39 Essex Chambers - True Picture

Pupils can sample a variety of practice areas before specialising at London's biggest barristers' chambers.

Spice of life

Once upon a time it was common for a barrister to tackle all types of work across the legal spectrum. Nowadays, everything is more compartmentalised and those joining the Bar tend to specialise early on. But pupils at 39 Essex get to experience some of the wisdom in the old ways. “The ethos here is that we believe in practice diversity,” CEO and director of clerking Lindsay Scott tell us. “We believe it makes the set stronger and makes our junior tenants better advocates. Our juniors aren't just going to the Chancery or commercial courts; they are also able to attend everything from mental health and immigration tribunals to special educational needs hearings. That variety gives them much more experience in dealing with a range of clients, judges and tribunal chairs.”

"The barristers we have are spread equally among four main areas."

Pupillage at 39 Essex follows a seat-based structure which sees pupils rotate through the set's four main practice areas: public law; planning and environmental; personal injury and clinical negligence; and commercial, regulatory and construction (CRC). Pupils are assigned two supervisors per seat, except in CRC where they get three. “Within each area there are more subgroups,” Scott explains, “but the barristers we have are spread equally among the four main areas and our clerking team is also made up of four teams each dedicated to one area.”

The ability to sample different areas was popular with pupils as “a field which may seem very appealing from a theoretical and academic perspective may actually be very different in practice." Sources noted that “even three months isn't a long time to get to know an area of law," so they were pleased to find there's "the opportunity to keep exploring the breadth of work in your junior years.” The diversity of the set's practice areas is reflected in its Chambers UK rankings: 39 Essex wins 18 rankings across a range of practices including its core areas of environment, public law, construction, planning and personal injury. It's also ranked for other areas like professional discipline, Court of Protection, care, energy and data protection.

39 Essex is notable for its international presence too with offices in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, plus a second UK office in Manchester. While the set currently does not offer a seat in any of those offices, Scott did reveal that “it is something that we may consider doing in the future.” Still, the overseas offices are a good indication of the international slant underlying some of the work. Recently the set has tackled disputes arising from territories as diverse as Iran, Bahrain, Chile, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados and Indonesia.

Leaving on a jet plane

A seat in public law sees pupils tackling a range of subjects including religious freedom, children's rights, cuts to public services, torture, abuse and terrorism legislation. A QC recently led a junior representing a number of junior doctors in a judicial review challenge to the decision by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to impose a new contract on them. Pupils appreciated the seat as one “where you're out and about in court a lot.” One source recalled “helping to draft the skeleton argument for a case about the Investigatory Powers Tribunal at the High Court.” This case saw a silk represent various government departments in a judicial review about whether the tribunal's decisions can be judicially reviewed (yes, you read that right). Another interviewee was “involved in a healthcare case, drafting witness statements and evaluating past precedents.”

A seat in planning and environmental rewards pupils with chances to head out of the office for “regular site visits, sometimes to some quite rural places. My supervisor would give me the papers to visit the site with; I'd then go do that and create a summary of all the key issues at hand." We heard visits are "great when the weather is good,” but sources advised to “bring the right footwear!” Barristers do a significant amount of planning advisory work; for instance, one QC is helping lobbying organisation Heathrow Hub promote its alternative plan for airport expansion. At the same time another barrister represented the London Borough of Hillingdon in its challenge to the third runway. Meanwhile a QC has been working on the latest chapter in the 'red-striped house' saga in which a property owner painted red stripes on a building to protest not being allowed to turn it into a house and build a basement. On the environmental side, one barrister recently advised the Mayor of London and TfL on what they can do about Volkswagen’s use of emissions test cheat devices.

"I sat in a High Court trial with the head of chambers."

Cases in CRC involve “much larger amounts of evidence” and are “much more paper-based” than cases in other areas, interviewees noted. As such “you normally work on fewer cases, but you go into much more detail.” Cases require frequent client conferences which pupils plan; they also produce advice notes and chronologies. Matters may touch on PFI contracts, aviation, telecoms, infrastructure and energy. For example, one QC led a team of five juniors on a $500 million dispute about a botched construction job at an oil refinery in the Caribbean. Another acted on a series of claims worth $250 million related to the terminating of an oil drilling contract because of the collapse of the oil price. A different QC represented a bank in enforcement proceedings against oligarch Sergei Pugachev, who had to flee Russia after falling out with Putin.

The set's clinical negligence and personal injury expertise covers everything from minor injuries to group litigation, catastrophic injuries and death. One QC recently worked on a claim brought by a woman who was kept alive for 18 months contrary to her wishes as stated in her medical file, which had not been found by medical staff. Another silk represented breast surgeon Ian Paterson after he was sued by 1,000 women over claims of botched or unnecessary breast surgery. Unlike in commercial “you have to have the ability to marshal lots of different cases at once," sources told us. "I had to conduct research for conferences and attend joint settlement meetings; and I sat in on a High Court trial with the head of chambers."

Sunday roast

Across every seat pupils can expect to mostly be tackling live work. They begin handling their own cases in the second six, typically visiting court “once or twice a week.” It's naturally a stressful time but pupils assured us that “juniors go over everything with you in painstaking detail to satisfy your paranoia.” Prospective tenants are assessed through two written exercises – “such as drafting a grounds for appeal” – and one oral advocacy test. In addition every piece of work they submit is assessed and gets feedback, culminating in mid and end-of-seat reviews. All this feeds into the tenancy decision which is announced in early June. In 2019 two of three pupils gained tenancy.

Around 50 to 60 pupillage applicants are invited to the 15-minute first-round interview, which includes current affairs and ethics questions. Just over ten advance to a second interview "testing legal ability" – you're given a judicial decision 24 hours in advance and then have to discuss it in front of a panel of three for 20 to 25 minutes.

"The head of the planning team read my draft on a Sunday night.”

“We're very commercial and our CEO is very forward-thinking,” one junior asserted when we asked them to sum up 39 Essex's culture, adding: “I think that's reflected in our modern premises.” The set's digs look more like those of a swanky law firm than a fusty barristers' chambers and 39 Essex's 130 members make it similar in size to a mid-size solicitors' firm. But although this is the largest chambers in London, tenants are always willing to help out newbies. “Juniors are constantly messaging me asking to go for lunch, and if I send out an email asking for advice I'll get three replies back immediately," one pupil told us. "On my first judicial review, the head of the planning team read my draft on a Sunday night.”

Pupils work “strictly” 9am to 6pm. “It forces you to be productive when you start work as a junior,” sources reasoned. It also gives pupils more time to socialise, which can be done with tenants at Friday drinks, fortnightly lunches and numerous summer parties.

Remember: despite its name 39 Essex Chambers is located at 81 Chancery Lane.

39 Essex Chambers

81 Chancery Lane,
Website www.39essex.com

82 Kings Street,
M2 4WQ

  • No of silks 51
  • No of juniors 85
  • No of pupils Up to 3
  • Contact Emily Formby, Judith Ayling, Kate Grange QC, [email protected], 020 7832 1111
  • Method of application Pupillage Gateway
  • Pupillages (pa) Up to 3
  • Other offices Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Manchester

Chambers profile

39 Essex Chambers is a long-established civil set. It currently has 136 members, including 51 QCs. Chambers has 23 members on the Attorney General’s Panels for civil litigation. It prides itself on its friendly and professional atmosphere. It was described by Chambers UK as “home to some extraordinarily bright people.” Chambers is fully networked and its clerking and administrative services are of a high standard. Within Chambers, members work very hard. However, they also pride themselves on having a thriving and cohesive social life including fortnightly lunches and breakfasts in Chambers and other social and sporting events throughout the year. 39 Essex Chambers is an equal opportunities employer.

Type of work undertaken

Commercial law: Commercial regulation; construction and engineering; corporate restructuring; costs; employment; insurance and reinsurance; media, entertainment and sports; oil, gas and utilities; financial services; project finance; energy

Costs and litigation funding. 

Civil liability: Clinical negligence; health and safety; insurance; material loss claims; personal injury; product liability; professional negligence; sports injuries; toxic torts

Planning, environmental and property: Aviation; compulsory purchase; contaminated land; environmental civil liability; environmental regulation; international environmental law; licensing; marine environment; planning; nuisance; rating

Administrative and public law: Central and local government; European law; human rights; judicial review; mental health and community care; parliamentary; cost and funding and public affairs

Regulatory and disciplinary: Medical; legal; social care and education; financial services; broadcasting, communications and media; sport; transport; health and safety; building and housing; local government standards; licensing


Chambers awards up to three 12-month pupillages a year. During the pupillage year, each pupil will be rotated between four pupil supervisor seats, covering a broad range of Chambers’ work. The pupils will also do two assessed pieces of written work for other members of Chambers and receive training in, and assessment of, advocacy. Pupils work between 9:00am and 6:00pm, Monday to Friday. Time is given for preparing own work and in the second six months pupils can expect to go to Court a number of times a month. Chambers has an excellent record of recruiting its own pupils.


Mini-pupillage is a useful tool for the assessment by Chambers of candidates and vice versa. It is not a prerequisite for pupillage but we encourage those intending to seek pupillage to apply for mini-pupillage if they can, as it helps both applicant and Chambers to decide if the fit is right. There are limited places available. Mini-pupillages are three days long, and will take place between 16 September 2019 and early March 2020. Applications should be made from 1 August and no later than 31 October 2019. Applicants should have completed, begun or be just about to begin the final year of an undergraduate law degree or, if you did not complete an undergraduate degree in law, the final year of a masters degree in law or the final year of a Graduate Diploma in Law. Check Chambers’ website for details and updates to the timetable.


The pupillage award is currently £60,000 plus second six earnings. Pupils attend court regularly in their own right in the second six and all second six earnings are on top of the £60,000. Of the award £12,500 may be drawn down during the year before pupillage commences. Awards and offers are all conditional upon passing the BPTC.

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2019

Ranked Departments

    • Costs Litigation (Band 2)
    • Court of Protection: Health & Welfare (Band 1)
    • Administrative & Public Law (Band 2)
    • Civil Liberties & Human Rights (Band 3)
    • Clinical Negligence (Band 5)
    • Community Care (Band 1)
    • Construction (Band 3)
    • Data Protection (Band 4)
    • Education (Band 2)
    • Energy & Natural Resources (Band 3)
    • Environment (Band 1)
    • Immigration (Band 3)
    • International Arbitration: Construction/Engineering (Band 2)
    • Local Government (Band 2)
    • Personal Injury (Band 1)
    • Planning (Band 3)
    • Professional Discipline (Band 1)
    • Professional Negligence: Technology & Construction (Band 2)
    • Tax: Indirect Tax (Band 3)
    • Travel: International Personal Injury (Band 3)