Maestros of the Midlands, St Philips Chambers offers the unique opportunity to become a ‘master of one’ via its specialist pupillages.
At a time when barristers’ chambers mergers were few and far between, 1998’s union of Birmingham’s Priory Chambers and No.7 Fountain Court (and the addition of No.1 Fountain Court four years later) created one of the largest sets in the UK. Now, St Philips Chambers – which took its name from St Philips Cathedral in Birmingham – stands at around 150 members over two locations: Birmingham and Leeds. The chambers’ Midlands prowess was a big draw for pupils, along with its ‘specialist pupillages’ – each of its pupils sits in one practice for the full twelve months. “I wanted to do pupillage at the best chambers I could,” one pupil reflected. “I knew I wanted a specialist family law pupillage – St Philips has one of the best family departments in the UK.”
“We chose to expand into Leeds and London in 2013,” chambers director Joe Wilson recalls. “Fast forward a few years, we came out of London because it’s such a big market. We’re a very well-established set outside of London – we’re never going to compete in the City so we strategically closed our office there.” St Philips Leeds is still going strong: “It’s actually a very buoyant and vibrant market. Leeds has all the big financial institutes and big law firms,” Wilson points out. “It’s a big commercial centre but doesn’t have many barristers.” All the better for St Philips.
“In business and property we have areas like insolvency, and wills, trusts and probate.”
Back at the Birmingham mothership where most members sit, Wilson breaks the set’s practice into five main areas: crime; family; business and property (aka commercial); personal injury and employment; and regulatory. “There are lots of subgroups within each of these,” Wilson explains. “For instance, in business and property we have areas like insolvency, and wills, trusts and probate.”Chambers UK Bar awards the set top-tier rankings in the Midlands for chancery, commercial dispute resolution, company, crime, employment, family, professional negligence, real estate litigation, and restructuring/insolvency.
In one recent case, the set’s Richard Atkins QC defended bus company Midland Red in Birmingham Crown Court regarding their employment of a 77-year-old driver who lost control of his vehicle, causing the death of an old-age pensioner and a seven-year-old boy. Elsewhere, James Morgan QC represented Northampton Borough Council in a £2 million misfeasance claim against former directors of Northampton Town FC; and Edmund Beever acted for a senior doctor as co-defendant to a race and disability discrimination case.
The Pupillage Experience
A key draw for St Philips is the option to do a specialist pupillage in one of its core areas (depending on the requirements of each practice, the practices on offer can vary each year). Head of pupillage Yolanda Pemberton explains that St Philips takes this approach because “people are now asked to make decisions of where they want to specialise much earlier now, so to attract those people we have also had to adapt and offer specialist pupillages.” Pupils will have typically have one overarching supervisor throughout pupillage; some will also spend time with specialist supervisors. One pupil recalled stints with “a public children specialist, a private children specialist and a financial remedies specialist in the first six months.” A former pupil had a different experience: “I only had one supervisor, who I was happy to stay with. When he was travelling or on holiday I would assist someone else.”
During their first six, pupils were able to see cases ranging from high-profile international arbitration to “urgent hearings where a child may be at risk if they stay with their caregiver any longer.” Much of the time, pupils "shadow their supervisor,” getting access to their case papers and attending court with them. Our interviewees were also able to crack on with various written tasks: criminal pupils tried “drafting defence statements, writing and responding to bad character applications, and preparing the basis of pleas,” while family pupils tried “local authority case summaries and skeleton arguments.”
“The nerves haven’t really left, but they’re good nerves now.”
Pupils get on their feet for their second six. Yolanda Pemberton links this to her own experience as a qualified barrister: “I am a specialist family practitioner doing public law cases; I spend every day in court doing advocacy. This is one job where you do not know whether you are going to like this job or whether you’re going to be good at it until you actually do advocacy. There are courses and in-house trainings available for pupils, and the training that we provide during pupillage, but we cannot replicate the exact conditions of being in court as hard as we try.” During their second six, pupils will go to court four days a week, which our sources found “very helpful. You can go over any issues with your supervisor.” One junior tenant recalled splitting their time “between the magistrates' court and the Crown Court. The former gave me more freedom to explore my own style, and set up and run a trial; the latter helped with getting to know and understand all the formalities.” It was no surprise to hear pupils found the experience “completely nerve-racking at first! The nerves haven’t really left, but they’re good nerves now.”
Over the year, pupils will have four reviews: their pupil supervisor fills out a form listing “things you did well, things you could improve, and other general targets. You then have the chance to self-assess and write any responses to the feedback in the box next to it.” St Philips doesn’t run formal assessments – an offer of tenancy depends solely upon the reviews. Yolanda Pemberton adds: “Pupils are reviewed at regular three-month intervals during their twelve-month pupillage, they are assessed on an ongoing basis against professional competencies. After meeting with the pupil, the committee will discuss and make their recommendation.” Importantly, Pemberton says the set “always offers pupillage with a view to tenancy. If we’re offering five pupillages across the specialisms, we’re looking to recruit five tenants.” What’s the key to success? Juniors reckoned it helps to “be a people’s person – everyone who gets to that stage has the same skill sets and knowledge of the law.”
The Application Process
St Philips has recently recruited five pupils a year, but may be hiring more: “We’ve been saying we need an out-and-out employment pupil,” chambers director Joe Wilson recalls. For 2020/21, the set advertised for one business and property, one crime, one employment, one personal injury and two family pupils. The set lists vacancies on the Pupillage Gateway, posing a few of its own questions. At this point chambers is looking for “examples of when candidates have had to use advocacy in life, and when they’ve had to problem-solve.” Successful applicants (marked anonymously “to try and prevent any unconscious bias”) receive invites to a pre-selection evening involving a first-round interview. Current pupils recalled it “felt more like a relaxed chat between you and the pupillage committee” than an intense interrogation.
“We’re not expecting the applicant to be perfect or to have to advocacy ability to stand up in the Court of Appeal at this point!”
The next step is a full interview day (usually a Saturday), involving two rounds. The morning “usually covers a legal problem that applicants will get a week in advance.” Interviewers are looking to see whether candidates can “demonstrate their ability to construct an argument and defend a stance with two or three people challenging them.” Don’t fret too much; Yolanda Pemberton notes that chambers is “not expecting the applicant to be perfect or to have the advocacy ability to stand up in the Court of Appeal from day one!” A final round in the afternoon involves “everyone sat at a round table where there were more questions about you as a person.” Pemberton emphasises that “applicants need to be prepared and do research. There is sufficient info out there to anticipate what might be asked in an interview or on an application form, but also be able to adjust if you’re thrown a curveball.” She also adds that candidates should “show a bit of their personality – we're not cookie-cutter versions of barristers. I am very different to the head of pupillage at the time I was applying, and I’m really proud of that.”
Once at chambers, pupils were pleased to find “you feel like an equal no matter who you’re talking to.” This might surprising given the set’s sheer size, but juniors felt St Philips strikes “a nice balance between the corporate side of the legal profession, and being friendly and approachable advocates.” Pemberton gave the example of “current head of chambers, Andrew Smith QC: he meets with all of the pupils at the start of their pupillage and has a brain the size of Britain but can also sit and have a conversation with you and make you feel at ease.” Driving its own social scene, St Philips tries to run regular quizzes and after-work drinks. The set’s wellbeing committee also organises events, from bringing in yoga instructors to classical music concerts.
The saints go marching in
“Having five pupils,” more than at many chambers, “means you become a bit of a team. We’re encouraged to have strong cohesion in our little group,” interviewees said.
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