The Wilber-force is strong in those who have a passion for commercial chancery and can “think outside of the box.”
“We are a chambers that knows exactly what we are,” states Jedi master – sorry, head practice manager – Mark Rushton. “We’re 71 members [at the time of research] which is fantastic – we’re not the biggest and we’re not the smallest. We won’t grow for growth's sake; the plan is to continually look at our specific areas of law to see where we have maybe a lack of barristers, or if we need more mass in a certain area.” Wilberforce is a big name in the commercial chancery, traditional chancery, offshore and pensions fields, and also gains recognition in Chambers UK Bar for commercial dispute resolution, civil fraud, professional negligence, real estate litigation, private client tax, and restructuring/insolvency, among other areas. Pupils found they were “drawn to more academically challenging areas of law, and this set was perfect for that.” The set has a high number of silks, meaning “there would be lots of interesting big cases you could potentially be a junior on.”
And sources weren’t wrong: in these areas, Wilberforce barristers have been instructed on several high-profile and high-value matters to date. Barristers are amid a novel Supreme Court appeal (for the appellant) concerning vicarious liability in the context of fraudulent conduct. The clients invested in a failed property venture with a loan against their homes, but the mortgage broker had submitted a fraudulent application. The issue is whether the defendant is liable for his actions when he was their agent, not employee. Elsewhere, members are dealing with a “property Brexit” case, where the European Medicines Agency is claiming its 25-year lease of office space in Canary Wharf will be ‘frustrated’ when the UK leaves the EU. The case deals with whether the EMA can walk away from its lease due to Brexit, which means other tenants may also be able to do so. On the pensions front, members acted for ITV in a trial resisting an attempt by the Pensions Regulator to make ITV liable for a deficit in the pensions scheme of a former subsidiary.
"Each supervisor would tend to involve me in the work they were doing."
Going forward, Rushton emphasises: “We’re looking at how we can make chambers even more cohesive than it already is.” Many were drawn to the set after having done a mini-pupillage and finding they were “impressed with how well organised it was” and felt members “were interested in seeing you at your best rather than putting you under artificial pressure.” One junior tenant appreciated that “no one put on airs or tried to be intimidating – they had no desire to make the process more stressful than it already is.”
The Pupillage Experience
Wilberforce pupils “get through quite a few supervisors” during their pupillage. The average is about five or six supervisors, spending around two months with each. This ensures pupils see “a wide spectrum of the set’s work,” as each supervisor will usually have a slightly different specialism. For instance, a junior tenant recalled: “My first seat was with someone who did a lot of insolvency, my second saw a lot of property, wills and probate, my third was pensions and offshore trusts, and my fourth was purely property.”
The majority of pupils’ work is on live matters: “Every supervisor would tend to involve me in the work they were doing – I’d get to do the first draft of, say, a pleading they were asked to do.” Other common tasks included first drafts of advices, research notes and opinions, preparing cross-examination notes and doing skeleton arguments for hearings. “It’s exciting – sometimes you see something going out with your imprint on it, if an idea you had gets deployed in court,” one pupil reflected. Sometimes supervisors will set their pupil dead papers which are “to see whether you can do junior tenant work – it might be a piece of work that came through to them when they were a junior, or they might ask another member if they have a set of papers suitable for someone in their first year of tenancy.” The purpose of these tasks is “for gaining experience and feedback.”
Wilberforce doesn’t have a standing second six – the work doesn’t differ greatly between sixes. Junior tenants recalled getting on their feet in the couple of months after the tenancy decision had been made (which is usually between June and July), but it “wasn’t common.” When the chance did arise, sources had done “simple possession hearings that were unopposed” or “very, very small claims trials.”
"You should be showing a trajectory of improvement."
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. Each of the supervisors will “give rolling feedback to pupils on each piece of work,” which forms the basis of pupils’ assessment – supervisors will compile reports which are fed to the head of pupillage. Pupils also see these two 'half term' reports to target areas for development. “They want to see if you grow from your mistakes,” sources highlighted. In addition, there are formal advocacy exercises – usually two before the decision and one after. The first one isn’t usually taken into account for the decision, but rather serves as “an opportunity to try making a submission and learning from it.” The second one is assessed, though head of pupillage Martin Hutchings QC notes: “The assessed exercises play some part in the decision, but a lesser part.” The main thing everyone we spoke to emphasised was that “you should be showing a trajectory of improvement.” The pupillage committee will then make a recommendation on each of the pupils, and then chambers as a whole has the chance to vote on it. In 2020, both the two pupils gained tenancy.
The Application Process
As of 2019, Wilberforce hopefuls can find the set on the Pupillage Gateway. The reasoning for this, Martin Hutchings QC explains, was “because we think it’s fairer for students.” Other than that, the rest of the process hasn’t changed: after the initial paper sift, the set invites around 30 to 35 candidates for a first-round interview. “The first interview is a more general one, exploring the candidate’s motivation for chancery work and why they’ve chosen us as a set,” Hutchings explains. "But there is some emphasis on legal reasoning and problem solving." It’s usually with two interviewers, and there’s a legal problem to tackle. However, pupils added: “The problems weren’t tests of legal knowledge – it was more about your ability to reason, your interpretation of language and your different ways of thinking practically around the problem.”
Around 15 candidates are invited back for the second-round interview with a panel of four interviewers. Pupils found the questions “much deeper” at this stage: “A lot of time was devoted to the legal questions and thinking on your feet.” Hutchings explains: “It’s about being able to think about legally-related problems, argue convincingly for both sides of the argument, and give coherent responses to questions.” He notes that “it’s very non-confrontational; we’re not trying to test whether people can stand up to difficult judges or show they don’t cry when shouted at. We think those are skills they will pick up through pupillage and court experience. We are testing whether they are intellectually up to it, whether they can hold their line when they argue or concede when they realise a point we’re making is pretty unanswerable. It’s about having that judgement and commercial nous.” Hutchings emphasises that “it’s really about intellectual ability in all its forms – that is really what we’re testing. The other skills, we can teach. Creative thinking is a hallmark of all the people who are made an offer of pupillage.”
"It meant I could fully rely on my co-pupil when I was stressed about something."
Another hallmark of Wilberforce barristers is “openness”: “For the first two weeks, whenever I bumped into someone, they’d say, ‘Here is my room – if you ever need to see me, here’s where I’ll be,’ or ‘Send me an email if you ever need advice.’” Pupils and juniors felt comfortable “going into most people’s rooms and asking questions” and also got the “sense that chambers is trying to integrate people.” To aid with this, the set holds chambers lunch every other Friday, and chambers drinks on the alternate Fridays. “There’s also a regular email that goes around the junior members to ask if anyone wants lunch – pupils are always invited too. They attend our chambers parties and are often invited to networking events.” Our pupil sources reckoned this was because “if an offer of pupillage has been made, they believe you ought to be good enough to be a tenant and they feel there’s a good chance you will become a member.” It also helped that pupillage at Wilberforce is non-competitive: “They were always looking to take all of us on. It meant I could fully rely on my co-pupil when I was stressed about something.”
Patience you must have, my young padawan
“We’re not trying to test whether people can stand up to difficult judges or show they don’t cry when shouted at. We think those are skills they will pick up through pupillage and court experience.”
8 New Square,
- No of silks 37
- No of juniors 42
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) Up to three 12-month pupillages
- Award £65,000
- Mini-pupillages Total of 28 places
- Minimum qualification 2:1 degree
- Tenancies in last 3 years 7
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.
We take 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.
We are committed to promoting and achieving equality and diversity in Chambers, so we want to receive applications from anyone who has the qualities and skills we are looking for, no matter what university you have attended, no matter what age, race, gender or sexual orientation. Our pupillage application process is name, gender, school and university ‘blind,’ and all applications must be made through the Pupillage Gateway.
Equality and diversity:
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.
Corporate social responsibility:
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 and the Strand Trust (via sponsoring the King’s College London’s Trust Law prize, which rewards the student who obtains the best result in the LLB Law of Trusts examination each year).