St John's Chambers - True Picture

These stars in the South West lead the pack in matters of personal injury, clinical negligence, family, commercial, and Chancery law.

St John's Chambers pupillage review 2022

The Chambers

Sitting in the heart of Bristol, a stone’s throw from the City’s iconic harbour, is St John’s Chambers. “When I joined in 2009 they had moved premises, which was a big thing for any chambers to do. We came out of the traditional chambers space where Guildhall is, and moved to a modern office block in city centre,” recalls chambers CEO Derek Jenkins. The idea, Jenkins explains, was to create “a more forward-thinking set.” Today, St John’s Chambers focuses largely on three main areas: personal injury and clinical negligence; Chancery and commercial; and family. Derek Jenkins reckons it’s “an even split between the teams, each making up a third of the work chambers does.” Within those areas Jenkins breaks it down further: “Personal injury and clinical negligence are two separate teams, but lots of people do both; the family team is mixed between children law cases and finance cases; and the commercial and Chancery section covers wills and trust, real estate/property, and commercial.” These focuses are backed up by the set’s array of top-tier rankings in Chambers UK Bar in the Western Bar for Chancery, clinical negligence, commercial dispute resolution, company, construction, family, personal injury, and real estate litigation.

Barristers at St John’s have turned their hand to a wide variety of cases within their practices. In the clinical negligence sphere, Vanessa McKinlay represented a claimant against the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust in a two-day trial arising from nerve damage sustained following a femoral nerve block given during knee replacement surgery, while on the personal injury side, Andrew McLaughlin acted for QBE Insurance defending against a £1.6 million claim brought by an individual for personal injury after an accident on a gondola ride at Drayton Manor theme park, which was dismissed for fundamental dishonesty. The set also has places on several insurance and solicitors’ panels.

On the commercial and Chancery side, a good chunk of the work has an agricultural slant to it: John Sharples recently defended a tenant farmer successfully in a claim brought by his landlord for £500,000 for allegedly damaging the productive capacity of the land through improper farming, while Leslie Blohm QC represented a client who was promised the dairy farm by her parents, but on her father’s death, the farm was left to her mother, who wanted to divide it between her children. With the nature of family matters, clients and cases here are largely confidential.

The Pupillage Experience

Given these focuses, St John’s usually hires three pupils a year – one for each of the core areas. The structure of pupillage will depend on which department the pupil is in. One family pupil had “one main supervisor, and for the first six months mainly shadowed her,” while a commercial and Chancery pupil mentioned having “four supervisors over the year, switching every three months.” The latter pupil explained that “everyone has slightly different practices – some are heavily construction-based, some are heavier in wills and trusts, some have a more international practice. The only way to get to grips with as much as possible is to move around.”

During their first six, pupils across the practice areas were able to get stuck into a variety of tasks including research, case summaries, and drafting pleadings. “A lot of work you’ll do is going to involve comparing your own work with that of your supervisor. If there’s a case coming up where your supervisor needs to do a cross-examination or something, they’ll ask you to prepare as if it’s your own case.” Towards the end of the first six, pupils are usually placed with a more junior member of their department to prepare them for their standing second six. “You can observe their work and how they operate, and see the sort of work you’ll be expected to do when you go into your second six.”

"...Not a single day has gone by that at least one person from chambers hasn’t checked in to see how I’m doing.”

Come the second six, pupils get on their feet in court themselves. “Regardless of which department you are in, you’ll do road traffic accidents to ease you in with more basic advocacy, rather than throwing you straight in the deep end.” Others came across some insolvency work, domestic violence protection orders, smaller personal injury cases, and smaller property matters. “You cover the whole spread, and tend to do that for the first few years anyway,” one junior explained. In terms of hours, pupils found that “the more you progress through your pupillage, the more you prepare for longer hours.”

Over the first six, most found their hours to be structured – one source noted: “I was in chambers at 5.30pm and my supervisor asked what I was doing there.” Unsurprisingly, during the second six, pupils noticed a slight increase in their hours: “There’s an acceptance that when it’s your own cases, you’re going to spend longer hours working on them.” That said, pupils also found there was “a strong emphasis on work/life balance. Not a single day has gone by that at least one person from chambers hasn’t checked in to see how I’m doing.”

Assessment for tenancy is an ongoing process at St John’s, and doesn’t involve any formal assessments. “That’s not our style,” Ben Handy explains. “We don’t have it where pupils sit in a room and present a case to every member. It’s softer than that.” Instead, juniors explained “everything you do for your supervisor is something they will consider and give feedback on.” Pupils will also do pieces of work for other members within their departments, who also provide feedback. Pupils then have quarterly meetings with their supervisor and a member of the pupillage committee to “take stock and make sure not just the pupil but the supervisor is also on track.”

The decision whether to grant pupils tenancy is made via an all-members vote; however, prior to this the pupil’s supervisor will make a proposal to the department, who will then recommend to chambers whether to take the pupil on. “Once the supervisor gives the nod and the department gives their nod, the chambers AGM where all members vote is pretty much a done deal,” Ben Handy clarifies. In 2021, St John’s took on both its pupils as tenants.

“Because the pupils are from different departments, they’re not in competition with each other, which makes for such a positive environment.”

In terms of the culture at St John’s, sources appreciated that “because the pupils are from different departments, they’re not in competition with each other, which makes for such a positive environment.” One pupil added: “Pupillage can be stressful, but being around people who are colleagues and friends makes such a difference.” Given the set’s location in Bristol, sources also found “a lot of us hang out with each other outside of work – you don’t know anyone when you move here, so you end up making strong connections to people in chambers that are around your age and experience level.” Although the social side had been limited due to Covid, folks were able to get together again when the rules allowed. “Generally departments go out for drinks after work. There’s also a cricket team which they’ve tried to encourage pupils to join.” Under regular circumstances, chambers also “likes a party,” Derek Jenkins admits. The set hosts both winter and summer parties, the former being “more formal/black tie,” while the latter usually takes the form of a less formal barbecue.

The Application Process

St John’s advertises pupillage vacancies on the Pupillage Gateway, but has its own direct application process through its website. The application covers the usual topics – academic achievement, work experience, mini-pupillages – as well as “things like their attraction to the South West, and to St John’s in particular.” The initial application involves a short, written advocacy question which “in the past has been legal, but this year we asked them to persuade us on something they feel passionately about – good or bad,” recalls Ben Handy.

Around 20 applicants who impress in initial applications are invited to a first-round interview. It is based on “assessing competencies – things like communication, data analysis, working with people from different backgrounds etc,” according to Handy. It also involves a case analysis – Handy adds that the set “sends candidates a recent Supreme Court case and ask them to give us their assessment of it, then argue the other side.” One pupil recalled that the first interview was “about half an hour and was a mix of question to do with the case I was given, and questions on my initial application.”

Around nine successful candidates are then invited to a second-round interview. This round is slightly longer so “there’s more time to get to know them a bit,” and involves a mock court hearing: “We send them papers and ask them to prepare, then the interview panel act as judges,” Handy explains. One source recalled it as “an advocacy exercise based on the papers and case law, where I was challenged and pushed on my answers by the panel.” 

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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2021

Ranked Departments

    • Chancery (Band 1)
    • Clinical Negligence (Band 1)
    • Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 2)
    • Company (Band 1)
    • Construction (Band 1)
    • Family/Matrimonial (Band 1)
    • Personal Injury (Band 1)
    • Professional Negligence (Band 2)
    • Real Estate Litigation (Band 1)