise at the final hurdle: “You should have an idea of how you’re doing. The way someone described it to me was that they are looking for an upwards trajectory,” a source commented, “so your supervisor will sit with you at each stage of assessment and go through the different criteria to see what you’ve done.” The set’s assessment criteria includes intellectual ability and advocacy skills, and there is room for all pupils who demonstrate a high level of competency in both: “As long as they make the standard, we will take them, regardless of how many have made that standard,” Grange explains. This final call is made by the pupillage committee, who will pass on a recommendation to the management board. Both qualifiers were retained in 2023.
According to Lindsay Scott, one of the standout features of life at the set is an atmosphere of teamwork: “When I first started, I came to a welcome party and I genuinely didn’t know who the clerks were, and who the barristers were, everyone was mixed in together.” This is something that pupils at the set echoed: “Even though members are working on their own cases and have their own workload, there's a team-like atmosphere.” Pupils were quick to tell us about a chambers-wide lunch that is held every second Thursday, as well as Friday evening drinks in the clerks’ room. As one pupil put it, distancing itself from the traditional stereotypes of the Bar is a big part of 39 Essex’s forward-thinking approach: “They have always made an effort to be modern. We’re in a purpose-built office building, and I think it was quite a significant moment for the set to move from their previous location, which was a more traditional chambers.”
The set has a strict rule when it comes to hours, which applies to everyone: work between 9am and 6pm. “When supervisors give you tasks and a deadline, they're anticipating that you will only be working between those hours,” one source told us, “after all, they know you are doing your best work when you are well rested and able to see your friends for dinner!”
The Application Process
Interested candidates apply through Pupillage Gateway. “We essentially have three stages to the application process,” Grange tells us, “a paper stage, a first stage interview, followed by a second round, and we’ll have different ways of assessing a candidate’s competency at each of those stages.” The paper stage involves a number of short form questions that will gauge why prospective pupils are interested in 39 Essex.
Those who impress are then invited to attend a virtual interview that covers a mix of situational judgment questions and a legal problem. In 2022, the set interviewed 90 candidates at the first stage – the most ever.
“Successful candidates are then invited to a second round of in-person interviews, in which they’ll face a series of questions from a panel based on a case they are sent in advance,” Grange adds. Candidates are therefore given some time to prepare beforehand, and a pupil recalled that “there are questions on the material, which is usually a judicial decision, but there are also a few hot-topic questions on things like the legal challenges arising from COVID” (not to mention a few CV-related questions for good measure).
Zoom Etiquette: Ahead of each interview, 39 Essex sends out a one-page document covering everything from the dress code to the interview format and helpful tips.
39 Essex Chambers
39 Essex Chambers is a long-established civil set. It currently has 162 members, including 56 KCs. Chambers has 25 members on the Attorney General’s Panels for civil litigation. It prides itself on its friendly, supportive and professional atmosphere, and the high standard of its clerking and administrative support services. It was described by Chambers UK as “home to some extraordinarily bright people.” Within Chambers, members work very hard; however, they also pride themselves on having a thriving, cohesive and inclusive social life including regular lunches and breakfasts in Chambers. 39 Essex Chambers strives to be an equal opportunities employer and is committed to diversity amongst its staff and members.
• Commercial Law: Commercial regulation; construction and engineering; corporate restructuring; costs; employment; insurance and reinsurance; media, entertainment and sports; oil, gas and utilities; financial services; project finance; energy
• Costs & Litigation Funding
• Civil Liability: Clinical negligence; health and safety; insurance; material loss claims; personal injury; product liability; professional negligence; sports injuries; toxic torts
• Planning, Environmental & Property: Aviation; compulsory purchase; contaminated land; environmental civil liability; environmental regulation; international environmental law; licensing; marine environment; planning; nuisance; rating
• Administrative & Public Law: Central and local government; European law; human rights; judicial review; mental health and community care; inquests; parliamentary; cost and funding and public affairs
• Regulatory & Disciplinary: Medical; legal; social care and education; financial services; broadcasting, communications and media; sport; transport; health and safety; building and housing; local government standards; licensing
Chambers awards up to three 12-month pupillages a year. During the pupillage year, each pupil will rotate between four seats, covering a broad range of Chambers’ work. The pupils will also do two assessed pieces of written work for other members of Chambers and receive training in, and assessment of, advocacy. Pupils work between 9:00am and 6:00pm, Monday to Friday with no late nights or weekend work expected. Time is given for preparing own work and in the second six months pupils can expect to go to Court a number of times a month. Chambers has an excellent record of recruiting its own pupils as successful junior tenants.
Mini-pupillage is not a prerequisite for pupillage but we encourage those intending to seek pupillage to apply for mini-pupillage if they can. There are limited places available. We are trialling a new scheme this year whereby we host a day of talks and activities for mini-pupils. Applicants should have completed, begun or be just about to begin the final year of an undergraduate law degree or, if you did not complete an undergraduate degree in law, the final year of a master’s degree in law or the final year of a Graduate Diploma in Law. Applications open in late September/early October; check Chambers’ website and follow Chambers on social media for details and updates to the timetable.
The pupillage award is currently £70,000 of which £5,000 will be by way of guaranteed earnings in the second six, payable in equal monthly instalments across the twelve-month pupillage. Earnings for your own work in the second six months is additional to this award (above the £5,000 minimum). Up to £15,000 of the £70,000 award may be drawn down in advance over the BPTC year and/or for relevant postgraduate study in the year before commencement of pupillage (payable in monthly instalments and with pro rata reductions during the pupillage year). Awards and offers are all conditional upon satisfactory completion of the academic and vocational stages of training.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2023
- Costs Litigation (Band 2)
- Court of Protection: Health & Welfare (Band 1)
- Administrative & Public Law (Band 2)
- Civil Liberties & Human Rights (Band 2)
- Clinical Negligence (Band 4)
- Community Care (Band 1)
- Construction (Band 3)
- Data Protection (Band 4)
- Education (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources (Band 3)
- Environment (Band 1)
- Immigration (Band 2)
- Inquests & Public Inquiries (Band 3)
- International Arbitration: Construction/Engineering (Band 3)
- Local Government (Band 2)
- Personal Injury (Band 1)
- Planning (Band 3)
- Professional Discipline (Band 1)
- Professional Negligence: Technology & Construction (Band 2)
- Tax: Indirect Tax (Band 3)
- Travel: International Personal Injury (Band 3)