With expertise in Chancery, family and personal injury law, St John’s is putting the Bar on notice: “It’s not all about London anymore.”
John the Apostle
“Bristol is best, London is for losers,” St John’s chief executive Derek Jenkins boldly declares. Head of the pupillage committee Vanessa McKinlay suggests that the set is looking for pupils who agree: “We want someone interested in being outside London. Someone who has links to the region and is keen to make a career here in Bristol.” St John’s has certainly done well for itself in the South West. The chambers balances on three pillars – personal injury and clinical negligence, family, and commercial and Chancery – and earns top-class regional Chambers UK rankings in all three. McKinlay feels that “people have to realise it’s not all about London anymore; in Bristol we have the same quality of work but a much better lifestyle.”
We’ll start with commercial and Chancery – wills and trusts, property, general commercial and a little public and employment law appear here. ‘Cowshed Cinderella’ cases have brought in work over the last five years: unrelated to fairy godmothers and glass slippers, these are inheritance disputes between family members over farm estates. Leslie Blohm QC also recently acted in a ‘black widow’ case, brought following a death in suspicious circumstances after just a year of marriage. As for commercial, member John Dickinson advised on a claim to obtain £105,000 in damages for defective bathroom valves installed in hotels and student accommodation in London.
“We have the same quality work but a much better lifestyle.”
Claimants and defendants alike call on St John’s personal injury and clinical negligence expertise. Areas covered include catastrophic injury, surgical errors, dental negligence and, increasingly, inquests. Andrew McLaughlin successfully defended against a £1.5 million claim brought by a former RAF sergeant for work-based stress, harassment and bullying; Richard Stead acted for a motorcyclist involved in a road traffic accident which caused life-changing injuries. Recent clinical negligence cases include Justin Valentine acting in a case of failure to diagnose Crohn’s disease where the NHS trust alleged the claimant had cancelled an appointment.
The family side of the practice extends to public and private children disputes and care proceedings, plus matrimonial finance and domestic violence injunctions. A member was recently instructed on a matter involving the proposed adoption of twins who’d been placed separately. Most of the cases in this area of law are confidential but can range from multimillion-pound divorces to large-scale abuse matters.
John the Revelator
St John's sits outside the Pupillage Gateway. “We recruit one pupil per department with the view to keep them all on,” McKinlay tells us. Applicants apply directly to the group that interests them most “but can apply to more than one if they want to,” McKinlay explains. “Flexibility or lack of flexibility on their part won’t affect their chances as long as they can demonstrate a sincere interest in what they’re applying for.” Refreshingly, Oxbridge graduates are far less dominant among the junior ranks than at many London sets.
Following an initial application form, there are two rounds of interviews. Candidates are given a case in advance of the first, which they'll answer questions on; McKinlay explains it’s so “they can come to the interview ready to be grilled about which side they agree with and why for 30 minutes.” The second interview also involves a case or advocacy exercise and is tailored to be “rigorous and in-depth but still fair to those who are earlier in their studies.” Derek Jenkins tells us the set is looking for candidates who are “specialised, focused and want the best work – not just those coming here thinking it’ll be the West Country easy life!”
“Not just for those coming here thinking it’ll be the West Country easy life!”
Junior interviewees generallyfelt “included and comfortable at St John’s.” McKinlay backs up the feeling with facts: “I’ve been here 19 years and in all that time no one has picked another chambers over us after pupillage rather than take up tenancy here!” Inclusion is an important part of St John’s hiring too; no compulsory mini-pupillages makes for a “fairer process” according to McKinlay as “for various reasons not everyone is able to do a mini.” The initial CV screening process has been tweaked so markers don’t see candidates’ names, which McKinlay tells us is one way of “improving the underrepresentation of women at the Bar.”
Mental health first aid and diversity training are also on offer. Welfare is a key concern at the set: Jenkins reveals that members here “don’t allow pupils to work all hours. We recognise that’s part of wellbeing at the Bar.” Pupils tend to work from roughly 9am to 6pm, then slightly longer following the tenancy decision. “It’s not a common occurrence but I have come in on a few Sundays,” one said. “People try to send me home!” There are plenty of opportunities to keep the social juices flowing including football, boules, drinks and a currently on-hiatus chambers band. With no news on the reunion tour yet, cricket is a particularly popular pastime: “It’s good to meet the QCs and get them knowing your name even if you can’t throw a ball to save your life!”
John the Evangelist
Pupillage looks slightly different depending on where you’re sat. A pupil in commercial/Chancery typically “has a very paper-based practice” made up of writing advices, skeleton arguments and pleadings. Family pupils will “definitely be in court a lot,” shadowing their supervisor; clinical negligence and PI pupils will also be in court almost every day. “Because the supervisors are so senior, it’s not the same old traffic collisions,” we heard. “You really learn a lot.” In the first six it’s general practice for pupils and supervisors “to do the same work then swap. It’s a challenge and it’s hard at times, but my supervisor put faith in me – he once sent off a piece of work I did without any edits!”
Pupils told us that “it’s a strange phenomenon going into the second six, you really get thrown in.” We heard reports of judges “testing the new blood in front of their client, putting you on the spot with difficult legal questions – but it’s all in good spirit.” All pupils find themselves in court regularly during the second six, though it’s typically a little less frequent for commercial. Cases in the early going include road traffic accidents, small claims and domestic violence protection orders.
“I know I could call any of them and they’d be there to help.”
The sudden plunge into the proverbial deep end “isn’t a baptism of fire” according to insiders. Armbands come in the form of support from members: “I know I could call any of them and they’d be there to help. That also helps to prevent the feeling of loneliness where all decisions are on you.” Several of our sources mentioned wellbeing: Jenkins tells us that St John’s even offers barristers sick pay. “It’s important chambers looks out for everyone – if you’re ill, we’ll look after you.”
There are no formal assessments for gaining tenancy – prospective tenants simply have to complete at least one piece of work for each member in their department. In mid-July, the team then gathers to “review your work and discuss how you’ve done.” Testimony from supervisors, members and judges the pupil has worked with is all considered at an all-chambers meeting before the tenancy decision is made. “You’re likely to be kept on unless you make a massive mistake,” one insider suggested. A junior tenant agreed: “My supervisor assured me that everything was going to be okay, but you always have that anxiety.” To help ease the pain, chambers has moved the meeting “much earlier so the stress isn’t prolonged!” St John's tenancy process had not concluded when we went to print.
Pupils undertake specialist training “at least once a week” according to Jenkins: “We have big events like seminars about brain injuries and more recently an intersectional spinal cord medical talk by a professor.” Just what the doctor ordered. Once pupils gain tenancy they don’t just attend talks – they give them too! One junior recounted for us: “Last week I gave my first talk at a seminar. It was a bit daunting but incredibly helpful, everyone was very kind and gave me feedback and support.” Jenkins tells us that “leading seminars is a great way to pick up contacts – new members come off the stage and solicitors immediately ask to instruct them!” Business development activities at the junior end also include working with law societies and “more informal” trips to watch cricket or play skittles.
The office sits a short walk from Bristol railway station – each member has a cupboard for their belongings and hotdesks each day, but pupils get their own fixed assigned desk.
St John's Chambers
101 Victoria Street,
- Contact Isabelle Mills, [email protected] co.uk
- Method of application Application dates found on our website
- Pupillages (pa) 2 funded pupillages
- Minimum qualification 2:1 degree
- Tenants 83
- Tenancies in last three years 6
Types of work undertaken
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2019
- Motor Insurance Fraud (Band 2)
- 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)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 1)