Walk this way to discover a venerable kingdom of shipping and insurance glory (plus more besides).
Lawyers have practised out of what's now 7 King's Bench Walk since the 16th century, interrupted only by the mild inconvenience of a city burnt to the ground in 1666 – the building as it stands now went up 19 years later. Numerous figures of note – including Lords Denning, Collins and Hobhouse – have passed through its hallways. A rich heritage indeed, but one that's paved the way for a contemporary, wide-reaching, commercial practice, as became clear when we settled into an air-conditioned meeting room (very welcome – we always seem to visit 7KBW on the hottest day of the year) for a chinwag with its barristers.
7KBW is among the leading commercial sets in London, winning a Band 2 ranking for general commercial disputes in Chambers UK. Barristers have recently worked on civil fraud, arbitration enforcement and auditor negligence cases; and five members have been instructed on a trial related to a decommissioned oil rig. Insurance and shipping are the set's top talents – it's top-ranked by Chambers UK in both areas – and its expertise in the sectors brings in all kinds of work. “The interesting thing about insurance is it can mean anything,” explains practice development and marketing director Brian Lee, “and some of the largest cases often cover non-insurance issues as well.” Similarly, 7KBW takes on both wet and dry shipping disputes.
One recent wet shipping case saw two silks and a junior appear in the Supreme Court instructed by the time charterers of the 'Ocean Victory' in a $160 million claim after the bulk carrier became disabled in the North Sea and had to be towed to Holland. Meanwhile Alistair Schaff QC represented the shipowner in the so-called B Atlantic insurance trial, after cocaine was strapped to the vessel leading to its detainment in Venezuelan waters. Back on dry land Robert Bright QC represented a banking consortium seeking to recover $900 million after the collapse of Danish marine fuel company OW Bunker. A recent reinsurance case saw Rebecca Sabben-Clare QC act for a US subsidiary of AIG in a claim against its London reinsurer over its liability as insurer of Dole after claims were made by Dole's fruit pickers that they were exposed to the chemical DBCP. A lot of 7KBW's arbitration work is confidential, but with former members Sir Stephen Tomlinson and Sir Jeremy Cooke returning from the Bench recently, you can be sure the practice is pretty buoyant.
Brian Lee tells us: “We're fully committed to raising our profile across the world. The market is evolving and sets can't rely solely on reputation to bring in clients.” At least 90% of those clients are City firms: Reed Smith and Clyde & Co in particular often turn to 7KBW's members for assistance. For instance, the latter instructed the set in a fraud dispute between Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA and Middle East oil company PetroSaudi. Lee points to civil fraud and energy as hot areas for growth – the set's already ranked by Chambers UK for the latter.
The route into this august institution is relatively straightforward. Initial applications are judged independently by two pupillage committee members against a series of objective criteria. Around 30 to 35 candidates are invited to the sole interview round before a panel of four or five members. Pupillage committee member and supervisor Jo Higgs explains that “interviews are very demanding on candidates' time and we only want to invite those who have a realistic shot at pupillage, so having just one round suits everyone.” To improve your chances of making the cut, get as many mini-pupillages under your belt as possible.
“Make sure they're consistently addressing the central question.”
Interviewees receive a legal problem in advance and are asked to prepare an oral argument; the panel questions them on it to test how well they can think on their feet, before turning to ask about anything on their CV that might prompt questioning. Those who'd braved the process suggested “interviews are perfectly friendly but rigorous” and advised candidates to “make sure they're consistently addressing the central question.” Each interviewer independently scores the candidates, and once these are pooled prospective pupils are ranked. Offers are made only to those who “have a realistic chance of achieving tenancy after pupillage,” which in practice is between two and four people. It may sound intense, but Jo Higgs assures us: “The process isn't too intimidating – people often come here because they actually enjoyed their interview.”
Describing 7KBW as home to “a wide range of people with diverse back stories,” sources were nonetheless “conscious about there being a private school/Oxbridge lean,” but reasoned “the Bar as a whole isn't very diverse and there really is no care given to your social background when applying.” Work experience, strong extracurriculars and stellar academics are the way to impress: among the set's most junior members are a former UBS intern, a former member of the National Youth Orchestra and one individual who did the BCL and has 11 prizes and scholarships to their name.
7KBW retains a “slightly old-fashioned feel” in comparison to more corporate “solicitor firm-aping” chambers, in pupils' own words. They felt “drawn to a chambers with a more intellectual side.” As befits the set's rich history, traditions are well respected, and all are expected to dress to impress. Afternoon tea remains a forum for “free and frank discussions,” and while our interviewees felt “it was somewhat intimidating as a pupil because you're reminded of the hierarchy," sources also said that "everybody who attends is very relaxed" and "it's a good way to get to know people and their practice.” Pupils frequently lunch together, and junior members are typically keen to take newbies out for a bite. Lunch breaks aside, typical working hours during pupillage start from a very manageable 9am to 6pm. Later nights can be more common during the second six, but nobody we spoke to felt overloaded.
Following an introductory three-month seat, pupils spend approximately two months at a time with three more supervisors in the lead-up to tenancy decisions. Seats aren't sector-specific, but insurance and shipping work are certain to make an appearance. Beyond that core grounding, what cases pupils see depends on who they sit with: “If your supervisor is more specialised, what you do will reflect that.” After the initial few months pupils can also take on work from other members, a handy way to branch out into different areas of law; part of the supervisor's job is to stop pupils getting overloaded.
“Daunting by nature.”
Pupils we spoke to enjoyed a hearty diet of insurance and shipping experience, with some broader commercial cases on top. “There's an element of chance to what you end up doing,” one source commented. All got to grips with drafting opinions, pleadings and closing arguments alongside a hefty quantity of legal research. Supervisors endeavour to provide pupils with mostly live work, but inevitably also draw on some non-live matters to fill out any gaps in their education. With the second six comes an increased focus on attending and taking notes at hearings. “Opportunities to do live advocacy in court during pupillage are rare,” said sources, but some found time to get on their feet on pro bono cases.
Formal assessments begin around Christmas, after pupils' bedding-in period. Everybody completes around four standardised written assessments (“mostly substantial opinions on current instructions”) and about three advocacy exercises, which are “normally brief mock applications, summary judgments or permissions to appeal.” Interviewees described the latter as “daunting by nature,” but felt the written assessments can be “approached like any other task” and were left relatively unfazed by the formalities.
Each supervisor also assesses their charges throughout pupillage, and come tenancy decision time all members who've worked with a pupil produce a report on them. “Fundamentally, we're looking for them to learn over time,” says Jo Higgs. “At the start all that's required is intelligent responses to problems; by the end we're looking for pupils to meet the standard of a junior tenant.” Collating all the feedback, the pupillage committee makes a recommendation to chambers as to who should be offered tenancy; in 2018 both pupils were.
Pupils commended 7KBW for its "exceptional collection of books and materials," displayed lovingly throughout chambers reinforcing the scholarly air of the place.
7 King's Bench Walk
7 King's Bench Walk,
- No of silks 24
- No of juniors 38
- No of pupils Up to 4
- Contact [email protected]
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) Up to four 12-month pupillages offered
- Required degree grade Minimum 2:1 (law or non-law)
- Remuneration for pupillage At least £65,000
- Tenancies offered Six in last three years
- No of tenants of five years call or under 8
Type of work undertaken
Applications should be made via the Pupillage Gateway 2019 season for pupillages commencing in September 20209. Deferred pupillages commencing in September 2021 will also be available but will only be offered in exceptional circumstances.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2018
- Commercial Dispute Resolution (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources (Band 3)
- Insurance (Band 1)
- International Arbitration: General Commercial & Insurance (Band 2)
- Professional Negligence (Band 4)
- Shipping & Commodities (Band 1)