Sitting at the very tip-top of the commercial Bar, Essex Court is a jack of all trades and master of quite a few of them.
Essex Court Chambers pupillage review 2022
The Spice Girls. Leonardo DiCaprio. Oasis. Essex Court Chambers. Wait, what? “We really began to thrive in the mid ’90s," senior clerk Joe Ferrigno explains, "which is when we transitioned from a mostly shipping and insurance set to the global, magic circle, commercial set that we are recognised as today.” The Bar magic circle is less well known as such than its law firm equivalent – Essex Court is usually included alongside Blackstone, Brick Court, Fountain Court and One Essex Court. Drawing inspiration from NYC as well as London, Essex Court lives up to its reputation as “the chambers that never sleeps.” Joe Ferrigno explains what this means in practice: “When we assess our practice areas, we’re looking at 14 core commercial and international areas, and we are especially renowned as the dominant set for commercial litigation and international arbitration. All told though, members practise in a total of 23 areas; there isn’t much we don’t do.”
His claims are backed by Chambers UK Bar, which hands Essex Court top rankings for commercial dispute resolution, international arbitration, public international law, civil fraud, insurance, shipping and employment. The set also receives recognition for its banking and finance, energy and commercial Chancery practices. “If we were to really pick out strengths aside from our international arbitration and litigation reach, I’d choose public international law and employment,” Joe Ferrigno notes. The set’s pupils were suitably starstruck: “It is one of the best commercial sets if not the very best,” one declared. “The immense cross-border work, members’ handle over the systems of law in multiple jurisdictions and their depth of practices is what makes Essex Court stand out.”
“The chambers that never sleeps.”
Essex Court's strategy is a two-pronged attack of domestic and international work. A big chunk of the latter is international arbitration: Joe Smouha QC recently represented infrastructure group OHL, challenging an ICC award of $1.6 billion linked to the construction of a hospital in Qatar, before the Commercial Court. In an example of public international law, Professor Dan Sarooshi QC acted as lead counsel for the United Arab Emirates in a case surrounding measures brought against Qatar in response to the state’s alleged £1 billion provision to terrorists. As for commercial litigation, junior member Anna Dilnot has represented hedge fund RP Explore since 2010 in a long-running dispute involving the construction of an oil refinery in India and funding for the project. Joe Ferrigno notes that "in recent years Essex Court have undertaken unprecedented expansion, embracing demands in the market with multiple lateral hires and new junior tenants joining our ranks.”
The Pupillage Experience
Pupils sit with their main supervisor for three to four months “to get up to the standard needed to advance to the ‘rota’ stage. Your first supervisor is there to give you constructive oral feedback and answer any silly questions you might have.” Early work for pupils revolves around “whatever the supervisor is doing,” with accommodation of what pupils need to see. “Let’s say I eventually feel like I haven’t done enough pleadings or defences,” a pupil posed. “My supervisor would get that arranged for me. We would often do dead work at this point to go with some live cases, but that makes for great learning opportunities.”
After the Christmas season pupils proceed to the ‘rota’, “which is the assessment phase of pupillage.” They rotate through a grand total of seven supervisors, spending two to three weeks with each. Around three supervisors will be silks, and some will be tenancy committee members. Interviewees confirmed “it’s intense, but means we have the opportunity to see a whole range of people within chambers, the different styles of working of each and a good breadth of practice areas.” Pupils we spoke to had dabbled in civil fraud, international arbitration, employment, finance, shipping and insurance.
“The focus of pupillage is to bring you up to a certain standard, not to thrust you out there with no training.”
Recruiter and pupillage committee member David Peters says “one has to exercise judgement” during the rota phase. “The cases we handle are large and run for a long time, so giving a pupil three weeks to read up on them is hopeless – they won’t learn anything.” His own approach is to “give them a mix of live cases and recently deceased ones that are fresh in my mind. I can then very quickly assess how good a job they’ve done.” Pupils found themselves drafting particulars of claim, defences, legal opinions, parts of skeleton arguments and research notes, dead and live. We also heard “some supervisors have a specific piece of work they give all pupils to see how they cope. They use that as a fair metric to judge everyone by the same standard.”
Pupils don’t get on their feet in the second six. “Given the size and scale of our work, our policy is that they don’t do their own cases until they finish pupillage,” Peters confirms. Pupils had no complaints: “The focus of pupillage at Essex Court is to bring you up to a certain standard, not to thrust you out there with no training. I much prefer getting detailed feedback and gradual improvement before being unleashed on the public.” Once their rota is complete, pupils return to their initial supervisor for the remainder of pupillage. “They therefore get an opportunity to see how you’ve grown, with the expectation that you would’ve addressed any issues you had prior to the rota,” insiders noted.
“Supervisors are aware that pupillage is a stressful period, you’re meeting new people constantly and figuring out their way of working,” a pupil said. “Members try to make it easier for the pupil with constructive feedback and they don’t expect you to mirror their working hours.” Pupils started their work day at 9am and, “by and large,” finished by 6pm. This left plenty of time to unwind with a drink or two, or head to the Inns of Court for a Friday lunch alongside senior members of chambers. Essex Court hosts annual Christmas and summer parties, as well as events for clients and celebrations for members taking silk. “We have a WhatsApp group set up amongst the juniors,” an insider revealed. “We’ve been hosting Zoom drinks since lockdown began.”
“From day one, you’re told this isn’t a competition with the other pupil.”
Essex Court’s formal assessments include a pleading exercise, one to assess conference skills, and three advocacy exercises. Pupils suggested these act as “training and development, rather than a rigid assessment.” The first takes place before Christmas, then the rest are scattered within the rota; results from all five count towards the tenancy decision. On top of these formal assessments, David Peters confirms each supervisor prepares a written appraisal of each pupil for the tenancy committee. “They compile these reports with reference to Essex Court’s key criteria: intellectual ability, legal research skills, advocacy potential, judgement and decisiveness.” The committee makes a recommendation to chambers and there’s ultimately “no space for people to play favourites.” Interviewees breathed a sigh of relief knowing they “didn’t have to impress the whole chambers” and that “from day one, you’re told this isn’t a competition with the other pupil.” Peters notes that “once pupils are taken on, they all get a clean slate to build their own reputation.” Essex Court granted tenancy to two pupils in 2021.
The Application Process
Candidates apply through the Pupillage Gateway. “The 200-word written application really stood out to me among others,” a pupil recalled. About thirty successful applicants progress to a single-round interview of about 30 minutes. “We received a contractual dispute problem – similar to those you’d see at other commercial sets – and had half an hour to consider all the materials and prepare our answer,” a previous interviewee explained. “There wasn’t any need to have any prior legal knowledge to deal with this particular problem, which I really appreciated. They wanted to see how you deal with the issue, how you construct an argument and how you’d defend it.”
A recent tenant recalls: “The panel gave me simplified problem questions surrounding a fictional country, considering certain points of law. I had to build an argument around certain facts.” After presenting their argument before six or seven Essex Court members, conversation turns to the applicant themselves. “They asked about my motivations, why this set, my journey to the Bar and some competency questions,” a source said. Pupils were impressed to see “the panel included at least two or three women and varied in seniority.”
I’ll be there for you
Each pupil receives an informal mentor, usually a recent tenant. “The idea is they can be someone pupils can speak to with complete confidence,” the pupillage committee’s David Peters says. “We encourage them to be as open as possible during pupillage.”
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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2021
- Banking & Finance (Band 3)
- Chancery: Commercial (Band 2)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 1)
- Employment (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources (Band 2)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 1)
- Insurance (Band 2)
- International Arbitration: General Commercial & Insurance (Band 1)
- Offshore (Band 2)
- Public International Law (Band 1)
- Shipping & Commodities (Band 2)
- Tax: Indirect Tax (Band 2)