The clever few who make it through Brick Court’s meticulous recruitment process are rewarded with an array of commercial, competition, EU and public law work.
“Brick Court is one of the very best commercial chambers,” a pupil told us, “so it was pretty much a no-brainer to put it on my list.” That's certainly true. Brick wins a top Chambers UK ranking for commercial disputes, plus a ranking for banking. But there's more: Brick “does other types of work too,” getting top Chambers UK rankings for competition and EU law, plus nods for human rights, public law and environment. Commercial does make up the biggest chunk of the offering – more than 50% according to senior clerk Julian Hawes. Competition accounts for 30%, with the remainder split between EU and public law. Hawes tell us juniors are increasingly working across these areas, and one junior tenant echoed: “In my first term I did a fair amount of commercial work and a big negligence case. Last year I was doing competition exclusively, and this year I’m doing public law as well.” For Hawes, Brick Court’s appeal to pupils lies in its variety: “You’re not setting your career out before you even get here. You can pick up what you want, when you want, as you want.”
“We can cover any trend that crops up.”
Given its substantial EU law practice the set has made contingency plans in the face of Brexit, Hawes tells us: “Quite a few members have applied to qualify in another jurisdiction – for instance in Dublin and Brussels – so they can act in Europe even if there is a hard Brexit.” For Hawes though “the big concern is if the banks go elsewhere, as that work has been on an upward curve for us.” Banks form a significant part of the client base (Goldman Sachs, Lloyds and Credit Suisse are all lay clients), and the set also takes on cases against banks. Recently Tim Lord QC acted for the Property Alliance Group in a £25 million claim against RBS over swap mis-selling and Libor manipulation. Over on the competition side silks were instructed on both sides of the case brought by Arcadia and other retailers against Mastercard over charges imposed on merchants for accepting credit and debit cards (other members dealt with similar claims). Hawes tells us: “We follow trends so we’re not doing the same year in, year out.” But this is part of the strategy, he says: “If we’ve got the right people we can cover any trend that crops up. And we’d like to think anyone here can turn their hand to anything.”
Pupillage is structured with a view to taking pupils through the set’s variety. Two three-month seats take pupils to Easter, and a final seat carries them through to September. Pupils sit with three supervisors who each focus on one of the three main areas of work: commercial, competition and EU or public law. For one pupil, assisting on an arbitration hearing during a commercial seat proved to be a highlight: “My supervisor got me to do redo pleadings as an exercise and I got to watch the cross-examination.” Sitting with IP specialist Nicholas Saunders QC added “an interesting new twist” to pupillage. “The first piece of work he asked me to do was a stab at a draft of supplementary submissions for a hearing in the Supreme Court about patents that had already happened.”
Pupil and the Beast
On the EU law side, one pupil had the chance to go to Luxembourg with supervisor Sarah Abram for a hearing about the European Arrest Warrant in the European Court of Justice. “In the Court of Justice you make a short speech after which you can potentially be questioned on more or less anything,” one source explained. “So I spent a good few days drafting a predictive list of questions and the answers that we might give. In the end there were very few questions, but it was fun to do!” Doing public law work, one pupil assisted Victoria Wakefield in the Supreme Court case over Employment Tribunal fees, which were ruled unlawful in 2017. “I got name-checked in the Supreme Court by her leader who was doing the submissions,” our interviewee cooed.
“I got name-checked in the Supreme Court.”
Pupils were pleasantly surprised by their hours: “I was expecting a bit of a slog, but I’ve been getting in at 9am, and it’s rare for me to leave after 7pm. I’ve only taken work home once or twice.” That’s outside the assessment period though, “which is its own special beast.”
Assessment at Brick Court comes thick and fast, with seven advocacy exercises during the year. Fortunately, the first two are practice runs: “You get the papers two days beforehand and have to produce a skeleton argument – usually it’s an application to appeal.” Pupils deliver their applications before a panel of seniors playing judges “who then question you robustly and make it difficult by design.” There are also two rounds of three written assessments, each taking a week to complete. Materials are given out on Monday morning and must be returned by Friday afternoon, leaving weekends free so as not to “ruin pupils' lives” says head of pupillage Michael Bools QC. “It’s fair to say I was working quite hard Monday to Friday,” one pupil commented. “It’s pretty intense.”
Both the advocacy and written assessments count towards the tenancy decision, alongside supervisor feedback. All three supervisors provide detailed reports on a pupil’s performance, so that come decision time in July, the tenancy committee has a “huge file” at its disposal. In 2019, Brick Court retained two of four pupils as tenants.
The set’s equally rigorous application process is designed to be completely objective. “It tests your legal reasoning rather than anything more subjective like personality,” asserted one source. Applications are anonymised and Bools says the set looks primarily for “outstanding intellectual ability.” Of the nine members under five years' call at the time of our research, all but one had been to Oxbridge at some point; five had studied abroad (two graduated from Australian universities, one attended Harvard and one Yale); and each typically had a dozen prizes and scholarships under their belt.
At the first interview candidates are posed an ethical question designed to test their reasoning. “It doesn’t matter what stance they take on an issue," says Bools. "What matters is that they can maintain a logically principled and defensible position.” The next step is a mandatory mini-pupillage. “It’s a big ask, especially if it’s at the same time as exams,” one pupil admitted. During the mini candidates complete a piece of assessed written work. Permissions to appeal applications are common, and a junior tenant recalled an exercise on the Supreme Court case concerning wheelchair access on buses.
“A 20-minute interrogation on your position.”
The top 15 performers attend a final interview. Candidates are asked to prepare a skeleton argument to appeal a decision by the Court of Appeal. A junior tenant remembered the interview as “a 20-minute interrogation on your position. You’ve got an interventionist panel taking you off script within minutes of sitting down.” The interview wraps up with an ‘unseen’ question much like the ethical dilemma presented in the first interview. Bools tells us the 2018 question was based on a Court of Appeal decision that consensual body modification is unlawful: “Having your ear cut off was one example. We asked candidates if you should you be able to consent to that kind of assault.”
While applying may be a rigorous process, the atmosphere at Brick Court is somewhat more relaxed. A junior tenant described it as “quite modern in outlook.” On the social side there’s an annual “crazy” Christmas party, plus less conventional get-togethers over remote-controlled car racing, horse riding, and even a silent disco. Bools also recently organised “a very jolly black tie dinner for 122 people” to celebrate ex-member David Lloyd Jones’ appointment to the Supreme Court.
Brick Court’s roof terrace is popular in summer. “The surveyors said it's perfectly safe for events,” quips Michael Bools QC, “as long as there’s no ‘rhythmic dancing’ – fortunately I don’t think barristers can dance with any rhythm at all!”
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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2019
- Administrative & Public Law (Band 2)
- Banking & Finance (Band 2)
- Civil Liberties & Human Rights (Band 3)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 1)
- Competition Law (Band 1)
- Energy & Natural Resources (Band 2)
- Environment (Band 3)
- European Law (Band 1)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 1)
- Insurance (Band 2)
- International Arbitration: General Commercial & Insurance (Band 2)
- Professional Negligence (Band 2)
- Telecommunications (Band 2)