Wilberforce offers its tenants a compelling mix of chancery and commercial law.
Wilberforce Chambers pupillage review
Chancery law. Famously academic and notoriously tricky to define. If there’s one authority on the subject, it's Wilberforce Chambers. Home to over 36 silks, the set is one of only two sets in the country to be top-ranked by Chambers UK Bar for both traditional and commercial chancery law. We were told that the commercial side of Wilberforce’s practice brings in the most revenue, after which it’s a pretty even split between trusts, pensions, and property work. The set’s broader practicecovers everything ranging from contractual disputes with manufacturers and disputes between government departments, to professional negligence claims.
“The chance to practise such a breadth of work at a high level was very appealing.”
“The chance to practise such a breadth of work at a high level was very appealing,” one of the set’s junior tenants told us, adding that “there are so many high-profile disputes which often make it to the Supreme Court.” The set also has a long history of engaging with high-profile, international work, with around 30% of the work being non-VATable.
A glance at the casework of the one of the set’s leading silks, Michael Furness QC, confirms the variety and international scope of the set’s chancery work. Recently, he advised a member of a prominent Hong Kong family in connection with ongoing litigation over a family trust and control of the family company; made an application under the Presumption of Death Act for an order presuming the death of an aid worker who was kidnapped by terrorists in Yemen; and worked on a breach of trust claim in Guernsey arising out of failure to distribute assets to avoid a tax charge. In the commercial realm, Alan Gourgey QC recently acted for a Russian bank in liquidation in relation to a £1 billion claim against oligarch Georgy Bedzhamov concerning allegations of fraud and conspiracy. At the junior end, Bobby Friedman represented Eurasian Bank JSC, in a £10 million Commercial Court fraud claim arising from a loan made by a Kazakhstan bank, relating to the supply of explosive equipment.
The combination of high-end chancery and commercial work was a winning formula for our interviewees. “I like the fact that we have access to the big, juicy commercial cases where you will be working as part of a large team, as well as the opportunities to go to court and receive instruction in your own right on the smaller chancery cases,” a junior tenant said. They added that “it stops you being a perpetual junior.”
Our interviewees also agreed that Wilberforce was closer to the progressive end of the Bar. As one junior reflected: "There’s no airs and graces when it comes to interacting with senior members – everyone is very approachable.” In pre-COVID times, Wilberforce had a lively social calendar with a Chambers lunch every week and drinks every other week which “pupils are highly encouraged to attend.”
The Pupillage Experience
Pupils typically sit with five to six supervisors over the course of their pupillage, ensuring exposure to a broad range of work. “At some sets, it’s all about doing the same sort of work on repeat to improve. However, here the focus is on having a basic grounding in all the set’s core practice areas,” one pupil reflected. They elaborated: “My first seat was exclusively property-focused; my second was a mix of insolvency and pensions; my third trusts; and my fourth and current seat is mostly commercial.” Hutchings also explained that “unlike other chambers,pupils are not encouraged to do work for lots of different people. We like them to concentrate on working for their supervisors as we want to ensure that they are judged by a consistent standard and in a structured way.”
“Every piece of work I have produced, I’ve received incredibly detailed, line-by-line feedback – I’ve learned a huge amount.”
During the pupillage, pupils work on a variety of live and dead matters. On live matters, we spoke to pupils who had done everything from draft cross-examination notes and helped with the closing of submissions, to conducting research into precedent and liaising with teams of solicitors. While the live work was generally regarded as the more interesting, pupils appreciated that working on dead matters “gives you the time to produce a more polished draft or opinion and receive good feedback on it.” They added that “every piece of work I have produced, I’ve received incredibly detailed, line-by-line feedback – I’ve learned a huge amount.”
The second six is conventionally non-practising; however, Hutchings highlights that “if clerks are desperate, they will call on second-six pupils to go to court. However, our thinking is that because our core areas are so diverse, it’s not realistic to expect pupils to be able to pick up cases and appear confidently in court in their second six months. We believe that it is best for them to spend the full twelve months learning as much as possible from their supervisors.” Instead of arguing in court, pupils go through a series of advocacy exercises to help prepare them. There are also three to four formal written exercises that pupils complete throughout their pupillage. Hutchings stresses that “the advocacy exercises are there to help pupils develop, and nobody would be taken or not taken on based on their performance on the exercises alone.”
The tenancy decision itself is based on a list of nine criteria the set views as important that its pupils meet. These include factors such as intellectual ability, interpersonal skills, interest in the work, quality of written work, and quality of advocacy. Once pupils achieve tenancy, junior members have meetings with practice groups leaders every six months to help shape their formative years. “You’re able to dictate which areas you want to work in and which you don’t,” one junior tenant explained, adding that “there’s always enough work to allow you to do so.” We were told that prospective pupils should keep an open mind as the set has recorded plenty of instances where an individual might say they don’t want to do any pensions work, only to end up exclusively working on pensions and trusts issues.
The Application Process
Wilberforce’s application process starts in the gateway. Hutchings makes clear that “we are looking for applications that are practically perfect in terms of the way they are composed.” First-class degrees naturally put applicants in good stead, but Hutchings emphasises that “it is common for those with a 2.1 to make it to interview and every year around one quarter of the final interview candidates do not have a first.” He adds that “the more information we can get from our applicants about their degrees, in terms of marks breakdowns, the better.” Applicants are therefore encouraged to include a module breakdown in their applications, including explanations for any discrepancies of note.
“The more information we can get from our applicants about their degrees, the better.”
Just under 40 applicants are invited to a first-round interview which is conducted by four junior tenants and typically lasts around 40 minutes. Candidates here are required to engage with a problem question, one “that is deliberately designed not to test an applicant’s deep knowledge of law – its more about raw talent,” Hutchings explains. One pupil recalled it being a “contractual interpretation that was similar to other sets I applied to. It was mostly a little debate about the problem in question with a few questions about my application form thrown in.” Fifteen complete a second-round interview which follows a similar format but includes a panel made up of more senior members. “This time, it was a pensions/trust issue and they pushed harder with the questioning,” one pupil recalled. Hutchings tells us that “it’s often a lack of flexibility that lets people down. We don’t have a problem with slow, deliberative answers, but you need to be prepared to change position and consider and advance the counter-arguments.” Our interviewees also appreciated that “all the interview dates are scheduled well in advance,” and agreed that “the whole process felt comparatively relaxed – you don’t feel like you’re having to jump over any unnecessary hurdles.”
The set has a number of initiatives in partnership with the Sutton Trust, a charitable foundation whose aim is to promote social mobility.
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