A petite chambers advising very big businesses, Erskine is the top dog of company law.
Judge them by the company they keep
“Companies,” a source laughed, when we asked what kinds of clients tend to instruct this top commercial set. When we pressed for more detail, they suggested it’s a mix of “enormous corporate entities and private companies that are doing very well.” What those companies need help with is even more varied and Erskine’s practice subdivides into four large chunks: company law and corporate advisory work; restructuring and insolvency; corporate and commercial litigation; and offshore work.
Chambers UK hands Erskine strong rankings for restructuring and insolvency, offshore and commercial Chancery, but company law is the set’s strongest suit and it stands alone in the top tier of the rankings. To give you an idea of the circles members mix in, during the much-publicised Sky takeover battle between Comcast and 21st Century Fox both Sky and Fox instructed an Erskine member to advise them. Barristers here take on a significant amount of this kind of non-contentious advisory work on corporate and financial transactions, instructed by magic circle and other City firms – for example, one silk advised on the separation of financial services giant Old Mutual into constituent parts requiring two schemes of arrangement, a demerger and an IPO. “The companies themselves vary enormously in size and type,” according to an insider. “Juniors often act for smaller businesses and get real insight into how they work.”
“Juniors often act for smaller businesses and get real insight into how they work.”
Members also assist companies that are going through insolvency or trying to avoid it (Erskine barristers were involved in the ‘Waterfall’ judgements surrounding the distribution of £8 billion from the administration of Lehman Brothers’ UK arm), and step in when disputes erupt either between businesses or major players within them. Two members were recently involved in a £100 million clash between members of a private equity firm, and another member acted for British American Tobacco in multi-jurisdictional litigation over responsibility for pollution of rivers in the US.
Asset recovery claims also fall into the litigious bracket, and the fastest growing substream of work is offshore law including insolvency, fraud and asset recovery. For example, one member was instructed by the lead defendants in $9.2 billion fraud and asset recovery litigation in the Cayman Islands resulting from the 2008 collapse of Saudi conglomerate the Saad Group.
With just over 30 members, Erskine’s much smaller than most commercial sets and joint-senior clerk Mark Swallow (working alongside counterpart Chris Reade) doesn’t expect that to change any time soon. “We’ve instead become much more outgoing to market ourselves,” he tells us. “Clients have wanted to get to know our juniors better so we’ve been involving them in talks and social events.” We asked if Brexit had slowed down business in the company law sector; Swallow confesses “there has been a cloud over things, but we’ve picked up work in other areas and long-term I think we’ll be busier than ever.”
Advice and virtue
Pupils undertake four seats of three months. Newcomers shadow their supervisor closely; after Christmas, pupils are unleashed to work with as many members of chambers as possible. “As you get closer to tenancy your supervisor acts more as a tutor and adviser than someone to get work from,” pupillage committee secretary Matthew Parfitt explains. An insider advised: “It’s advantageous to work for a wide variety of members in order to boost your chances of gaining tenancy.”
To start out with, a pupil’s workflow depends heavily on what their supervisor is doing, though it’s “almost invariably live work.” Shadowing and research are par for the course but pupils also get to draft pleadings, skeleton arguments and opinions. We heard that corporate advisory work “isn’t so different from litigation. It’s extremely technical, as is everything chambers does.” However, the nature of Erskine’s specialism does mean members won’t be in court as often as at some chambers, so pupils get a chance to shadow whoever’s got a case that’s court-bound.Pupils don’t do any advocacy themselves – “that’s made quite clear in advance so I didn’t have a problem with it,” one source said. Another weighed in: “I don’t think it would have been helpful for my practice to have picked up small claims. Not doing that leaves more time for getting to grips with the intricacies of company law.” Interviewees found themselves tackling more complex opinions as tenancy neared.
“Everybody’s always happy to sit down with you to discuss feedback.”
The supervisor completes a report on their pupil's progress at the end of every seat. “You’re pretty much always being assessed on what you’re doing,” one source said, “but members are very understanding when you start and everybody’s always happy to sit down with you to discuss feedback.” Until recently Erskine didn’t run any formal assessments, but the pupillage committee has now introduced an advocacy exercise. Pupils draft a skeleton argument and present an application before a panel of members “to see how they adapt to a courtroom environment.” It’s treated as a real hearing, and you’re “expected to perform well, but it won’t make or break the tenancy decision.” Sources felt “there are pros and cons to not having more assessments – having lots of tests and grades might feel too much like university.”
Chambers as a whole convenes at the nine-month mark to discuss tenancy, decided via an all-member vote in which a pupil needs 85% approval to be kept on. Matthew Parfitt stresses that “if there are multiple pupils they aren’t in competition for places, there’s more than enough work to go around.” In 2019 Erskine made tenants of both of its two pupils.
Erskine says relax
Operating outside the Pupillage Gateway, the set begins its recruitment process with afairly detailed application form. “The longer questions were about why I was interested in chambers and my own background,” a source shared. Twelve or so candidates are invited to a first interview with two members; the best five or six then progress to a second round in front of a five-member panel. Both rounds are built around a problem question, followed by a more general discussion. Matthew Parfitt assures us that the problem question is chosen carefully so non-law students won’t be at a disadvantage; Erskine’s recruited more non-law than law graduates in recent years.
Matthew Parfitt tells us the committee reviews applicants based “40% on intellect, which is demonstrated by their degree and in interview; 40% on soft skills and whether they’d be able to interact with judges and clients; and 20% on drive and commitment, which pretty much all our applicants score very highly on!” A source who’d smashed the interview advised future prospects to “be prepared to adapt your views, but don’t capitulate when pressed.”
“We’re looking for someone interested in the really specialist areas of law we cover.”
Interviewees agreed that there’s no one type of person that fits in well at Erskine; cleverness and and an interest in company law are the only real common traits among members. “We’re looking for someone interested in the really specialist areas of law we cover but who has a relaxed demeanour and a sense of humour,” one source said. Joint-senior clerk Mark Swallow suggests “appreciating the needs of clients” is essential. “Chambers is looking for applicants who balance academic rigour with being personable.”
It certainly helps to be personable when chambers tea rolls around every Friday. A source admitted that it can be intimidating at first but “you quickly get used to it and it’s a great opportunity to get to know people. We talk about all sorts, whether it’s something unusual that’s come up in a case or what we’ve been watching on Netflix. We’re serious when they need to be but relaxed when we can be.” The good vibes extend to a healthy social scene. During the warmer months “you’ll usually find members in the pub on a Friday” and chambers runs an annual ski trip. “It says a lot about how much we get along that we’re even happy to go on holiday together!” one interviewee laughed. Pupils stick to a fairly rigid 9am to 6.30pm timetable while they’re learning, though workdays for tenants can be a lot longer.
New tenants often go on two three-month secondments to a City law firm immediately after joining: Freshfields, Skadden, and Slaughter and May are common destinations.
33 Chancery Lane,
- No. of Silks: 11
- No. of Juniors: 19
- No. of Pupils: 2
- Contact: Diane Cousins
- Method of application: Application form on www.erskinechambers.com/pupillage/
- Pupillages (pa): Up to two 12-month pupillages
- Income: £65,000
- Tenancies: Three in the past four years
Type of work undertaken
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2019
- Chancery: Commercial (Band 3)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 5)
- Company (Band 1)
- Offshore (Band 3)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 2)