Surly silks? Not a chance at this high-flying commercial chancery set.
Serle Court pupillage review
It’s hardly a secret that to work at the Bar, you have to be at the top of your game. And, as Serle Court’s chief executive John Petrie explains, if it’s chancery you’re interested in, “you must have the highest level of intellect and the competition is very high.” It’s a high bar, but if trusts and commercial chancery are your thing, then Serle Court is the place to be. The set is top ranked by Chambers UK Bar in commercial and traditional chancery, alongside civil fraud, offshore and partnership at the London Bar. It's also recognised in Chambers Global for its top-notch prowess in commercial chancery disputes and offshore work.
Senior clerk Nick Hockney tells us that "the majority of the work is spread across our key areas of chancery/commercial practice – private client trusts and probate, civil fraud, company, insolvency, commercial litigation, partnership and LLP, property, arbitration and mediation.” The set’s trusts team is stellar: every silk and junior is top-ranked in Chambers UK Bar. To put the work into context, Richard Wilson QC acts for the plaintiff beneficiary of a $400 million Bahamian trust and for a member of a wealthy Taiwanese family who is pursuing two claims in Bermuda; one of the claims is valued at $12 billion and is thought to be the highest-value trust case in the world at the time of writing. However, despite the set's trusts expertise, Hockney notes that "members of chambers also specialise in banking and financial services, private international law, intellectual property, competition and state aid, and sports and entertainment law.” In the commercial chancery space, the set handles everything from the largest and most complex cases to smaller pieces of litigation. On the large side of things is Philip Marshall QC’s defence of an individual who is part of an $800 million fraud claim. Marshall also acts for the Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank against the State of Qatar, which claims the bank and another Middle Eastern bank engaged in currency manipulation. Over in the traditional chancery space, where issues relate more to individuals than to companies, Constance McDonnell QC acts for a widow in relation to a claim being brought under the Inheritance Act 1975 tied to an estate worth approximately £13 million.
“So many people were genuinely interested in me and I was struck by how friendly everyone was.”
However, despite the obvious pedigree and high bar for entry, what distinguishes Serle Court, says Hockney, “are the personal touches. Our reputation speaks volumes. We have an incredible team of barristers and staff who go the extra mile to ensure that our clients’ best interests are prioritised.” A recent pupil also highlighted that these personal touches have a positive impact on the overall atmosphere at the set: “I got multiple offers, but it came down to where I could see myself going into work every day. So many people were genuinely interested in me and I was struck by how friendly everyone was.”
The Pupillage Experience
The set takes up to “three pupils, based on merit,” says Hockney. “In addition to merit, it’s also about being able to work within teams and having a commercial mindset.” There is a good reason for both the high number of pupils (should the set take on three) as well as the high standards, as Petrie explains: “As we don’t often hire laterally, pupillage is our main way of recruiting, which makes it critically important.” Petrie continues: “We will only take a pupil on if we think we’re going to offer tenancy. The pupils are not in competition with each other.” With this investment in pupils from the get go, one source gushed that “it’s a great place to be joining! In terms of atmosphere, it has a really friendly feel and everyone has time for you.”
On the social side, “there used to be chambers tea,” a junior explained. “It kind of fell away during COVID,” but, said our relieved tenant, “it has resurrected itself.” During COVID, tea was replaced with a virtual “Wednesday morning coffee. And there was a regular Friday night drink, which was good fun.” One of our pupil sources told us that they'd been "invited to virtual things with all of the junior barristers,” before adding that “our supervisors were really aware of how difficult it was to socialise during COVID and recognised how important it was to keep the social life going.” Juniors said that “before the pandemic, there would be informal drinks in the pub fairly regularly,” and as lockdown measures were eased, we heard that “there have been meetings in the building” as well as “dinners and lunches with various members.”
“About 80% of my work was done on live matters.”
On the work side of things, pupils typically sit with four pupil supervisors during their pupillage. Each stint with a supervisor lasts three months and in total “the rotations will try to encompass everything at the chambers.” A pupil told us that in terms of hours, it’s “almost entirely 9am to 6pm. There were only a few occasions when I was asked to work later.” A junior barrister added that “the general chambers policy is that you don’t have to work every hour under the sun… but can if you want to.” Barristers have “complete control of our diaries. But, sometimes there’s a gentle check in from the clerks to make sure you’re busy.” Of course, “the hours can be long. But that is the nature of working at the top end of any particular area of practice.”
Petrie explains that where possible, pupils are given live work. “Live case work is best,” says Petrie, but "this cannot always be guaranteed – it depends on what the pupil supervisor is dealing with at that time.” So, says Petrie, “if they don’t get much of chance to draft a skeleton argument,they will do tried and tested pieces of work that others have done to see if their work is at the right level.” One pupil said that “about 80% of my work was done on live matters.” Pupils do not take on their own work during the second six at Serle Court. An earlier tenancy decision (“that's normally made in your third seat/rotation”), means that “in your fourth ‘seat’ you can ask for the work that you’re interested in,” one source explained. Petrie clarifies that the final seat “gives pupils an opportunity to do something they want to do that they haven’t been able to do so far, without the pressure.” And finally, “in the rare event that we don’t offer a pupil tenancy, having a non-practising second six gives them more time to find somewhere to do a third six.” In 2021, Serle Court retained all three of its qualifying pupils.
Two formal assessments feed into the tenancy decision. The first is an advocacy exercise, which pupils have a week to prepare, while the second requires pupils to draft a written opinion. Described by pupils “as incredibly transparent,” the tenancy process works as follows: “Each of your supervisors sends back a report on you,” a junior explained. “You get to see it and can raise any objections.” That’s all “collated sometime in the third seat and is considered by the pupillage committee,” who “email the set with its recommendation.” Everyone then replies by “voting saying they do or don’t support the decision of the committee.”
The Application Process
Serle Court uses the pupillage gateway and typically attracts around 120 applicants. "The quality of those applicants is off-the-scale good,” one source noted. All applications are anonymised. Two barristers then individually mark the applications, and the top 20 candidates go through to the first round of interviews.The 20 next best applications go to a third barrister for review, who selects a further ten candidates to progress to interview. To minimise unconscious bias, Petrie explains that “the interview panels are made up of a range of barristers in terms of gender and experience.” Additional measures include chambers sending its “processes to an external expert for review.” The set has subsequently “tweaked a few questions to make them more gender-friendly.” Petrie acknowledges the difficulties of “recruiting people from diverse backgrounds,” and as such, the set enlists the help of a company “that has a system of flagging people from less-advantaged backgrounds.” Those “flagged applicants get points added to their scores.”
“Candidates have to read through the papers, work out what’s relevant and what’s not, and advise the client accordingly.”
There are two interview rounds. In the first round of interviews, candidates are given a contractual clause to review half an hour before the interview. There’s also an ethical question. This interview “doesn’t require legal knowledge or research,” says Petrie, who adds that the aim is to see how applicants are able to “respond to questions and present answers persuasively and articulately.” Around ten candidates make it through to the next round.
The second interview is modelled on a client conference, for which candidates receive mock papers 40 minutes before the interview starts. The interview panel is made up of three barristers. “Candidates have to read through the papers, work out what’s relevant and what’s not, and advise the client accordingly,” Petrie explains.He adds that the exercise is designed in such a way that the interview panel “can keep raising the bar. The better the candidate does, the higher the bar can be raised.” As a role play exercise, one pupil recalled that “everyone’s encouraged to get into character seriously.” Another explained that “you’re normally explaining a difficult point of law, but I remember thinking that it’s good that the set also focuses on the applicants having a good time.”
"The selection process is about how you present answers both in writing and orally and how you respond to questions," says Petrie. "We don’t care what school you went to.”
6 New Square,
- No of silks 27
- No of juniors 44
- No of pupils up to 3 per year
- Contact April Fisher, 020 7242 6105 email@example.com
- Method of application Chambers 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 71 barristers including 27 silks. Widely recognised as a leading set, members are recommended in 11 practice areas by Chambers & Partners and 19 practice areas by Legal 500. Serle Court provides a stimulating and inclusive work environment and a modern approach.
Type of work undertaken
Serle Court’s main areas of chancery and commercial practice include: civil fraud; commercial litigation; company; insolvency; international and offshore; partnership and LLP; private client, trusts and probate; property; mediation; and arbitration.
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.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2021
- Chancery: Commercial (Band 1)
- Chancery: Traditional (Band 1)
- Charities (Band 3)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 2)
- Company (Band 3)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 1)
- Offshore (Band 1)
- Partnership (Band 1)
- Professional Negligence (Band 4)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 4)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)