Restructuring and insolvency is the forte of this commercial set. It also touches on several other finance-related areas.
Queen of the Desert
If practice areas had monarchs, South Square would be the queen of restructuring and insolvency. From its palatial black marbled offices in Gray's Inn the set reigns supreme, with a top ranking from Chambers UK for just over 20 years. The set's abilities extend beyond this one practice area though and it wins Chambers UK rankings for banking, commercial Chancery, company law, financial services, offshore work and – since 2017 – general commercial disputes. International work is a particular area of expansion. Chambers director Will Mackinlay tells us: "International organisations are seeking advice from our barristers on massive restructuring cases all over the world.” Recently members have worked on various matters related to the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the collapse of the Middle East conglomerate Algosaibi & Brothers, both among the largest corporate collapses to come out of the 2008 financial crash.
It is hardly a surprise then that an interest in restructuring and insolvency was a primary reason that budding barristers applied to this set. “The thing that attracted me is that even though it's a niche specialism it's a very broad area of law,” commented one insider. “It covers things like contacts, tort, EU law and the law of negligence. Every day I get to bring all these things together.”
“It covers things like contracts, tort, EU law and the law of negligence."
Back to the set's international and offshore work: quite a bit of it relates to the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands. One recent case saw barristers represent the shareholders of a BVI company called Successful Trends Investment who wanted it wound up. Work comes in from the Middle East too: two barristers advised Drydocks World, the Middle East's largest shipyard, in the Dubai Tribunal at the Dubai International Finance Centre on the restructuring of a $2 billion debt. Back in the UK, South Square “is developing relationships with national law firms," Will Mackinlay tells us, in order to allow new tenants a break from working on led matters to run their own smaller cases.
A look at the set's non-restructuring work reveals barristers recently defended five BVI corporations in a Commercial Court case brought by the Tchenguiz brothers relating to their investigation by the SFO; defended Citigroup against a $200 million claim brought by Saudi individuals over the mis-selling of derivatives; and worked on a Court of Appeal case involving Credit Suisse and the rights to interest on commercial mortgage-backed securities. As you can tell all the work's pretty financial, with instructions frequently coming from magic circle and US firms in the City.
It's fine once you're in
South Square rotates its pupils between supervisors every six weeks. This keeps newbies on their toes and means "you get to know lots of different members and see different practice areas and working styles." It also means "you have to be flexible and adaptable." While there is no formal grace period, some leniency is given at the start of pupillage. "Before Christmas it was far more about the learning experience," one source reflected. "After Christmas is when the assessment gets a bit more serious.”
During each rotation pupils help on "cases supervisors are doing or work on a dead case." Typical tasks include producing research notes or drafting documents like "an opinion on particulars of claim.” Live cases often see pupils trotting off to external meetings and "helping your supervisor with preparation beforehand." One source reflected on what it's like doing so much international and offshore work: "It was really difficult but very interesting. For example, BVI law is so different, which means doing lots of research into something new."
"Sitting in court for days on end and then remembering and reciting all the arguments made!"
Cases are complex and lengthy with lots of legwork required – some of it quite unusual. A source reported: "I was required to assess each party's arguments in the hearing on one of the Lehman Brothers cases. That was quite laborious because it involved sitting in court for days on end then remembering and reciting all the arguments made!"Pupils' official working hours are 9am to 6pm, but we did hear of some working outside these hours, including at weekends.
Pupillage at South Square is non-practising, so there isn't much of a difference between the first and second six. Pupils are expected to practise their advocacy through assessed exercises. What's that like? "Completely nerve-racking!" one source exclaimed, before adding: "It's fine once you've finished." Here's how it works: "Me and my co-pupil were given a bundle of documents the day before. We had to draft a skeleton argument and then stand up in front of a number of QCs and make a submission." The exercise was noted for "the really helpful feedback the assessors give; they never make you feel like you made a complete fool of yourself." Alongside this there are also written assessments, which require pupils to write an opinion on a contentious point of law.
Who gets tenancy is decided by the executive committee based on recommendations by the pupillage committee. They in turn take on board pupils' performance during the assessments alongside supervisor feedback. Feedback comes formally at the end of each rotation when "pupils fill out a form noting the work we have been doing, while our supervisors give an assessment of our performance during that time." Informal feedback is also a regular feature of pupillage, though styles and delivery vary from supervisor to supervisor. “Some will sit down and go through your work with you," a source reported. "Others might send you their version of what you've done to compare, which I personally found really helpful." At a commercial set written work typically makes up the vast majority of what barristers do. South Square certainly considers written advocacy skills to be important, but oral skills matter too: a source told us that as part of pupillage assessments in 2018/19 pupils will do more pleadings to make sure their oral advocacy is up to scratch.
The set recruits two pupils a year and “if they are both up to the required standard we would expect to take them both on,” according to head of the pupillage committee Tom Smith QC. In 2019 one of two pupils gained tenancy. Even if you don't make the cut, interviewees said: “Members of chambers and the clerks assist with looking for a third six." This comes from a "'look after your own' attitude” at South Square which further extends to baby juniors taking pupils out for candid chats. On the social side of things, there are Christmas and summer parties plus chambers drinks, although some events are members only.
South Square recently joined the Pupillage Gateway, so make sure you apply this way. The first interview lasts 15 to 30 minutes and is with two pupil supervisors. After that there's a second interview in front of a panel of five, which includes a legal problem question provided on the day for example on “a building dispute that raises questions of misrepresentation,” says Tom Smith. He notes it's important “to present a very clear structured analysis of the problem in a way that shows your clarity of thought.”
“The interviews are not too long compared to other sets," noted one source. "It's more: 'Have a quick look at something for 15 minutes and then we'll discuss it in the interview.'” Other interview questions are mostly CV-focused and about your past experiences. “We spent a lot of time talking about my research interests and what made me want to do law,” one source recalled. There is also a shortcut of sorts through the application process: those who get onto the set's assessed mini-pupillage proceed straight to the second round. Around a third of those interviewed come through this route.
So that's the process, but what is South Square looking for? “Fundamentally having a good academic record is important, but that's only one part of the equation,” says Tom Smith. “Good communication, analytical and problem-solving skills” are also important. The set'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, that one junior member is an ex-Royal Marine, and that another used to be an associate at a US firm in the City.
Chambers director Will Mackinlay expressed enthusiasm for organising drinks, events or moots with university law or Bar societies: “Just give us a call or send an email to get the conversation going."
3-4 South Square,
- No of silks 17
- No of juniors 25
- 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 2019)
- Pupillages (pa) Up to three 12-month pupillages offered each year
Type of work undertaken
Funding and benefits
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2019
- Banking & Finance (Band 3)
- Chancery: Commercial (Band 2)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 4)
- Company (Band 3)
- Offshore (Band 2)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)