This top tax set expects the very best of its perspicacious pupils, but if you’ve got a taste for tax and all its trappings, pupils say: “You’ll enjoy every single day.”
Classicists, theologians, historians, mathematicians, chemists, biologists, and even deep sea divers… you’ll find all sorts of people among the members of Pump Court Tax Chambers. One thread ties them together: tax. More specifically, their esoteric knowledge of all things tax. The collective expertise of this elite set has earned it the highest praise possible from Chambers UK with Band 1 rankings for corporate tax, indirect tax and private tax. Senior clerk Nigel Jones describes the set's client base as “the wish list of any chambers.” Instructions come from the Big Four accountancy firms and the magic circle.
Tax avoidance has been a hot topic in the past few years and related work continues to keep PCTC busy: four members defended the high-profile film finance scheme of Ingenious Film Partners after HMRC alleged that the investment arrangement was a tax avoidance scheme. Both sides appealed the decision at the First-tier Tribunal and a hearing is expected in the Upper Tribunal in 2019.
The set splits its work evenly between direct tax (corporation and business tax), private tax (inheritance, income tax and trusts) and indirect tax (VAT and customs duties). Jones comments that “there has been a very marked increase in litigation over the past ten years, but the advisory side is incredibly important. You can’t do tax unless you have a solid grounding in advisory work.” Jones adds that the set is growing at a somewhat sedate pace: “I’d complain we’re not growing fast enough as sometimes I have to return work at the lower levels. But juniors need breathing space to get to the top of their game – tax is not something you want to get wrong.” A pupil told us: “There’s a lot of hard work. But if you like tax, you’ll enjoy every single day.” The set has also attracted those who weren’t initially convinced: “I thought tax would be dry. I was just doing the mini to tick a box, but actually it was really interesting. In other areas of law, you rehearse the same legal arguments over and over again with different facts, whereas with tax the law changes all the time.”
The first three months are a ‘bedding in’ period, during which pupils have two main supervisors. A junior tenant advised: “Make the most of the first three months to ask all of the questions you’d like to, because it becomes increasingly difficult to ask fundamental questions later in the game.” Pupils work on live cases and there are plenty of chances to go to court. “With my first supervisor I went to the High Court and Court of Appeal,” reported one source. “There weren’t witnesses to question, so I got to write drafts of skeleton arguments and opinions on the merits of an appeal. My second supervisor had a case that started in the First-tier Tribunal, which was a completely different experience because you have witnesses deciding the facts. I prepared a list of questions to ask the witnesses, then compared it with my supervisor’s work to see whether I had covered all the points.” There are also research tasks. One source said: “I did a research project on how usufructs are taxed.” Usu-whats? “It’s a type of entity used abroad – not a trust, but the question was should they be treated like a particular kind of trust.”
“Making mistakes is fine as long as you don’t do same thing twice!”
After Christmas pupils sit with two further supervisors for one month, and for the remainder of pupillage they go on 'rapid rotation', spending one to two weeks with different supervisors including QCs. While there's no live advocacy during the second six, a pupil did note a step up: “I’m left to it now. I’m given a file involving a case and set a task, usually an opinion on the merits of a case or the pros and cons of a certain action – like whether the client should pursue an appeal or defend a claim. If you need a little support you can definitely go to your supervisor, but it’s a lot more about what you do on your own.” A junior tenant added: “Making mistakes is fine as long as you don’t do same thing twice!”
By the time the tenancy decision rolls round, a pupil will have sat with two to three main supervisors, and around ten members may have seen their work. Pupillage committee secretary Barbara Belgrano says the rapid rotation allows pupils to spend time with silks they might not otherwise meet. On the flip side, a pupil reasoned: “If you have a bad week that supervisor will have that impression of you and you won’t get a chance to change it.”
Supervisor feedback forms a large part of the tenancy decision, which is made In July. There are also two assessed moots for pupils to prove themselves. Pupils are each assigned one side of a case: recently PCTC’s two pupils 'represented' the University of Cambridge and HMRC in an appeal at the European Court of Justice. The moots give all members a chance to see pupils in action, and they tend to be well attended. No wonder one junior tenant remembered it as “utterly terrifying.” In 2018 both pupils gained tenancy.
The devil's in the details
The application process begins with a CV and cover letter. The letter is important as the set uses it to judge whether you can write in a coherent and concise way. Remember that PCTC's barristers provide a lot of written advice as part of their practice. A junior tenant revealed: “Apparently I got an interview because my letter was only two lines. So keep it short. People go on and on about stuff that isn’t relevant. Don’t say ‘I’m interested in X’ without backing it up with an example.”
About 30 skilful writers are invited to the first-round interview. They’re given 15 minutes to read through a piece of statute to discuss in the 30-minute interview. From there, ten to 12 candidates are asked to submit a written tax opinion in the space of an agreed eight-hour period. Belgrano say the process is designed not to disadvantage non-law grads: “We provide all the materials you’ll need. What we don’t want is someone to go away and do lots of research!” From the anonymised opinions, the panel invites up to five candidates back to the final round, where they orally defend their written opinion. Applicants who do well are likely to be detail-oriented. “Tax legislation is complex," Barbara Belgrano explains. "You need to be rigorous, pay great attention to detail and also to be creative." So if you’re not precise then you can’t do tax: legislation is very carefully drafted, and you need to make sure you've read all its relevant sections.
“Some might regard us as old-fashioned,” reflected Nigel Jones when asked about the set’s culture, “but a lot of people want that at the Bar.” A pupil’s verdict was “light and fresh” rather than old and stuffy. And there’s no afternoon tea to be found here. Instead it’s 11am coffee, and “drinks in the clerks’ room as often as someone can think of an excuse!”
You’ll find Pump Court Tax Chambers in the smart and photogenic Georgian terrace of Bedford Row, a stone’s throw from Gray’s Inn.
Pump Court Tax Chambers
16 Bedford Row,
- No of silks 13
- No of juniors 22
- No of pupils 1-2 in any given year
- Contact Barbara Belgrano, [email protected]
- Method of application CV and covering letter, typically in early February (see website)
- Pupillages (pa) Up to 2, funded
- Tenancies in last three years 2
Type of work undertaken
Pupils will work with at least three pupil supervisors and will also sit with other members of chambers so as to receive a broad training in most aspects of chambers’ work.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2018
- Tax (Band 1)
- Tax: Indirect Tax (Band 1)
- Tax: Private Client (Band 1)