Hear ye, hear ye – by royal decree, prospective practitioners of insurance, civil and commercial law should look to this chambers.
Crown Office Chambers pupillage review
Senior managing clerk Andy Flanagan rightly describes common law as a “broad church,” and Crown Office welcomes in work from various different practices that fit that bracket. Insurance is the biggest game in this town, and about 70% of chambers’ work involves representing insurers; firms like DAC Beachcroft, Kennedys, BLM, Clyde & Co and DWF often come calling for members’ expertise.
Let’s break it down further: personal injury, industrial disease and clinical negligence account for 40% of the set’s overall income. “Out of the 100 barristers we house, around 45 are involved in these on a regular basis,” according to Flanagan. Construction, property damage, commercial, international arbitration and professional indemnity make up another 35% of the pie; the remaining slices include health and safety regulatory and product liability. Flanagan explains that “historically Crown Office has always been a defendant-based set, taking on varied instructions from both insurers and the actual lay clients.” The set’s recently taken on more claimant-side matters and the mixed practice offers plenty of variety for newbs: “One day I’ll be working on cases with senior consultants; the next I’ll be engaged in lower-level projects, dealing with a construction matter for a guy whose cousin is a builder.”
"We go out there four times a year and punch well above our weight."
Chambers UK Bar awards the set top rankings for personal injury, property damage, and health & safety, with product liability, professional negligence, and international construction arbitration not far behind. Flanagan tells us that he, alongside Roger ter Haar QC and Andrew Rigney QC, lead the way on infrastructure, energy and international arbitration in the Middle East. “We go out there four times a year and punch well above our weight in construction-related international arbitration,” he suggests.
Other interesting cases are closer to home. A Crown Office member acted in a claim brought against British Airways by the family of deceased pilot Richard Westgate – they claim the cause of death was aerotoxic poisoning due to organophosphates in the air supply of the cockpit. Elizabeth Boon was instructed when a defective tumble-dryer started a fire that led to the deaths of two people. In another high-profile matter, David Platt QC represented the orchestra of the Royal Opera House when a viola player alleged they’d suffered ‘acoustic shock’ during rehearsals of a Wagner opera; the case progressed to the Court of Appeal. As for the pure insurance side of things, Ben Quiney QC acted for the brokers in a multimillion-pound dispute with the British Gymnastics Association over aspects of its coverage.
The Pupillage Experience
Throughout two three-month seats in the first six and a single six-month stretch in the second six, pupils can dip their toes into personal injury, clinical negligence, health and safety, commercial, construction and insurance matters. Pupillage committee head Alex Antelme explains that these often overlap – “a classic example is if a large fire was to break out in a tower block, it could give rise to issues of product liability, property damage and personal injury. Completing pupillage at a common law set can give you experience in all of these areas.” Most supervisors sit in a room of two, and pupils are encouraged to do work for the other member, who will probably specialise in a different area.
Pupils spend their first six working on a mix of live cases and dead ones that their supervisor has already completed. Our interviewees appreciated that this balance “allowed us to see how a case has progressed and to assess the lead-up to the results – it’s definitely a useful learning process.” They’d tackled cases ranging from smaller-scale construction disputes to million-pound clinical negligence damages claims. Some cases deal with highly sensitive issues – “there was one incident where an osteopath was accused of sleeping with a patient.” The first six also comes with three written and four oral assessments to prepare pupils for where they’re headed next.
“They get going on their own court work as soon as possible.”
From the start of their second six, pupils “get going on their own court work as soon as possible.” Those we spoke to suggested this is “a real draw of the pupillage at Crown Office,” but pupils are only permitted to spend three days a week on their own matters; the other two must consist of work for other members of chambers, to ensure continued learning. One source reckoned “if the clerks were given free range you could have your diary filled up with your own cases, but you need to get your assessments done and impress your pupil supervisor.” Early cases for pupils typically include low-value road traffic accidents, MoJ Stage 3 hearings and strike-out applications.
A source told us that supervisors “communicate transparent feedback to the pupils and give them the chance to turn things around if needs be.” Antelme recalls speaking to a pupil one Christmas: “I straight up told them that at that stage, we would not be offering them tenancy, but you have a few months to turn things around and that is exactly what they did.” Formal assessments and feedback from supervisors is all taken into consideration during the tenancy decision process. Crown Office takes a holistic view of pupils, but Antelme reveals that “we normally won’t think about what happens in the first two to three weeks of the pupillage. We want people to relax when they arrive – all pupils will have disasters, we expect that.” Preparation is key for the advocacy tests: pupils get 30 minutes to put together a short presentation and “it’s all about seeing how they advocate in practice. We as panellists understand that nobody will get everything right.”
Crown Office’s pupillage committee head Alex Antelme lays out chambers’ approach to pupillage: “We have always thought the whole point of pupillage is not to be an exercise in torture for twelve months. It is primarily a learning process and a unique opportunity to find out what life at the Bar is like.” Juniors wanted to emphasise that the Crown Office tenancy decision is “not a popularity contest. They are looking for someone who can approach issues in a logical way rather than being overwhelmed.” Put another way, if a pupil is good enough they will be taken on. One pupil achieved tenancy in 2020.
The Application Process
Sat outside the Pupillage Gateway, Crown Office receives 100 to 200 applications every year; only 30 to 40 candidates come in for a first-round interview. “We have our own specific application form which takes a bit of work but is designed to elicit whether applicants have the key characteristics we’re looking for.” Juniors described the first interview as “initial filtering” with a relaxed feel. Twelve to 20 people come for a more technical second-round interview “which is judged by a larger panel and assessed in more detail with set exercises to complete.” Juniors described the application process as a “good opportunity to provide evidence for what you’re saying about yourself, giving practical examples rather than just saying, ‘I like law.’”
“If you came to our Friday drinks you’d find we’re a welcoming bunch.”
Interviewees are asked to prepare a piece for 20 minutes and members question them on their solutions. “I recall being asked to prepare advocacy on a piece to do with an aircraft accident, where we were representing the aircraft manufacturer on an allegation that the aircraft failed as a result of a fault on our side,” a successful former applicant recalled. “We had evidence to argue that we weren’t to blame – the twist was that there was a fault on our side but the other side hadn’t picked up on this. We had to figure out how to carefully respond to the allegation without giving away that fact that there was a hole in the case.” Sounds complex, but pupils generally found the process to be stimulating and enjoyable.
Alex Antelme reassures us that chambers has a “laid-back culture: if you came to our Friday drinks you’d find we’re a welcoming bunch.” This is definitely the feel you get as you enter the doors of Crown Office; insiders were full of stories about the “chatty and relaxed culture; every day I have friendly conversations while making a mug of tea.” Antelme ventures that “we don’t suffer from old-fashioned barrister self-importance, and this is visible in the way we deal with the people who work with us, from the clerks to the cleaners.”
Keep it in the family
Crown Office runs an ‘aunts and uncles’ support system: each pupil is paired with a junior who’s “not involved in decision-making processes. Aunts and uncles are there to address concerns that pupils might not feel comfortable airing with their supervisor.”
Crown Office Chambers
2 Crown Office Row,
- No of silks 23
- No of juniors 81
- No of pupils Up to 3 per year
- Contact Maurice Holmes
- Method of application chambers’ application form, downloadable from chambers’ website
- Pupillages (pa) Up to three 12-month pupillages per year
- Income £65,000, comprising £55,000 award plus £10,000 guaranteed earnings
- Tenancies offered in last three years 6
Junior tenants undertake a range of work with an emphasis on developing advocacy skills. In addition to working on their own paperwork and accepting junior briefs, junior tenants in their first years of practice are generally in court several times a week. They have the opportunity to specialise as their practices develop. This blend of early advocacy and advisory experience gives them the edge over their contemporaries at many ‘pure commercial’ and ‘pure’ common law/personal injury sets. It also keeps work varied and allows members to make a more informed decision about specialisation.