This set is synonymous with Chancery law. Wilber-force be with you?
Wilberforce Chambers pupillage review 2024
The walk into Lincolns Inn is impressive, with crisp white buildings and green gardens. Aesthetically, it ticks every box. But it wasn’t Wilberforce Chambers’ idyllic setting that caught our eye. As we sat for the interviews, a selection of Club chocolates sits on the table. Interesting choice. As the interviews went on, the chocolate choice began to make sense. A Club is timeless, with a reputation that precedes itself for what it simply is: chocolate and biscuit. Wilberforce is similar. It's one of only two sets to have earned recognition in Chambers UK Bar for both traditional and commercial Chancery law. Chancery is notoriously difficult to define, but essentially, traditional Chancery law covers things like trusts, probate, property and tax. Commercial Chancery covers the finance and business side of things.According to senior clerk Nick Luckman, “commercial litigation forms our largest revenue stream, followed by property, trusts, pensions and insolvency. Those are our core areas.”
On the commercial side, John Wardell KC is representing HRH Prince Hussam Al Saud, the former King of Saudi Arabia’s son, in bankruptcy proceedings brought against him by Kuwait’s Mobile Telecommunications Company. A recent insolvency case saw Lexa Hilliard KC and Rachael Earle defend a former director of BHS against £160 million misfeasance and wrongful trading claims.
“There’s a diversity of work across trust, property and insolvency and civil fraud."
Of course, the set’s work proved a major attraction for pupils: “Wilberforce has very high-quality work and interesting cases. The calibre of people we have here reflects that.” As a current pupil explained, “there’s a diversity of work across trust, property and insolvency and civil fraud so you can get into different areas as you develop your practice.” At Wilberforce, nobody puts pupil in a corner.
Senior clerk Nick Luckman revealed that Wilberforce’s strategy is to stay close to home: “our plan isn’t to change direction in the market. We will continue to push our expertise in the legal space and continue improving on what we do best.” An area that is continuously improving is the set’s international work in offshore arbitration, which Luckman explained has seen “year to year growth, with room for development.” He also noted that sets of a similar stature are branching out into new areas, but, that Wilberforce has seen the benefit in developing its long-term strengths. Luckman stated that “the quality of work is most important at the end of the day, so we will continue to do award-winning work across our strong disciplines.” And its benefits for pupils? Luckman believes that “solid work will produce better opportunities from the bottom in the areas pupils join us for.”
The Application Process
When it comes to applications, there are three stages that Wilberforce hopefuls go through. The initial Pupillage Gateway application helps the set assess candidates’ written and oral skills, and academic background. Typically, 36 candidates make it through to the second round, which is part one of the two interview stages. The longlist interview is led by two people on the pupillage committee panel and two juniors, lasting about 40 minutes. Candidates receive a problem question half an hour before their interview, and they must prepare for a discussion surrounding the topic: “It could be anything from contract to trusts law.”
“It was like piecing together a legal puzzle!”
Those who pass that stage – about 12 candidates – are invited to a second interview. This kicks off with “softball questions about their application form, to ease them,” according to pupillage committee member Harriet Holmes. Candidates will then delve deep into another problem question: “Our interviews are designed to level the playing field between law and non-law students. We are trying to understand what is between peoples’ ears – how they think and reason.”
One pupil who’d been through the process enjoyed the debate: “I felt the oral discussions were fun and challenging as a debate between two camps: interviewees and interviewer. It was like piecing together a legal puzzle!” Offers are made after the third round. Holmes reassured us that the entire process is “very transparent. Our pupillage policy is published on our website, and if a candidate can’t find the answer there, we’re more than happy for them to contact our pupillage secretary."
The Pupillage Experience
Pupils are allocated four supervisors over their time at Wilberforce: “the idea is that over the 12-month period, pupils will have been exposed to all core areas of the work.” Pupils can expect to work on either live or dead matters, depending on their supervisor. According to one interviewee: “I’ve done some great trust work. It's all so interesting.” A junior tenant we spoke with ran us through the make-up of their pupillage: “I first sat with an insolvency barrister, working on issues arising from bankruptcy.” Property disputes formed the bulk of their stint with their second supervisor, followed by commercial fraud: “I worked on a live case, and one of the suggestions I gave made it into our skeleton argument – and eventually the judgement!” Trusts and land matters provided the basis for this junior’s final seat.
“One of the weirdest cases I worked concerned a farmer who had donated a piece of land to a Church of England school in the 19th century!"
Typical pupil tasks revolve around writing first drafts of skeleton arguments, and drafting cross-examination notes: “One of the weirdest cases I worked concerned a farmer who had donated a piece of land to a Church of England school in the 19th century! It raised interesting legal issues and highlights the wide range of the work chambers does!” We even heard of a pupil being sent to the Isle of Man for a court hearing. The second six is non-practicing, but Wilberforce bears this in mind during assessments.
Instead of arguing in court, pupils go through a series of advocacy exercises to help prepare them. There are also three to four formal exercises that pupils complete throughout their pupillage, including advocacy exercises. The content is based on real work the set has. These assessments help build a pupil's case for tenancy, combined with reports written by supervisors at the end of each seat: “this is to create equality between the pupils as not everyone will not work with all pupils.” As one pupil highlighted, “it isn’t just one centralised assessment, and the decision is based on the work your supervisor sees every day. That meant I didn’t find the process particularly scary.”
The tenancy decision is made by the pupillage committee, and is comprised of two stages. There is an open committee meeting – which any members of chambers can attend – that make and overall recommendation. Then, every member gets a vote: “It is very rare for the vote to be out of line with the recommendations,” confirmed Holmes. In 2023, Wilberforce retained two of three qualifiers.
“Our retention rate is very good.”
The decision is made around the nine-month mark, the point at which pupils are able to take more ownership of their work. “It is a lot more relaxed after the decision and we put pupils with supervisors whose work they’re interested in.” confirmed Holmes. If the decision hasn’t gone in a pupil's favour, “Wilberforce will support pupils through the rest of their pupillage and provide them as much opportunity as possible” but “our retention irate is very good.”
The culture of the set is invariably a factor that affects retention: “There’s so much support available. You can knock on someone’s door and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the case over a cup of tea.” Speaking of refreshments, there are fortnightly chambers drinks, a weekly walk and regular trips to the pub: “I regularly see emails going round asking if people fancy having lunch in hall.” As if that wasn’t enough, there’s an annual property conference in Seville, plus an annual ski trip. See you on the slopes!
That’s what I go to school for
Pupils have been involved in mentoring programmes with the Sutton Trust, an educational charity that promotes social mobility.
8 New Square,
Type of work undertaken
We have a minimum requirement of a 2:1 degree in law or another subject and have a track record of taking on GDL students as pupils and tenants — we ensure that our interview process does not disadvantage those who have only recently commenced their legal studies.
Wetake great care in our selection process to identify candidates who have real potential to join Chambers at the end of their pupillage. Importantly, our pupils are not in competition with one another for a tenancy, but are assessed solely on their own abilities and performance.
All applications must be made through the Pupillage Gateway.
Wilberforce Chambers is committed to equal opportunities in all aspects of its work. All barristers are committed to observing the Bar Standards Board’s Equality and Diversity Rules of the Code of Conduct in relation to non-discrimination in the acceptance of work, the carrying out of that work and all dealings with clients, colleagues, staff and others. Staff are committed to complying with this policy.
It is our policy to treat everyone equally and fairly regardless of their racial group, colour, ethnic or national origin, nationality, citizenship, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, religion or political persuasion.
Wilberforce maintains a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR). Through our Bar Access Programme we are actively involved in outreach and access initiatives to encourage and support people from diverse backgrounds in developing a career at the Bar. An important element of the Bar Access Programme is our on-going partnership with the Sutton Trust (the well-known charitable foundation whose aim is to promote social mobility) through which we support their various initiatives in the legal arena. For example, we continue to run mini-pupillage/placement programmes for their Pathways to Law pupils and Pathways Plus students and a number of our Members are actively involved in a mentoring programme for Sutton Trust students.
We have also built strong relationships with the Legal Social Mobility Partnership, and the Pegasus and Bar Placement (Social Mobility Foundation) programmes, and provide support to the Barristers’ Benevolent Association.
Wilberforce is recognised as a Silver Pro Bono Patron by Advocate. This is a reflection of the organisational support we provide Advocate to help hundreds of people achieve fair and equal access to justice.
Nicholas Luckman, our Practice Director, is a Business Board Member of Support Through Court, a charity dedicated to providing free, independent assistance to people facing proceedings without legal representation.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2023
- Chancery: Commercial (Band 1)
- Chancery: Traditional (Band 1)
- Charities (Band 3)
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 3)
- Company (Band 4)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 2)
- Offshore (Band 1)
- Pensions (Band 1)
- Professional Negligence (Band 2)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 1)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)
- Tax: Private Client (Band 3)