Company law specialists Erskine may be petite in size but its barristers tackle some cumbersome legal problems in the corporate field.
Oligarchs at dawn
Erskine's in a class of its own when it comes to company law. The sleek Chancery Lane set sits above the rest of the crowd in the Chambers UK rankings, and its stellar reputation for all things big business sees it win instructions from big City law firms like Freshfields, Linklaters, Clifford Chance, Hogan Lovells and Skadden.
“The majority of work we handle encompasses our core areas of corporate and corporate insolvency law in both the UK and overseas," senior clerk Chris Reade tells us. "We also do quite a lot of work in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong.” (Reade is one half of the senior clerk team, working alongside counterpart Mark Swallow.) Insolvency cases range from the small to billion-dollar spats: four members of Erskine represented the liquidator of Russia's Mezhprombank to maintain a $2 billion freezing order secured against banker Sergei Pugachev (who previously had close links to President Putin) in long-running proceedings against the Russian oligarch, who was accused of misappropriating $2 billion from the bank.
"Solicitors don't always realise we also handle big commercial cases and have strength in restructuring and insolvency."
Erskine's barristers also take on a significant amount of non-contentious advisory work on corporate and financial transactions. Of late, two members advised on the £47 billion acquisition of British Gas by Royal Dutch Shell (with one member acting for each of the parties). Another member advised on the £81 billion proposed takeover of SABMiller by fellow brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, who in turn got help from two other Erskine tenants.
About a quarter of the set's work revolves around commercial litigation. It encompasses some very high-value cases, including the largest ever fraud case to appear before the English courts: two members are advising Kazakhstan's BTA Bank during a $6 billion fraud dispute with the son of its former chairman Mukhtar Ablyazov. Members also recently acted for Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk in a high-profile breach of contract bust-up with fellow businessmen Gennadiy Bogolyubov and Ihor Kolomoyskyi.
As for what the future holds, Reade informs us: “We're planning to concentrate on our core strengths in the company law area but also to develop some of our other practice areas. Solicitors don't always realise our core strengths also lead into more commercial areas – banking fraud and asset tracing, contractual disputes and breach of warranty claims – and that we have real strength in restructuring and insolvency, so we want to promote those areas.”
Pupils undertake four seats of three months or three seats of four months. They devote their first seat to solely following their supervisor, before spending the rest of the year “doing discrete pieces of work for everyone in chambers." Why? Because the tenancy decision is a genuine case of one member, one vote here, and everyone wants to test the new recruits' mettle. Pupils tackle matters "at the same time as supervisors." One interviewee told us: "I'd have a go at everything they did. If my supervisor knew they had to draft a skeleton argument in the next few weeks, I'd have a first go at it and they might take my attempt as a first draft. On the smaller cases I'd have a stab at drafting pleadings and skeleton arguments, while on the larger matters I'd review draft expert reports and think of ways they might be improved.” Other pupils had conducted legal research and drafted various orders. Work for anyone other than your supervisor usually comes in the form of “tasks that last between one and five days, often opinions and notes as most people work on very large cases, so it's difficult to get you up to speed enough to draft pleadings.”
Erskine doesn't have a practising second six, so “although you don't come out with live advocacy experience, you come out with a lot more law.” Another source added: “Supervisors pick your brains about what they're working on, so you're not just sat at a desk beavering away with reams of paper.”
"I'm now spending about 90% of my time on offshore work so it was great to spend some time in the Caymans.”
Once they're granted tenancy, the set sends its newest members out on two three-month secondments: one to a City law firm, the other to an offshore jurisdiction. “I spent three months at Slaughter and May and three months in the Caymans,” one junior tenant told us. “Both secondments were great. There's a lot going on in law firms that you might not know about otherwise so it allows you to understand what's happening behind the scenes. And I'm now spending about 90% of my time on offshore work so it was great to spend some time in the Caymans.”
At the end of every seat each supervisor fills out a report on their pupil's progress. While pupils don't get to see these, they do get a six-month check-in with the head of the pupillage committee. The tenancy decision takes place at the nine-month mark; it takes into account every piece of work a pupil has produced and supervisors' reports. Every member of chambers gets a vote. “The simple test is to ask, 'Are they good enough?'” head of pupillage Ben Griffiths tells us. “We want to see someone who is producing consistently excellent work.” In 2018 the set retained one of its two pupils as tenants.
In good company
Erskine takes up to two pupils per year. “We don't make any offers unless we think the candidate has a real prospect of tenancy,” head of the pupillage committee Ben Griffiths says. In practice this meant the set had one pupil in 2014/15, none in 2015/16, one in 2016/17 and two in 2017/18. Getting a foot in the door involves navigating an application form and two rounds of interviews. Chambers aims to see around 12 people for the first interview; candidates are tasked with reading a short case for 20 minutes before being quizzed by two members of chambers. Our sources described this experience as “reasonably testing but not a complete grilling.” There are also questions about your CV and past experiences.
Around half of first-round interviewees survive to the second-round interview with five members of chambers. This is “focused much more on a problem question. It's not a role play but we are looking at hypothetical situations. We want to see how a candidate would advise a client and what they identify as the strengths and weakness of a case.” Griffiths advises: “There isn't necessarily a right answer to the problem, but we like to see people defend their position on debatable points. The best candidates will have a good analysis and their answers will be logical and well structured. ”
While Griffiths is clear it's not a requirement to undertake a mini-pupillage at Erskine, he tells us: “It would be likely to improve an application for pupillage.” Sources also told us “not to be put off if you've never done company law before – I'd never studied it.”
“We have a real focus on academic ability, so people do tend to be slightly academic.”
Erskine's known for housing some rather cerebral types (even by the standards of the Bar), so unsurprisingly all seven of the set's most junior tenants had completed an undergraduate or postgraduate degree at Oxbridge and several had lectured in law at various universities around the globe. “We have a real focus on academic ability, so people do tend to be slightly academic. Beyond that we're quite varied,” one source reflected. A junior tenant agreed, telling us: “There are all sorts here, but everyone's brainy and has a sense of humour.”
Barristers and clerks are on first-name terms and afternoon tea is “good fun, though we've had the same biscuits for about 50 years. You're encouraged to go once a week and although you can use it to run points past people it's generally not a chat about the law.” Having a natter isn't just restricted for when the biscuit tin comes out: “Members are encouraged to go into each other's offices and speak with people. And the more senior tenants make time for you,” one recent joiner told us. “I'd get bored just staying in my room; the good thing about being a small chambers is that everyone knows each other and that makes this a nice place to work.” Mid-week drinks take place intermittently and the firm throws two Christmas parties every year – one's a formal do to which other halves are invited, the other a more casual affair for junior tenants and the clerks.
If you're applying to this set bear in mind that some of the work members do here is giving advice on corporate transactions.
33 Chancery Lane,
- No of silks 11
- No of juniors 20
- No of pupils 1
- Contact Diane Cousins
- Method of application Application form on www.erskinechambers.com/pupillage
- Pupillages (pa) Up to two 12-month pupillages
- Tenancies Two in the past three years
Type of work undertaken
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2018
- Chancery: Commercial (Band 3)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 5)
- Company (Band 1)
- Offshore (Band 3)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 2)