Stacks of tax: pupils here navigate this niche world alongside “the best in the business.”
Pump Court Tax Chambers pupillage review 2024
Tax is one of those practices that has an almost mythical status by virtue of its complex and esoteric subject matter. It conjures images of genius lawyers with unimaginably high IQs poring over cumbersome volumes of literature behind oak-panelled doors… The genius part may have some truth to it, but the thing about tax is that, far from being mythical, it’s everywhere and it’s inevitable. Or as this pupil put it, “everybody’s got to deal with tax at some point.” Whether it’s as simple as sorting out tax returns, or staving off damaging allegations of tax evasion.
“You don’t need to be a mathematical whiz. It’s about words, not numbers."
You may be wondering who’s most suited to working in this area. Contrary to popular belief, “you don’t need to be a mathematical whiz,” says Richard Vallat KC, head of the pupillage committee. “It’s about words, not numbers. You need to be able to read statutes, understand what they mean, and appreciate ambiguities.”
If that sounds like you, you’ll be in good company at PCTC. Recognised as one of the leading tax sets, PCTC boasts out-of-this-world cases. Yes, really: Kevin Prosser KC and Barbara Belgrano appeared in the Upper Tribunal in a case concerning the tax implications of launching satellites into space. Back on more familiar territory, Andrew Hitchmough KC represented London’s own Hippodrome Casino on the specificities of its VAT recovery. With over 30 barristers specialising in tax, the set earns itself four accolades from Chambers UK Bar across its family/matrimonial, employment, crime, and ecclesiastical practices.
“We’re a niche set in an extremely niche market,” clerking director Mark Rushton explains. Let’s break down the labyrinth of tax together. The work is roughly divided into eight areas: corporate tax, personal tax, indirect tax (including VAT and IPT), customs and duties (international trade), employee remuneration, professional negligence, stamp taxes, and arbitration & mediation. But to keep things simple, the set groups all of its work into three main categories: corporate tax, indirect tax, and private client.
The set is often instructed by the big four accountancy firms, as well as solicitors' firms such as Macfarlanes, Forsters, and Charles Russell Speechlys, and it's not uncommon to see HMRC’s lawyers on the other side. As such, there’s never a shortage of tax work to be done. Rushton highlights impending tax consequences in relation to Brexit: “There’s more work to be done in relation to customs, and we’ve seen a recent increase in customs work.”
The Pupillage Experience
Pupillage is roughly split into two halves, pre-Easter and post-Easter, and pupils sit with different supervisors across each. Between October and April, pupils sit with four supervisors and see a range of different practices. The first six is “mostly about learning and getting familiar with the area. It’s unlikely you’ll have done something similar before coming here,” a pupil explained. Between January and April, pupils sit with two supervisors from different practices, so you’re exposed to a range of things. “The work slowly progresses in complexity,” we heard. “Tax includes a lot of advisory elements, but there’s also a bit of planning,” a source explained. “During that period, you get questions about planning, which are different to merit or litigation questions. With planning questions, you have to be able to see the wood for the trees and look at the broader picture,” a pupil advised.
Post-Easter sees pupils sit with a different supervisor every two weeks – usually totalling four supervisors. “You sit with a variety of people from a variety of practices to experience the whole chambers,” we heard, as different areas have different complexities. Take, for example, private client, which is “more about evidence and involves discussions about HMRC.” The second six “is where it gets really intense, and you have to do the best work you can,” a source told us, as “every piece of work you do will be discussed.” Supervisors give their pupils ongoing feedback, and there’s a discussion once a quarter to track the pupil’s progress.
“There’s absolute dread before you start, but once you actually get there it’s nice because everyone’s focused on you!”
While completing work for their supervisors, pupils also have two moots where they compete against each other. “There’s absolute dread before you start, but once you actually get there it’s nice because everyone’s focused on you!” we heard. This is the Bar, after all! “It’s a chance to stand up and demonstrate who you are and how you go about things. You become comfortable being the focus.” Vallat explains that these aren’t formally assessed, rather it’s a chance for the pupil to gain experience of “something towards advocacy.”
The pupillage gradually progresses from learning to assessment throughout the two sixes. When the time to make the decision on tenancy comes round, the pupillage committee convenes. Every member who has been a supervisor to the pupil is “encouraged to give a summary of the work the pupil has done, including their strengths and weaknesses,” Vallat explains. Ideally, “to gain tenancy, you need support from everyone,” he elaborates. The final decision is made in July, which allows plenty of time post-decision for successful pupils to “go back into education mode and fill any gaps,” Vallat tells us. “If someone hasn’t got tenancy, the next three months are spent helping them work out the next steps.” The set didn't disclose retention figures for 2023. But in 2022, the set offered tenancy to one pupil, and the other became a door tenant.
Speaking more broadly of the set’s culture, Vallat tells us that “you work hard, but not ridiculously hard. One plus point about tax is it’s flexible and family friendly. You know what your cases and papers are, and it fits around the rest of your life quite well.” Our pupil source attested to this: “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to log back on at home. There are no real late nights, and very little at the weekend.”
“I once mentioned in passing that it would be nice if people brought you cake instead of asking how your day was!”
While the work may not be a piece of cake, baked goods do make an appearance in chambers: “One of the juniors brought me cake because I once mentioned in passing that it would be nice if people brought you cake instead of asking how your day was!” a source told us. We couldn’t agree more. To add to that, “social occasions are social occasions! You talk about your dog, or your baby, not your work.” The set hosts coffee sessions in person three times a week where “people bring questions and you get to see how the best in the business would approach them. It’s an unguarded open discussion, usually about tax, but it could be about the weather or the Prime Minister...”
The Application Process
The application process starts with the Pupillage Gateway. The paper sift is anonymous and the key is to write well. “A lot of what we do involves writing,” Vallat reiterates, “and we look for those who are motivated and committed to the tax bar, but not to the exclusion of everything else.” Research is crucial to understanding how and why tax might work for you, “even if you’ve not done a mini for a tax set,” says Vallat.
Around 25 successful applicants out of a hypothetical pool of 75 are advanced to the first-round interview. This kicks off with a warm-up question (“we don’t want to chuck a bucket of cold water over them!” says Vallat), followed by a diversity question (which we’re told has no right answer), an exploration of your CV, and then the technical part. Half an hour before the interview, applicants are given pieces of legislation with a few questions for discussion. “We try not to make it too adversarial,” Vallat explains. “It’s a chance to show your ability to construe legislation, and flexibility.”
“We just want you to respond to the materials in a clear and logical way.”
Top candidates are then advanced to the second stage, which involves a longer written exercise. For example, candidates might be given a recent tax tribunal decision and two or three relevant cases to look at. "We ask about merits and the prospects of success on appeal,” Vallat explains, before warning: “It’s not a legal research exercise. We just want you to respond to the materials in a clear and logical way.” Candidates are given six to eight hours of prep time, depending on the length of the case.
The written papers are marked anonymously and, looking at the scores from both rounds, the top six to eight candidates go through to the final stage – an interview based on the written work completed in the previous stage. Marks from all stages are taken into account for the final decision. “We don’t make more offers than we can accommodate tenants,” Vallat makes clear. “If we make you an offer, that means we have room to offer you tenancy. There’s no squeeze later on.” What’s more, feedback is given to unsuccessful candidates at all stages beyond the paper sift.
PS... At PCTC, everyone goes by their initials! CS, over and out.
Pump Court Tax Chambers
16 Bedford Row,
Type of work undertaken
Pupils will work with at least three pupil supervisors in their first six months and will also sit with other members of chambers so as to receive a broad training in most aspects of Chambers’ work. Tenancy decisions are usually made in July.
Chambers offers funded mini-pupillages. The programme runs throughout the year. Applications should be made via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with accompanying CV and marked for the attention of the Mini-Pupillage Secretary. See https://www.pumptax.com/pupillage/mini-pupillage/ for further details including deadlines.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2023
- Tax (Band 1)
- Tax: Indirect Tax (Band 1)
- Tax: Private Client (Band 1)