When businesses fall apart, South Square’s restructuring experts are there to help pick up the pieces.
Current events have only thrown a bigger spotlight on how fragile the global economy really is, and again proven the inevitability of boom and bust periods. On hand to deal with the million and one problems that arise when a company goes pear-shaped, you’ll find South Square Chambers. The set’s restructuring and insolvency practice has been top ranked by Chambers UK Barfor over two decades, testament to the expertise of 14 ranked silks. “It’s a very fast-paced and very varied practice area,”pupillage committee head Tom Smith QC tells us. “As well as bringing you into contact with many different industries, there are a huge number of legal issues that arise in the context of a restructuring including security, employment, fraud and banking queries.”
Restructuring isn’t the be-all and end-all of life at South Square, but it’s hard to spend much time here without locking horns with the practice. Director of chambers William Mackinlay explains: “Though the majority of what we do is restructuring and insolvency work, it’s difficult to provide an exact breakdown of all our practice areas because there’s so much crossover and overlap between them; cases often require us to draw on three or four areas of law.” The broader expertise of members here shines through in additional Chambers UK Bar rankings for banking and finance, chancery, commercial dispute resolution, company and offshore law. Pupils arrived at the set’s doors “attracted to the prospect of working across multiple jurisdictions including Singapore, Hong Kong and the Middle East.” South Square is also a significant player in the Caribbean, including the Cayman and British Virgin Islands.
“As well as bringing you into contact with many different industries, there are a huge number of legal issues that arise in the context of a restructuring.”
Going deeper into the distinct appeal of restructuring law, a source told us: “There’s a lot more court work for juniors compared to a lot of other commercial practices. It’s an area that relies on lots of applications being made to court and there are plenty of short, 15-minute hearings that are perfect for junior tenants.” At the same time, “it’s not like a criminal set; there are periods of a few weeks where I won’t be in court at all.” According to Tom Smith QC, “restructuring differs from strict litigation where there’s a battle between two parties. It’s often about finding a way to get a deal through that represents everyone’s interests, which means you spend a lot of time working with corporate and finance lawyers as well as litigators. That’s fairly unique to this practice.”
South Square member Barry Isaacs QC recently acted for creditors of an insolvent unicorn company (valued at more than $1 billion) in proceedings to remove administrators from office, while David Allison QC worked on the Waterfall II litigation to resolve outstanding issues surrounding the distribution of the $7 billion (or so) remaining assets of Lehman Brothers. On the junior end of the spectrum, Adam Al-Atta represented Monarch Airlines when it appointed administrators in 2017. Outside restructuring, Felicity Toube QC has acted in litigation spanning the UK, the Middle East, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands on a case brought against a fraudster in Saudi Arabia, with hundreds of millions of dollars missing. As for banking and finance, Georgina Peters acted for UBS in disputed Fairhold Securitisation claims under interest rate swap transactions totalling over £300 million in value.
The Application Process
Given that most applicants will not have come across much restructuring law during their studies, South Square “does not expect candidates to have completed any courses or internships pertaining to restructuring,”Smith tells us. “However, we do take into consideration if someone is interested in financial and commercial law generally.”The set moved quite recently to the Pupillage Gateway “to offer a uniform application process,” according to Smith. From there on, there are two interview stages that stand between hopefuls and one of two coveted pupillage spots a year. Applicants who score a spot on South Square’s assessed mini-pupillage proceed straight to the second round.
“We do not expect candidates to have completed any particular courses or internships pertaining to restructuring.”
A junior member outlined the process: “The first interview round is conducted by juniors and it mainly involves going through your CV. I was also asked typical questions including ‘why do you want to be barrister?’ and there was a short problem question.”An example of this could be: “Should the NHS charge smokers more?” Successful past applicants told us you “don’t have long to respond so aim to provide short, structured answers to the questions.”
For the second round, candidates sit before a panel of around five senior members of chambers in a session that’s more focused on a legal problem. “I was asked to arrive 30 minutes before the interview and received a legal problem to look at,” a pupil recalled. Smith assures us “the question is emphatically not meant to test your legal knowledge, but rather your reasoning abilities.”South Square’s junior tenants under ten years' call attended a range of top unis including Oxford, Cambridge, KCL, Warwick, Nottingham and UCL – we noted that over half attended Oxbridge at some point in their studies; one junior is an ex-Royal Marine, and another was formerly an associate solicitor at a US firm in the City.
The Pupillage Experience
South Square takes the unusual step of rotating its pupils round different supervisors every six weeks. Juniors highlighted this “as a real strength of the pupillage, both in terms of exposing you to different areas of law and the different working styles of individuals.” One pupil explained further: “My supervisors included members focused more on big restructurings, one who did more company commercial work and directors’ disqualification cases, and one focused more on personal insolvency.”
Pupillage at South Square is non-practising, so there isn't much of a difference between the first and second six. “I think the reason why you don’t get on your feet is because the nature of the work is so complex,”sources reasoned. “A level of familiarity with the relevant law and commercial practice only comes with experience.”Pupils instead work on a mixture of live and dead cases. “You might variously be required to draft pleadings, skeletons and notes, as well as conduct research on points of law to assist with active matters your supervisor is working on,” juniors explained. A South Square pupillage also comes with plenty of opportunities to go to court, as well as to prepare and attend meetings with solicitors. Far from being put off, sources found dead cases were “great learning opportunities to compare and contrast your approach to a case with that of your supervisor.”
“A level of familiarity with the relevant law and commercial practice only comes with experience.”
The pupillage process includes four distinct assessments. The advocacy assessments are typically built around dead cases; juniors explained that “you are given the papers 48 hours in advance, from which you have to produce a skeleton argument and attend a mock hearing. A couple of QCs will act as judges and the test itself will last for around 45 minutes.” Pupils also get papers a couple of days in advance to produce their written assessments: “An opinion on particulars of a claim, for example.”Our sources appreciated that “you’re not expected to carry on working at the time; you’re given a chance to really concentrate on the assessment. We’re able to spend time studying in the library.”
Tenancy decisions are in the hands of the executive committee, based on recommendations by the pupillage committee. They in turn take on board pupils' performance during assessments along with supervisor feedback, which is bundled into a formal package following each six-week rotation. South Square recruits two pupils a year and “if they are both up to the required standard we would expect to take them both on,” director of chambers William Mackinlay makes very clear. Indeed, in 2020 both pupils achieved tenancy.
Forty-three members make up South Square Chambers. “It’s fairly large, but not so big that you don’t get to know everybody fairly well,”Mackinlay poses. “You always have people wandering into each other’s offices all the time to chat and compare notes – which, for a young barrister, is invaluable.”On top of a members’ drinks on the last Thursday of every month, the set also holds a Christmas party and Spring Reception Ball for clients; in 2019 the latter was held at Spencer House in Mayfair.
The Not Late Show
Pupils at South Square rarely work longer than 9am to 6pm days – weekend work is the exception, not the norm.
3-4 South Square,
- No of silks 17
- No of juniors 26
- No of pupils 2
- Contact pupillage administrator, 020 7696 9900
- Method of application Students should apply for pupillage using the pupillage gateway (correct as of October 2020)
- Pupillages (pa) Up to three 12-month pupillages offered each year
Type of work undertaken
Funding and benefits
University law careers fairs 2020
• City University of London
• Oxford University
• Cambridge University
• Bar Council Pupillage Fair
Diversity, inclusion and wellbeing:
All incoming pupils are provided with a mentor at the start of pupillage. Pupils are encouraged to meet with their mentor on a regular basis.