This chambers “don’t do boring” – pupils get stuck into a mix of commercial and public work with barristers at the top of their game.
Four little birds, one Blackstone
A Black-stone’s throw away from Temple Station, currently quite hidden by scaffolding and building works, sits one of the Bar’s heaviest hitters: Blackstone Chambers. In stark contrast to the construction outside, the set’s plush interior – a five-star hotel manager would approve, we’ll put it that way – serves as a reminder of its status. So what’s going on outside? “That’s a consequence of increasing in size year on year,” senior clerk Gary Oliver explains. “We’ve just taken over the entirety of Garden Court. It’s an 18-month to two-year plan – when the building project is finished, we move out of here temporarily and then we put in two new lifts and a new top floor.” Expansion bodes particularly well for prospective pupils: “We take four each year and if they meet the standard required they’re all taken on as tenants. Growth is guaranteed for the next ten to 20 years.”
That’s a lot to process, but one constant at Blackstone is its stellar reputation across a range of practice areas. This set is highly regarded for its commercial, public, employment, competition and sports law expertise; it boasts top-tier rankings in Chambers UK for these areas plus civil liberties and human rights, financial services, civil fraud, media & entertainment, and telecommunications. In total, Blackstone garners rankings in 18 different areas – more than any other chambers. Many of our sources were attracted to the “great mix of work” and found upon joining that “we do all do some of everything in that range!” Gary Oliver emphasises that “in your first five years of practice here as a junior you could do an equal split of our five main practice areas.”
“…all of these crazy geniuses doing this amazing work!”
Newer arrivals also declared that “Blackstone does all the best Supreme Court cases.” The chambers certainly has more ‘Stars of the Bar’ than you could shake a barrister’s wig at, and sources were star-struck seeing “all of these crazy geniuses doing this amazing work!”Household-name silks like Lord Pannick and Dinah Rose are among the members handling top cases.
On the public side, Sir James Eadie QC and others recently acted for the Secretaries of State for the Home Department and Justice in the Supreme Court over challenges to the compatibility of criminal record disclosures with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Michael Fordham QC was in the Supreme Court representing the Welsh government over the autonomy of devolved administrations to decide on post-Brexit law. As for commercial work, members acted for UTB, one of the half-owners of Sheffield United FC, in a dispute with the other half-owner SUL over control of the club. Also in sports, Adam Lewis QC acted for Chris Froome after UCI and WADA delayed clearing him following an abnormal result.
Going live in…
Pupils sit with four supervisors, each for three months apiece. The idea is that they’ll go through four different areas: “In an ideal world you’d sit with one member that does mostly commercial work, one that broadly does public work, one that does employment, then a fourth seat.” The varied nature of members’ practices means pupils “won’t necessarily have four completely distinct seats in four areas” but they will normally sit with “one more public-focused and one commercial-focused supervisor.” Sources also highlighted that the cohort are “rotated around the same members so pupillage is fair – you’re all assessed by the same supervisors.”
Legal researchis a “classic starter pupil activity – all pupils arrive able to do that and it can be helpful to your supervisor because it feeds into preparation for their case.” Going forward, pupils were able to draft items like pleadings, particulars of claims, defences and skeleton arguments. “Yours might be the draft your supervisor works from and uses as the basis for their own pleading or submission.” Pupils will also tag along to conferences and court appearances with their supervisor. Sources noted that the vast majority of their work was on live matters: “The only papers my supervisor asked me to work on were those they were actually dealing with,” one said. Exceptions to the ‘all live’ rule come in the form of written and advocacy assessments, which also serve “as a chance for other members of chambers to see your work.”
“The quintessential Blackstone barrister is an advocate.”
Blackstone poses five written tests – usually pleadings or advice – and seven advocacy sessions. All pupils do the same exercises, which are marked by two members of chambers. Pupillage committee member Jane Mulcahy QC says: “The initial advocacy trainings are not marked – they’re just for practice. Towards the end we start assessing pupils based on them and the last advocacy session is designed to make sure pupils know what they’re doing.” One junior tenant recalled: “The final assessment was the one where I presented an application.” Blackstone pupils came in thinking “this is the set where I could get the most advocacy experience at the highest level early on,” and Mulcahy stresses that “the quintessential Blackstone barrister is an advocate.” Pupils don’t have a standing second six but felt they’d got their advocacy fill through their assessments: “There are a lot, so you’re not short of practice. If you get taken on there is a wealth of opportunities to get on your feet immediately.”
The final tenancy decision is made based on these assessments, alongside four reports written by each of the pupils’ supervisors. “All your work is assessed in the sense that it’s all contributing to your supervisor’s impression of you.” According to Mulcahy and junior tenants, slightly more weighting is placed on “what your supervisors think of you and the reports they write.” The tenancy committee produce a final report that summarises all the materials, then the tenancy decisions are made by an all-chambers vote. Three of four pupils stayed on as tenants in 2019.
Like a rolling Blackstone
Blackstone recruits through the Pupillage Gateway but also has its own independent application process for mini-pupillages – the set requires that all potential pupils do an assessed mini. Applicants are marked against various criteria including “academic achievement, motivation for coming to Blackstone and other things you’ve done which show you’re interested in being an advocate.” The first-stage interview involves “a sort-of debate. All topics have a legal spin but don’t require knowledge of the law – mine was ‘Is Twitter good for freedom of expression?’”
Successful candidates then progress to a three to five-day mini-pupillage with an assessment at the end. Up next there’s “a big whittling-down and ten to 20 people come in for the final-round interview,” which sources said involved “talking more about your experience of the mini-pupillage.” Candidates will also give a short presentation on a topic which they’re given in advance. “The challenge with the final-round interview is the number of panellists – it’s usually seven or eight, which can be quite daunting. It’s a test of your skill: maintaining your nerve with that many people in the room asking questions and taking notes shows that you have what it takes.”
"It’s a bunch of super-smart QCs chatting about cases over a beer on the roof."
Blackstone members are an undeniably intelligent bunch, and to be in with a shot of pupillage (let alone tenancy) “you have to be able to show a high level of ability.” It’s not just about intellect, though: Jane Mulcahy tells us: “The thing we prize most highly is your advocacy experience. Don’t underestimate how useful it is to tell us if you have experience in mooting or debating – you can be the cleverest person in Great Britain but that won’t necessarily make you the best barrister.” It’s probably nonetheless fair to say that the set does indeed house some of the cleverest people in the country: an Oxbridge degree is not a prerequisite but the vast majority of members have at least one qualification from Oxford or Cambridge to go with their numerous other impressive achievements.
Members are also clever enough to know when to let their hair down. “If I were to paint a picture of what Blackstone really is, it’s a bunch of super-smart QCs chatting about cases over a beer on the roof,” one source declared. Modern traditions include Thursday drinks held in chambers, fish and chips on a Friday, and famous annual Christmas and summer parties.
Blackstone is home to nearly 60 QCs and has more silks than junior members. Good company, if you can get it!
- No of silks 55
- No of juniors 54
- No of pupils 4
- Contact Ms Julia Hornor, chambers director
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) Up to 4: 12 months duration
- Required degree grade Minimum 2:1 (law or non-law)
- Income/award £65,000 (£18,500 drawdown)
- Tenancies offered in the last three years 9
Type of work undertaken
The commercial law work includes financial/business law, international trade, conflicts, sport, media and entertainment, intellectual property and professional negligence. Public law incorporates judicial review, acting both for and against central and local government agencies and other regulatory authorities. It also covers all areas affected by the impact of human rights and other aspects of administrative law. All aspects of employment law, including discrimination, are covered by Chambers’ extensive employment law practice, and Chambers’ EU work permeates practices across the board. Chambers recognises the increasingly important role which mediation has to play in dispute resolution. Seven members are CEDR accredited mediators.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2019
- Administrative & Public Law (Band 1)
- Civil Liberties & Human Rights (Band 1)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 2)
- Competition Law (Band 2)
- Data Protection (Band 4)
- Employment (Band 1)
- Environment (Band 2)
- European Law (Band 1)
- Financial Services (Band 1)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 1)
- Immigration (Band 3)
- Media & Entertainment (Band 1)
- Professional Discipline (Band 1)
- Public International Law (Band 2)
- Sport (Band 1)
- Tax: Indirect Tax (Band 2)
- Telecommunications (Band 1)