A “whole breadth” of the “highest quality” legal work awaits pupils at one of the Commercial Bar’s most renowned chambers.
"Ultimately, good people attract good work.” That’s the philosophy of Fountain Court senior clerk Alex Taylor, striking a surprisingly understated tone in light of the set’s standing. Let’s unpick the ‘good work’ bit first – “known for its precedent-setting commercial cases,” Fountain Court and its members routinely hit the headlines. Take Akhil Shah QC acting for liquidators following the insolvency of Thomas Cook; or head of chambers Bankim Thanki QC appearing in the Supreme Court on behalf of Ukraine in a $3 billion Eurobond claim brought by the Russian Federation following the invasion of Crimea. Members also acted on the consequences of Barclays’ capital raising from Qatar; in defence of Sports Direct in the first ever proceedings brought by the Financial Reporting Council under statutory powers to seek documents; and a spate of high-profile professional negligence claims involving the SRA.
As for the ‘good people’, an incredible six Fountain Court members took silk in 2020, “which we believe is a record for a magic circle set in the Bar.” That brought the total number of Fountain Court silks to 42 including door tenants. The set’s historically been a big feeder to judicial positions and seen other members “lost” to politics, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Such a reputation “helps in the overall prestige of the chambers,” Taylor notes. “It gives us a heritage of quality people who come to Fountain Court then go on to do super impressive things.”
“Known for its precedent-setting commercial cases.”
‘Impressive’ is an accurate description of the set’s plethora of Chambers UK Bar rankings, including top spots for aviation, banking and finance, civil fraud, commercial dispute resolution, financial services, professional discipline, andregulatory and commercial travel. In the wake of Covid-19, Taylor anticipates disruption in members’ aviation, insurance, fraud and securities practices. “Commercial disputes is a buoyant market,” he notes, “and Covid will throw up even more new issues” for members to get to grips with. As for other practices, the set’s commercial crime strand “continues to flourish,” as does solicitor professional discipline. “We’re dominating that area,” Taylor declares. “I was only looking for commercial work rather than any kind of mix,” a baby junior interviewee noted. “When looking at that kind of legal practice, Fountain Court is clearly the best option,” they reckoned.
The Application Process
All applicants must complete an assessed three-day mini-pupillage before applying to Fountain Court through the Pupillage Gateway. Before that, around a quarter ofapplicants receive invites to an initial interview. Pupillage committee member Sam Ritchie tells us that alongside questions about an applicant’s CV, a non-legal topic is up for discussion, “which is usually about current affairs and something on which you can take a position and debate certain principles.” After this initial acid test, successful interviewees progress to the assessed mini-pupillage “to find out all about chambers. We get to see their interest in us and commercial law more generally.” Ritchie confirms they must also complete an assessed written legal problem, “for which we provide the materials, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve done a law degree.”
“We’re looking for quickness of thought and ability to respond to arguments posed to you.”
Once they’ve wrapped up the mini, applicants can then make their full pupillage application via the Gateway. Around 12-15 applicants make it to a final 40-minute interview in front of six or seven members of the pupillage committee. The interview involves a legal-based problem to be solved in a presentation, which is reportedly “legally straightforward and nothing that requires hours of research to regurgitate from memory.” That’s followed by a “casual conversation” where the panel “asks the candidate personal questions, wanting to get an impression of them.”
That may sound intimidating, but sources suggested the tone and atmosphere of the interviews were “quite comfortable and comforting, which feels strange to say. I found it less intimidating than other sets, and that really reflects the Fountain Court approach: it’s a supportive and friendly place.” That aside, Sam Ritchie explains: “Academic excellence is the prerequisite quality. We’re looking for quickness of thought and ability to respond to arguments posed to you, plus your ability to take a position and defend it.” It’s worth recognising that most FC members attended Oxbridge at one point…
The Pupillage Experience
Each pupil does four three-month seats; they have the same supervisor for the first and last three months, with two additional supervisors overseeing the second and third seats. “Your first supervisor takes on a more pastoral, mentor-esque role, and you get to know them very well,” one source shared. The first three months are also unassessed, and your supervisor gives feedback without formal grading. “It’s a period to become comfortable, bed in, and learn what the expectations are and might become,” we heard.
After this initial grace period, pupils complete 20-25 assessed pieces of work for members of chambers. “You get farmed out and do tasks for several barristers,” told one source. “I’ve worked with everyone from the most senior silk in chambers to someone with two years' call.” Ritchie says Fountain Court “likes pupils to receive a really wide view” of the set’s commercial practice. “I got to see a whole range of claims for breach of guarantee on a loan agreement, a public case involving EU law, and some work leading up to a solicitor’s tribunal,” one said.Another source described time spent on an anti-suit injunction, getting to grips with drafts of pleadings and preparing a skeleton argument for an appeal in a disciplinary tribunal.
“…pupillage could definitely be characterised as a learning process. Chambers make it very clear that it’s not a competition.”
One source reckoned “pupillage could definitely be characterised as a learning process. Chambers make it very clear that it’s not a competition: pupils are never given the same work because everything’s live, so we can’t be compared directly.” They felt “pupils are encouraged to view one another as a source of support, rather than someone to beat.” There’s no room for showboating in court either, as pupils don’t get on their feet during pupillage. “Given our work” (built on high-value mega cases),“it would be too early to allow pupils to start practising before the tenancy decision,” Sam Ritchie points out.Pupils were in fact “grateful to have a full year focused on training and learning,” and advocacy comes early on after tenancy with a smattering of County Court hearings in which to demonstrate your skills. “I don’t feel I missed out on the practice of arguing issues,” one found. “When you do a task for a supervisor, you’ll really do have to defend your points to them – they’ll press you hard.”
Day-to-day feedback and sparring sessions with supervisors are the set’s alternative to formal advocacy assessments. That’s right, no exam-style tests or challenges, which also helps prevent any competitive spirit surrounding pupillage. “Not having to do advocacy exercises against other pupils is certainly a benefit and alleviates some unnecessary pressure,” one declared. “You’re all doing different work and there’s no point in duplicating it as it’s all live.”
“When we take on a pupil, the working assumption is that they will gain tenancy.”
Every member that a pupil’s worked for submits feedback for a compilation submitted to the pupillage committee. Come June, Sam Ritchie and co read through the dozens of reports for each pupil and decide if they should stay on as a tenant. “The pressure is spread over 25 or so pieces of work,” alongside general performance across the year, “which feels more manageable” and eases the burden (compared to a handful of crunch assessments). “You just come in and do your own work throughout the year, with little pressure,” a pupil found. Ritchie notes: “When we take on a pupil, the working assumption is that they will gain tenancy if they meet the standard as we don’t have a fixed number of places.” That proved true in 2020, when all three pupils secured tenancy.
The Commercial Bar may be known for its intensity and competitive spirit, but pupils remained cool, calm and collected after their first year. “I did wonder before starting if I’d find it intimidating, but I definitely haven’t,” one confirmed. Senior clerk Alex Taylor suggests “the standout feature of the set is its openness and friendliness,” but adds that Fountain Court isn’t one size fits all. “Collectively we all enjoy the law and getting to grips with a difficult legal question, but it would be hard to characterise us all similarly beyond that.”
Time after time
Sources agreed their standard 9am to 6.30pm working hours during pupillage felt “very manageable,” but longer days become more likely as a fully-fledged member.
Fountain Court Chambers
- No of silks 42
- No of juniors 49
- No of pupils 4 (currently)
- Contact Chelsea Finnigan [email protected]
- 020 7583 3335
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) Up to four 12 month pupillages
- Pupillage award £70,000
- Tenancies over the last 7 years 20 out of 25 pupils have been offered tenancy
We want to recruit the best and brightest candidates whatever their background and we positively encourage applications from groups who are under-represented in chambers.