This modest-sized chambers sets itself apart with company law prowess and a “culture of togetherness.”
Erskine Chambers pupillage review 2022
What’s at the heart of Erskine Chambers? “Big-ticket company law,” according to one insider. Another pointed out that “something that might surprise newcomers is just how difficult the work is from the outset. We’re a top company law set; clients come to us with the most technical points in company and insolvency law. It can be pretty terrifying to start, but in the same way, it’s a privilege to work on such difficult matters.”
“Clients come to us with the most technical points in company and insolvency law.”
The set’s practice subdivides into four large chunks: company law and corporate advisory work; restructuring and insolvency; corporate and commercial litigation; and offshore work. The set’s rankings from Chambers UK Bar reflect these areas: Erskine scores the highest possible accolade for its company work, as well as very high marks for restructuring, commercial Chancery, and offshore work.
Members are regularly instructed by magic circle and City firms, and Erskine pupils encounter “a nice mix of corporate and private equity clients. We work for a lot of insolvency practitioners too.” On the restructuring side, James Potts QC and Matthew Parfitt defended a client against allegations that a demerger had defrauded creditors. Under the company umbrella, David Chivers QC recently acted for Shell in its £47 billion acquisition of British Gas. He also represented 21st Century Fox when it was in competition with Comcast to acquire Sky for £30 billion.
Chivers became head of chambers in 2021, succeeding Michael Todd QC who served in the role for ten years. Our junior interviewees were excited by the appointment: "His knowledge of company law is second to none." For senior clerk Mark Swallow, what sets Erskine apart from the rest is that “for a set of our size [28 members], we’ve done very well in terms of people who’ve made it to the judiciary – we have supplied some real high-power people to the court.” Several current Erskine members hold (or have held) judicial positions, such as Stephen Smith QC, who is a judge at the Chancery division of the High Court.
The Pupillage Experience
Erskine pupils undertake four seats of three months during the pupillage. When they start out, newcomers shadow their supervisor closely and work primarily for them. After Christmas, they’re able to work with as many members of chambers as they can. Given the smaller size of the set, “there’s a good chance pupils will work for a wide variety of members,” saysMatthew Parfitt, member of the pupillage committee. He adds that “this also helps pupils towards gaining tenancy further on in their pupillage.” By the closing of their fourth and final seat, pupils may have worked with around 20 people.
“I work on shareholder disputes between families, all the way up to the biggest companies going.”
In terms of the scale of matters, “I work on shareholder disputes between families, all the way up to the biggest companies going, and more or less everything in between.” But for their first three months, pupils are given a grace period without assessment, to comfortably learn the craft without too much pressure. “I was given a couple of historic pieces to do so I could get some practice on pleading,” a pupil told us. “The pleadings were enormous; it was a big piece of fraud litigation.”
The nature of Erskine’s practice means members won’t be in court as often as those at, for example, criminal sets, but pupils can shadow other members in court to learn the basics. This becomes more likely during the second six. “I attended court with one of the junior members of chambers regarding some bankruptcy applications,” one interviewee told us. “It was a super fun experience.” In terms of getting responsibility, we were told that “as a pupil you aren’t closeted away. I’ve been entrusted with pretty complex opinions, more so than I expected.” As is true across the Bar, pupils at Erskine tend to stick to the hours of 9am to 6.30pm while they’re learning, and work days for tenants can be a lot longer.
Pupil supervisors complete a report on their pupil's progress at the end of every seat, and as the pupillage rolls on, “the impression pupils make on the members of chambers is increasingly important,” says Parfitt. “The closer pupils get to June and July, members will expect to see the finished product. Whilst you’re learning about an area of law, you’re also being assessed on how you’ve measured up to the challenge. Then when you get feedback, you have the opportunity to improve. It’s a process of continuous assessment.”
Pupils undergo one formal assessment in the form of an advocacy exercise. The assessment is treated as a mock hearing: pupils draft a skeleton argument and present an application before a panel of members. “Historically the relationship between barrister and pupil hasn’t allowed the pupil to truly portray how good they are at advocacy,” Parfitt notes. “The formal advocacy exercise lets them show us how good they’re going to be when they step into the courtroom. The pupil won’t feel they have to defer to the pupil master and can pretend they are presenting to real judges.” He adds that “the assessment isn’t on a pass or fail basis, but a strong performance is very helpful towards the tenancy application.” Pupils receive written feedback after the advocacy exercise.
This feedback, combined with each supervisor's report, is what forms the basis of the tenancy decision. Chambers as a whole convenes at the nine-month mark to discuss tenancy, which is decided via an all-member vote – a pupil needs around 85% approval to be kept on. “We have quite a good record of taking on pupils,” says Parfitt. “We don’t limit the number of tenancies we offer, it's purely whether the pupil reaches an objective standard of competence.” Erskine's pupil in 2021 was taken on.
Interviewees felt they managed to immerse themselves in a “culture of togetherness” at Erskine,even when working virtually. "I feel comfortable asking anyone for advice,” said one source. “From juniors to QCs to clerks, everyone is supportive and keen to help out.” Due to the pandemic, the usual tradition of chambers tea couldn’t carry on as normal, but we heard the set made an effort to keep everyone connected over Zoom.
And as restrictions ease, the set’s social calendar has been warming up again: “Everyone is keen to get back into the thriving chambers social life.” A pupil reminisced about attending one of their first social events: “I got the feeling that the members just wanted to get to know me. They were handing out beers and cracking jokes; it was very informal.” In person, all members are housed under one roof on Chancery Lane.
The Application Process
As of last year, Erskine now recruits through the Pupillage Gateway. “We received a really high number of quality applicants this year,” Parfitt notes. “It shows the strength of talent that applies to us. When we were off the Gateway there was a bit of self-selection involved.”
Around ten to twelve applicants are invited to the first round of interviews with two members of chambers. Interviewees are given a case to read in advance which is then discussed at the interview. There’s also some time for the members to ask questions. Five to six candidates then proceed to the second round, which centres on discussing legislation with a panel of chambers members. This stage is a bit longer – the interview can last up to an hour. A pupil reflected on theirs: “Although it was testing, the cases I was given were ones that didn’t require any specialist company knowledge. As a non-law graduate, I didn’t feel that I was at any disadvantage.” Any tips for future applicants? “Don’t be afraid to make an intelligent guess. The interviews are a test of your skill and reasoning rather than your knowledge.”
“It’s important to be able to communicate with the entire spectrum of clients.”
A junior tenant added that “something that is important in this area of practice is being good at technical, black letter points of law. Ultimately, what we are doing is presenting these complex areas of law in a way that is accessible to our clients and to a judge.” They also highlighted the importance of oral advocacy. “You need to be able to express yourself with confidence and inspire confidence in your clients. We represent clients from very small family shareholders to sophisticated financial institutions, so it’s important to be able to communicate with the entire spectrum of clients.”
The annual chambers retreat and ski trip were both postponed due to the pandemic but are anticipated to return in the future.
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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2021
- Chancery: Commercial (Band 3)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 5)
- Company (Band 1)
- Offshore (Band 3)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 2)