This top commercial set recruits the best and brightest, and seems to have a habit of hiring future judges.
You be the judge
If a set were to lose three silks in one year, that might raise some eyebrows. Not so at Essex Court: 2017/18 saw three of its QCs appointed judges in the Commercial Court. “It's almost like our court now!” first junior clerk Ben Perry jokes. Having a good relationship with that court is certainly important when your barristers are some of the best at the Commercial Bar, and regularly argue both domestic and international cases there. Oh, and four of the set's juniors made silk in 2017 – making up for the three that became judges.
“We took some lateral recruits recently.”
Back in the 1950s when Essex Court split from what's now 20 Essex Street, “we started out principally as a shipping set, but since then have evolved into so much more,” says Ben Perry. The set achieves a top ranking in Chambers UK for commercial disputes, civil fraud, international arbitration and public international law, and is also ranked for shipping, energy, employment, and more recently commercial Chancery. “We took on some commercial/Chancery practitioners recently as lateral recruits because we saw it as an area we could bolster,” Perry explains. One silk was recently active in the Chancery Division on BAT Industries v Sequana which concerned liability for environmental pollution of rivers in the US and a claim of over $800 million.
Essex Court's strategy revolves around a balance between domestic and international work. International commercial arbitration is a very active area. For example members were recently active on a huge arbitration related to a $1.6 billion claim by the Panama Canal Authority over construction work at the canal. And another QC recently acted for Malaysian satellite TV provider Astro All Asia in an arbitration claim against some Indonesian companies over the break-up of a satellite TV joint venture. In the courts a silk acted for Goldman Sachs in the Lehman Waterfall hearing over entitlement to funding costs; and another member acted for Russian investment bank Otkritie Capital as it litigated a fraud claim against Threadneedle Asset Management over $100 million losses caused by an ex-employee. As these examples indicate, much of Essex Court's work is pretty City-slicking, but members do some non-commercial work too. For instance, Richard Millett QC is lead counsel to the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire.
Pupils sit with their main supervisor for the first three to four months and have the chance to “learn the ropes and ease into pupillage, which gradually builds in intensity.” Sources reckoned “this period is primarily training – the time for you to make mistakes and get constructive feedback.” There's also a series of talks from members on the set's different practice areas. “Those were incredibly useful,” a baby junior recalled. “It meant when I encountered them later, I had a starting point. I still refer to my notes now.”
“It's called the rota because you rotate around six supervisors.”
After Christmas pupils enter the 'rota'. “It's called the rota because you rotate around six supervisors.” Pupils spend around three weeks with each. Sources found “three weeks is long enough to produce good-quality work, but short enough so that things stay interesting.” It also means pupils get a wide taster of chambers' major practice areas. Interviewees had tried the likes of civil fraud, international arbitration, employment, finance, shipping and insurance. Pupils either work on their supervisor's live cases – “if the work is appropriate” – or on some older papers that a supervisor might “give every pupil so they have a direct comparison metric.” Overall sources found they were doing more live work than dead, drafting particulars of claim, defences, legal opinions, parts of skeleton arguments or research notes. A pupil's work “may or may not find its way into the actual skeleton argument – it depends on the quality and who the supervisor is.”
Pupils don't get on their feet in the second six. “The work is very high-value and complex,” one pupil explained. “It's not the kind of thing you'd ever give to a pupil and I think that's completely fair.” A recent tenant added: “I'm glad I had the whole of pupillage to be trained up – the first six months isn't long enough to get to the standard you need to be at.” Essex Court organises both advocacy and conference skills exercises that serve the “dual purpose of training and generating information on you for the tenancy decision.” The first of these takes place before Christmas, while the rest are scattered throughout the rota; all count towards the tenancy decision. One interviewee recalled doing an application to a judge and another mentioned “a witness-handling exercise which involved an examination-in-chief and cross-examination.”
On top of these formal assessments, it's important to highlight that the rota itself is “a process of quite intense assessment.” Claire Blanchard QC, head of the pupillage committee, explains: “By the end of the process all the rota supervisors will have worked with all the pupils. The seven of us will write reports assessing our pupils by reference to our objective criteria. We then make a recommendation as to whether or not we think someone should be offered tenancy.” Pupils were confident that assessment “is fair, objective and transparent. Only the people involved directly in pupillage make the decisions, and you know the criteria on which they are judging you.” In 2019 three of five pupils gained tenancy.
Oxfords, not brogues
Candidates apply through the Pupillage Gateway. “One question stood out – the set asked us to pick a case that relates to their practice areas and tell them about it in 200 words,” a pupil recalled. Successful applicants are invited to a single interview. “It lasts about 30 minutes,” Claire Blanchard explains. “About half of it is spent on a problem question” – which candidates are given to prepare before the interview – “designed to test how people think, not their substantive knowledge of the law.” There are some examples on the set's website. “The other half involves questions designed to elicit evidence of a candidate's satisfaction of our objective criteria,” says Blanchard. Again, those criteria are on the set's website.
Blanchard continues: “We look for strong academic credentials and set quite a lot of store by that. We require applicants to produce their exam transcripts so that we can drill down into the details of what marks they got as well as their overall degree.” Although she emphasises that “there's no pro-Oxbridge bias,” Blanchard admits: “The reality is that if someone has a top First from Oxford or Cambridge, that's a very classy applicant.” A glance at the set's website shows a large majority of members went to Oxbridge at some point in their studies.
“It's a hard twelve months in a good, productive way. You are constantly on the go.”
Pupils' hours were described as “surprisingly good” by a baby junior – “the standard day is about 9am to 6pm or 7pm.” A pupil added: “They won't ask you to keep unreasonable hours, but if you're given a task and it's due on a certain day, up until that day you're in control of your time.” That said, a baby junior recalled: “There are times, particularly during the rota, when supervisors might load you up a bit and see how you cope – that's how practice will be.” Sources emphasised: “It's a hard twelve months in a good, productive way. You are constantly on the go.”
There are social dos here and there for pupils and tenants to get involved in away from the paperwork and courtrooms. The set puts on a “fairly well-attended” lunch every Friday which one baby junior found to be “a great way to get to know more senior members.” There are annual Christmas and summer parties, as well as parties for clients or those taking silk. Relationships at the junior end were also praised. “Just after we gained tenancy, the most junior members took us out for drinks,” a baby barrister recalled. “We had champagne and they told us what to expect. They explained things like how to claim back VAT if you're self-employed and how to go about getting business cards.”
Essex Court Chambers is a supporter of the Social Mobility Foundation and “does at least three events with their students every year.”
Essex Court Chambers
24 Lincoln's Inn Fields,
- No of silks 42
- No of juniors 54
- No of pupils 4
- Contact: Sarah Joseph, [email protected]
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) Up to four 12-month pupillages
- Income Award of £65,000
- Tenancies: 4
Our members offer advisory and advocacy expertise on disputes relating to all aspects of business and commerce, both domestic and international. Our core areas of work include commercial litigation, civil fraud, international commercial arbitration, international trade, energy, shipping, PIL, insurance/reinsurance, banking and financial services. But our members enjoy the freedom to develop their own specialisms. Many have done so, in a wide range of areas. This means that pupils and junior tenants can see a broad range of work.
Our work is intellectually challenging. We seek to recruit the best and the brightest. A degree from Oxford or Cambridge is not a prerequisite of pupillage with us; not all of the top talent is concentrated in a small number of academic institutions. We encourage applications from all. We welcome applications from law and non-law graduates and for deferred pupillage.
We are committed to equality of opportunity. We will make reasonable adjustments for disabled applicants.
Undertaking a mini-pupillage is strongly encouraged. You are also encouraged to attend our Student Open Day. Reasonable travel and other expenses are refunded for both.
Please see our website for full details of pupillage, mini-pupillage and our Student Open Day, including when and how to apply
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2019
- Banking & Finance (Band 3)
- Chancery: Commercial (Band 3)
- 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)