“Company law becomes a vehicle to see quite a lot of life” at Erskine Chambers, with plenty of restructuring work oiling the wheels too.
Erskine Chambers pupillage review 2024
In a sit down with Phil Reeves, the senior clerk at Erskine Chambers, he emphasises one thing: “We are a bit different from other chambers because we are very niche.” At its core, Erskine Chambers deals with company, commercial, and insolvency law, and this focus and the “technical problem solving” that comes with it is exactly what attracted junior insiders, who “liked the idea of specialising.”
The set’s practice divides into four large chunks: company law and corporate advisory work; restructuring and insolvency; corporate and commercial litigation; and offshore work. “There is much more variety of work in these areas of the law than I had anticipated,” a junior tenant pointed out. “We have super high-value international work [about 30% of instructions have an overseas element] and there are also quite human problems, such as family disputes. Company law becomes a vehicle to see quite a lot of life.”
The set’s company expertise is top-ranked in Chambers UK Bar, and its restructuring know-how is top notch too. This explains why the biggest firms are knocking on their door. As Reeves highlights, “Due to the highbrow corporate work we do, we get firms like Freshfields, HSF, Slaughter and May and Linklaters. For litigation, we get firms like Howard Kennedy.”
“As a specialist set, we tend to bump into each other on opposite sides of cases!”
So let’s take a look at some of “the sexy influential cases” that reeled pupils in. When it comes to the complex intersection of company and insolvency law, it doesn’t get much bigger than the collapse of Carillion in 2018, and James Potts KC represented the construction company’s former finance director in directors’ disqualification proceedings. Martin Moore KC was instructed by Slaughter and May in the demerger of pharma giant GSK’s healthcare division to Haleon. On the company law side, Peter Arden KC acted for investors in a case revolving around the ownership of Pakistani electricity supplier K-Electric.
Matthew Parfitt, a member of the pupillage committee points out that “as a specialist set, we tend to bump into each other on opposite sides of cases!” In one such example, Edward Davies KC was instructed by Stephenson Harwood on behalf of the WindAcre Partnership (a US hedge fund) in relation to a $16 billion takeover of data and analytics firm Nielsen Holdings, while Martin Moore KC was instructed by Clifford Chance to represent Nielsen.
The Pupillage Experience
The pupillage at Erskine is split into four three-month segments. The first three months is a grace period and is “an introduction to the kind of law we do here,” a source told us. In the first two seats, pupils tend to follow their supervisors’ work. They will then start doing more work with other members of the chambers. “By the end of the third seat, they will have done work for over 80% of the chambers,” Parfitt points out.
“Pupils and juniors end up doing some quirky cases they wouldn’t expect.”
“At a lot of commercial chambers, you will be helping out on 500-page pleadings, whereas we tend to try and do a mix of skeleton arguments and opinions and pleadings,” one interviewee explained.Of course, everything comes with a “company or insolvency flavour.” As an insider noted, “one week, I was researching a tricky point on disclosure in a multibillion-dollar fraud litigation and the next week I was pleading a defense to an unfair prejudice petition in a dispute between neighbours.” They added: “With specialisation, pupils and juniors end up doing some quirky cases they wouldn’t expect,” from the collapse of a big life insurance group in Bermuda to assisting a silk with their advice in an inheritance tax dispute. Due to the technical work at Erskine, pupils do not get on their feet in court. However, they are encouraged to marshal with a judge after the tenancy decision to see lots of “advocacy styles and learn what is good and bad advocacy.” Pupils are also likely to be seconded for three to six months to a magic circle or offshore firm.
As a rule, pupils’ work is gradually more frequently assessed. They can expect some smaller assessments in the form of written work, such as drafting pleadings and legal opinions. “We have a checklist that we keep an eye on, which includes everything you’re expecting to see if you are training as a barrister,” says Parfitt. “It’s not about what we can get out of the pupil, but how we can train them to be the best barrister.” As a source confirmed, “work assessment is a matter of ‘feel’, rather than rigid policy.” Some people will be ready and others “will need a little more time under the shelter of their supervisor,” an interviewee noted, before sharing their own experience: “It helps non-lawyers progress without being at a disadvantage. I was a non-lawyer and I felt that I had the time to learn this new area of law and be on an equal footing with anyone else.”
The biggest assessment is an advocacy exercise, but pupils get to have a practice run that is not assessed. “Its aim is to provide as much feedback as possible so that they know what to expect,” Parfitt tells us. The real one is in front of three members of the chambers who act as judges in order to test whether the pupil will be a strong advocate. The final tenancy decision is made in a chambers meeting. “We get reports from the pupil supervisors and a report on the advocacy exercise. We also review their CV and piece of written work they have put forward. Everyone who worked with the pupil is able to contribute their view."In 2023, the sole qualifier was retained.
It’s not all business at Erskine. “The culture is my favourite part of the chambers!” Its small size (under 30 members in all) means there are more opportunities to collaborate and socialise. “If I have a tricky problem, I can just wander around the corridor and speak to any expert,” a source highlighted. In terms of events, there are spontaneous get togethers, regular drinks with solicitors, conferences, Christmas parties and new member celebrations. “We have an away day every year, which is a way of making our AGM more fun. A group of us are also going to Dorset for a half marathon and couple of years ago, a group of people here did the aquathlon,” a source explained. In addition, Erskine organises an annual ski trip.
Reeves acknowledges that the chambers could “be a bit more diverse, and I am working on that.” One of the steps the set is taking is working with 10,000 Black Interns via the Bar Council. “We have also done the Bridging the Bar mini-pupillage for people from low-income backgrounds, plus the 10,000 Black Interns scheme." We heard there is lots of support for junior tenants including a rent and expenses-free period.
The Application Process
To apply to Erskine, applicants must go through the Pupillage Gateway system. “The only additional question we ask beyond what’s on the form is what interests a person in coming to the Bar in the field of company law,” Parfitt says. There are usually two rounds of interviews but there were three this year in order to interview more people, as Parfitt elaborates: “We normally see around twelve people, but this year we saw an additional eight to widen the pool from which we recruit,” bringing it to 20 in total.
The first-round interview is in person, and revolves around the discussion of a case. Applicants read a case and discuss it with two members of chambers for about 30 minutes. At this stage, “we are looking for people with a desire to come to the Bar, with the right temperament, and who want to do our work,” Parfitt emphasises. Wondering how to approach the case? “I would try to think as laterally as possible,” a source advised. “Come up with arguments for and against and anticipate questions that might come up, and don’t be rigid in your answer.”
“If there is anything eye-catching, we ask questions about that.”
The second-round interview centres on an exercise. “It may be another case, a legal problem or a piece of legislation,” says Parfitt, “but in all processes, we try to create a level playing field for the non-lawyers.” A junior insider explained that “you will be with a larger panel of around five members of the chambers. The process is not built to trap you, but to see your ability.” There’s also a bit more digging into the application form. “If there is anything eye-catching, we ask questions about that. It can be about a mini-pupillage, other forms of advocacy they have done or any professional qualifications. The interviews are designed to find the candidates at their best,” Parfitt adds.
Island Life: Much of the set’s international work is based in the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda.
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Type of work undertaken
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2023
- Chancery: Commercial (Band 2)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 5)
- Company (Band 1)
- Offshore (Band 3)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 2)