Juniors say intellect and affability go hand in hand at Serle Court, as much as its expertise in traditional and commercial Chancery.
In all good unions, previously independent entities unite and saddle up for mutually exponential benefit. Think Disney and Pixar, Facebook and WhatsApp, or even going back to the late nineties, Exxon and Mobil. On the flip side, for advice on mutual ventures the nation’s eyes aren’t likely to turn to eBay and Skype, AOL and Time Warner, or Sting and Shaggy (the less said about that questionable musical alliance the better). In the legal world, the merger between 1 Hare Court (no relation to the 1 Hare Court featured in this guide) and Serle Court in 2000 found harmony and success where Sting and Shaggy could not. Namely in the marrying of their respective commercial and traditional Chancery practices. As the set’s chief executive John Petrie puts it: “We are a commercial & Chancery set, so if someone wants only commercial work and has absolutely no interest in Chancery whatsoever, we would explore why they have applied to Serle Court. We do have many pupils who wish to forge a career in commercial work and they are absolutely able to do so and very successfully."
The set sits among the best of the best for both its commercial Chancery and traditional Chancery work according to Chambers UK Bar. It also scoops the highest commendations for its offshore, partnership, and civil fraud practices. Head clerk Steven Whitaker gives a rough breakdown of the set’s work. Commercial litigation and Chancery work account for 20% each, while fraud and trust and probate take 15% apiece. Company, insolvency, and property work make up 10% each. Whitaker emphasises however that this “can all shift year on year,” as the set may “get involved in a massive case that gives one practice a leap.”
“You get lots of big business disputes, with a cast of colourful characters!”
Pupils can expect exposure across these areas, from commercial litigation to straightforward commercial contracts to traditional Chancery (“trusts, probates, and charity work”). They may also do work on offshore international trusts.Be it Jersey, Guernsey, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, or Hong Kong, Whitaker explains that “the market for offshore work has certainly grown outside the area of private international trusts in recent years. We have people in multiple jurisdictions on a regular basis., on large-scale cases involving company law issues, international frauds, and contractual disputes involving large sums of money. For this reason, we often see ourselves marketing to international clients every couple of months." On one notable case, Philip Marshall QC was instructed in a claim in the British Virgin Islands for over $1 billion that arose out of a failed energy joint venture in Russia. Similarly, Marshall acted in a jumbo $1 billion claim in Guernsey arising from mortgage-backed securities trading by private equity company Carlyle Capital.
In the commercial Chancery space, Philip Jones QC continued to act for JTA Bank, a Kazakh bank, in a $6 billion fraud claim. On home soil, David Drake acted for the NHS in a damages claim of over £200 million arising from allegations that a French pharmaceutical company fraudulently obtained patents for a popular prescription drug. Civil fraud is another speciality of the set. “You get lots of big business disputes,” one junior explained, “with a cast of colourful characters!” In one case, Elizabeth Jones QC acted on behalf of businessman and philanthropist Sir Owen Glenn for more than three years, in proceedings connected to Spartan Capital, a joint venture company in the British Virgin Islands. Philip Marshall acted for media firm Constantin Media in a £250 million claim against German bank Bayerische Landesbank for carrying out the sale of Formula 1 at an undervalue as a result of bribes.
The Pupillage Experience
Upon arrival, “a settling-in process” allows pupils to get the lay of the land (read: chambers), before they’re assigned to their first supervisor. Over four three-months seats, the pupillage is structured to make sure pupils work under a blend of both commercial and Chancery supervisors. Our sources noted how the pupillage “is almost entirely non-practising,” meaning there’s no real distinction between first and second sixes. In the place of live work, supervisors “set pieces of dead work” for newbies which have been completed by pupils in previous years, “to get a sense of where you sit” in comparison. And while supervisors determine the scope of work and practice areas a pupil is exposed to, there’s still an opportunity to reach out to other practitioners towards the end of their first seat. “A pupil may say they haven’t done a skeleton in trusts,” one source explained, “or they’ve had a chance to do a few opinions but haven’t had a freezing injunction. So the new supervisor will give opportunities to remedy that.”
One interviewee felt that as a whole, “pupillage is a bit more informal here.” Baggy shirts and bucket hats? No, no: simply that Serle Court’s assessments aren’t as all-encompassing as one might think. Petrie notes that “it’s very much a training process and not a testing process here – we’re going to train a pupil so they will eventually be offered tenancy.” So, while there are two or three assessed pieces of work throughout the year – be they skeletons, advocacy, or opinions – which each supervisor marks and evaluates, pupils didn’t feel as though they were held captive to a grade. “The assessments are there to demonstrate that we’ve come to a particular level and can do certain things,” they felt, rather than being the one and only key to tenancy – though of course assessment is an important factor in that decision.
“You build relational ties and don’t see your peers as direct competitors.”
On that note, the final decision lies with members of the tenancy committee, who consider pupils’ assessed work from the year, along with feedback from supervisors before determining their fates at around the third quarter of the pupillage. According to Petrie: “We will not offer a pupillage to anyone who we do not think is likely to be offered tenancy. If we had a year where the candidates weren’t up to standard, we wouldn’t take them.” Moreover, Petrie assures us that pupils are only taken on in the first place if there’s going to be room for them as junior tenants, so during the pupillage “they are not in competition with one another.” he says.Pupils confirmed: “You don’t feel a sense of competition. You build relational ties and don’t see your peers as direct competitors.” In 2020, Serle Court granted tenancy to both its two pupils.
The Application Process
As of 2019, applications for Serle Court are streamlined through the Pupillage Gateway. Petrie reveals that the set “gets roughly 120 to 125 acceptable applicants” a year. That’s only the acceptable applicants, mind you. “We’re very, very lucky,” Petrie continues. “Every year we end up with exceptional pupils. It’s almost embarrassing the talent you get!” Three members whittle down those anonymised applications to around 30 candidates for the interview stages. The set then conducts a first round of interviews, which entails a 15-minute chat with each of the candidates. First though, they’re given 15 minutes to think about a question; interviewers tend to press them on why they haven't chosen an alternative answer. The top ten candidates who can hold their ground against those devil’s advocates are invited to the second-round interview, where they’ll face a “far more detailed problem” and go through it all again. Fortunately, this timethey’re given a generous 45 minutes to prepare for the questioning.
“Everyone’s hard-working and successful.”
After the second round, every member of the interviewing panel “comes together to review the scores.” Petrie tells us: “We don’t actively seek to recruit from Oxford or Cambridge; it doesn’t matter where applicants come from, we just take the best.” Whether that’s people with multiple degrees, PhD holders, or mature applicants with previous career experience, Petrie says “there’s a real variation” in candidates and “no singular characteristic we’re looking for.” That said, academic rigour is unsurprisingly one of the most sought-after qualities: “The Chancery Bar requires intellect, and it requires intellect of a high standard.” Our sources observed “everyone’s hard-working and successful,” but they wanted to make it clear that it’s not just about the high IQs at this set. We heard that during their downtime the barristers of Serle Court enjoyed playing football, cricket and darts together. “What stands us apart?” Petrie poses. “Exceptional intellect alongside human and sociable people.”
Finish nice and Serle-y
Days of 9am to 6pm were the standard during pupillage, and even in the early days of tenancy. One junior told us: “There’s not a culture of pressurising you to work every hour here.”
6 New Square,
- No of silks 27
- No of juniors 42
- No of pupils up to 3 per year
- Contact Lyric McDonald, 020 7242 6105
- [email protected]
- Method of application Chambers now participates in the online pupillage applications scheme, Pupillage Gateway. Applications must be made through the Pupillage Gateway.
- Pupillages Up to three 12-month pupillages
- Tenancies Up to 3 per annum
Serle Court is one of the leading Commercial Chancery sets with 70 barristers including 28 silks. Widely recognised as a leading set, members are recommended in 22 practice areas by Chambers UK and 20 practice areas by Legal 500. Serle Court has a stimulating and inclusive work environment and a forward-looking approach.
Type of work undertaken
Other areas of expertise include: administrative and public law; art; banking and financial services; charities; competition law and state aid; court of protection; EU law; insurance and reinsurance; intellectual property; private international law; professional negligence; public international law; regulatory and disciplinary; sports, entertainment and media; and tax.