As private practice firms continue to increase NQ pay in a bid to match the competition, magic circle chambers are unmoved.

The past year has seen a consistent rise in pupillage awards across the Bar. However, as the quest to attract the best pupils continues and awards reach figures as high as £100,000 in some specialist sets, the magic circle are most concerned with “keeping in step” with their rivals, to quote Brick Court’s head of pupillage Victoria Wakefield KC.

As The Lawyer spoke to the most prestigious chambers in London, it became clear that the magic circle sets prefer to rely on the quality of the work and training they can offer and their reputation to draw in top talent. The famous five’s offerings remain firmly within the same £5,000 range, as Fountain Court and One Essex Court sit at the top with £80,000 apiece, while Essex Court, Blackstone and Brick Court Chambers all offer £75,000 to this year’s pupil intake.

While these awards are by no means ungenerous and will ensure pupils are comfortable during the final year of their Bar training, The Lawyer understands that magic circle chambers have no immediate plans to increase their awards beyond the offerings of their immediate peers, despite pressure from high inflation and sets outside the circle.

All the chambers mirrored the same sentiment: they rely on peer sets to inform their pupillage awards, and none of them want to be the first to blink and increase their offering.

Brick Court’s Victoria Wakefield KC explained the reasoning: “For the pupils that Brick Court accepts, awards are not a principal driver – they apply for the quality of the work” available at magic circle chambers.

Indeed, the number of pupils who receive offers from multiple top level sets is extremely limited. On average, magic circle sets offer four pupillage places each year. The chambers fight every year over a tiny pool of qualified applicants, who are much more likely to make their final decision over the nature of the work or study that each set offers. Nevertheless, The Lawyer understands that the highest-paying sets would rather stay at the top of the pile, rather than risking losing out on top applicants over a paltry £5,000.

Fountain Court and One Essex Court offer the highest pupillage awards of the magic circle 

Guaranteed earnings – scrap or keep?

The magic circle’s dedication to quality work over direct remuneration also translates to approaches to guaranteed earnings. The practice of guaranteeing pupil earnings in the second half of the year is maintained by almost 40 per cent of sets surveyed by The Lawyer and serves to identify a minimum that prospective pupils can expect to earn on top of the award issued by chambers.

Farrah Mauladad KC, Crown Office Chambers’ head of pupillage, asserted that guaranteed earnings are invaluable as “offerings have to sustain living in London” amid a cost of living crisis.

On the other hand, Lizzy Stuart, CEO of 4 New Square, which dropped guaranteed earnings last year and added the difference to its increased award payment, argued that its shift away made the system “less confusing, and more certain” for prospective pupils. Many other sets turn to guaranteed earnings to make up as much as half of a pupil’s total award, reducing the amount paid out of pocket.

None of the magic circle sets offer guaranteed earnings, and many argue that such a policy would limit the type of work they can offer their pupils. In fact, Blackstone Chambers’ pupillage year is “entirely non-practising”, meaning that Blackstone pupils receive no additional earnings. Victoria Wakefield KC contends that the instruction that pupils receive at Brick Court often includes pro bono or low paid work for non-governmental organisations and charities, which proves to be deeply fulfilling for pupils and invaluable experience.

Furthermore, the pay that working pupils receive by way of non-guaranteed earnings regularly matches what would be offered as guaranteed. Indeed, One Essex Court advertises expected pupil earnings of at least £10,000, giving a strong indication of what pupils can expect to bring home on top of their awards.

Magic circle sets also regularly include offers that include interest-free loans to pupils or new tenants alongside reduced or waived chambers costs, and guaranteed earnings for new tenants, providing a financial safety net that does not limit the experience they can offer pupils.

As pupillage awards at the Bar find themselves in an increasingly competitive space, the magic circle remains steadfast. Across the chambers recognised as the best in the business, there is confidence that their prestige outweighs the need for a race to the top of pupillage awards.