A Game With No Rules

Twenty-three years ago I commenced pupillage. It is a good job that this is being written on an iPad so the solitary tear that has just dropped from my eye has not smudged the ink. Twenty-three years ago! Where has that time gone?

I have less hair on my head and more hair on my face (more of that later). I have moved from being pupil to pupil master to three pupils, all of whom it has been a privilege and a pleasure to supervise. And yet I can recall the fear and trepidation of pupillage like it was yesterday. 

Pupillage is the strangest experience. It is part interview, part trial by endurance and part learning experience. You want to appear like you know everything so you impress and yet you do not want to come across as a know-it-all. And, of course, the reality is that you are at the bottom of an incredibly steep learning curve. You feel like Eddie the Eagle when he first stood at the bottom of the 70 metre ski jump. You are entering some weird game where everybody else knows the rules except you and, just to make things more complicated, virtually every barrister you will encounter will have their own variations on those rules. 

My beard is the embodiment of that miasma of unwritten conventions that you may transgress. I was struggling to obtain pupillage. A barrister I spoke to suggested I shaved my beard off. The very next, clean shaven, pupillage interview secured my first six. Coincidence? Well I grew my beard back when I started pupillage and was asked in the first week “Did you have that beard when the PTC interviewed you?” by a senior Silk in chambers. Off came the beard again for my pupil master to say “Glad to see the facial hair has gone, Gavin” (whilst clearly forming a view on the goatee, my pupil master always struggled with my name). 

Was this pognophobia limited to my first chambers? I went four years into tenancy (in the chambers where I did my second six with a pupil master who remembered my name and knows more about advocacy than I ever will) sporting a freshly shaved chin every single day. Then I had to have some time off to have an operation and back came the beard (I reassure you that it was no longer a goatee). The reaction of a Silk in chambers on my first day back at work was to point to my chin and utter the words “Hopefully that is just temporary…”

Enough of my beard, the point is that there are many such views on what is wrong and what is right for the putative barrister, beyond the rules of ethics they teach you on the course. And because pupillage has that element of the year long interview you are walking through a minefield wearing over sized boots. With your feet tied together. Blindfolded. 

So what advice to give the new pupil? You cannot go wrong by having a good look around you at those members of chambers who have been through this process before. I am not suggesting that you have to suppress yourself, to pretend to be someone else but you will notice that there is a certain way the majority of barristers dress, for example. No matter how free, fearless and independent you are going to be once you are a member of chambers, those electric blue flares with an embroidered flower down one of the thighs is not appropriate wear for your first day in chambers. You are not expected to be a Stepford barrister but the fact of the matter is that courtrooms are serious, somber places where the attention should be on the eloquence of your advocacy, not the flamboyance of your pocket square. 

Smart, dark suits and neatly ironed shirts and blouses are the order of the day. Clothes may not maketh the woman, but they can certainly show you have made the transition from student to professional. 

I was advised by someone the year ahead of me to say every third thing that came into my head, that pupils were like Victorian children; to be seen and not heard. That advice was along the right lines. As the pupil you have to remember that the members of chambers you go to court with are involved in cases that may well be stressful and may have nuances to them of which you are unaware. The golden rule is do not “contribute” your view unless asked to, particularly in conference, in the presence of the opponent or solicitor. By all means have a discussion with your pupil master or the person you are with that day about your approach to the case and its issues, but do it at an appropriate time. You may well feel that you have something to contribute but remember that you are there to observe and learn. There may be a very good reason why something is not being mentioned to the opponent so do not be the one to blurt it out. 

That even includes if you are dead certain the member of chambers you are with has got something absolutely wrong. Firstly, they may not have done, for reasons that you are not aware. Secondly, they are not going to thank you if they are wrong and you expose this error to all and sundry. If you think they are getting something wrong, then find a subtle way or moment to tell them. You may be able to slip them a note or begin a conversation when you are not being overheard with “I am probably being stupid, but I have had a look in Archbold and I would have said that statute isn’t in force yet. Where am I going wrong?”

Diligence and hard work will always be noted. And that includes the appearance of diligence and hard work. If your pupil master tells you they expect you in chambers at 9am there is no harm in being at your desk at 830. And the same can be said at home time. Do not be the pupil who is never seen in chambers after 430pm. This is not just a question of being chained to your desk to show you can cope with the sort of hours that City Lawyers wear as a badge of pride. These are the times, outside of court hours, when you are likely to encounter members of chambers. This is, therefore, your chance to get to know them and them to get to know you. Add to that is the fact that a career at the Bar is going to involve plenty of preparation outside of “normal” office hours. Now is a good time to get used to it. 

Pupillage is, more than anything else, your apprenticeship. There is so much to learn, so much to absorb. Take every opportunity to gain experience. And do not be afraid to ask if you do not know how something is done. Or why someone did something in a particular way. 

Try to avoid, if you can, simply asking for the answer. It is so easy to approach members of chambers to ask “how do I….” or “what is the law on….” Show people you are thinking about things and not just expecting to be spoon fed. Try saying “I think the answer is…..what is your view?” Or “I have looked it up, can I just run through what I have found? Is there anything else?” People should be generous with their time as long as they do not think this is a substitute to you doing your own work and thinking. 

Always meet deadlines set to you for work. If there is a specific problem, if you are struggling to find the answer or found yourself hospitalised when you dropped Archbold on your toe, then ask for an extension. That is what you will do when you are on your feet. Do not hand in work late, and then come up with your excuses. 

Check your written work. Then check it again. Then go away and read something else. Then come back to your piece of work and check it again. Then print it out. And check again. 

There will come the point in time when something goes wrong. Do not think that because someone gives you a piece of work back with red ink all over and corrections galore then this is the end of the world. Your work is not going to be perfect. It is going to need correcting. You are going to make plenty of errors. The important thing is to learn from them, to not make the same mistake time and time again. 

Things can go more spectacularly wrong, of course. There are a rare number of pupillages so that do encounter real problems. Make sure you work with Chambers so, should a problem be identified during a review of your pupillage, you know what is expected of you and what you need to be doing. Set a plan and work out the problem. The Bar Council run a dedicated and confidential advice service for pupils. If you encounter difficulties then use this service. 

One final word of advice. Enjoy your pupillage and enjoy getting to know people that you will hopefully spend the rest of your career working with. Do remember that you want to be remembered as the pupil who excelled at everything they did, not the pupil who photocopied their nether regions in the clerks’ room after the Christmas drinks party….

I hope someone out there will find this advice useful. Pupillage is full of highs and lows. At the start you will be desperate to get out there and begin your career. As your first six draws near to a close you will wish you could go back to the start as you will feel like you know nothing. Trust me, you know enough and you have the ability that has got you this far. More senior members of the profession will always be prepared to help. 

Twenty-three years have passed in the blink of an eye. I may moan about the job, about the MoJ, about fees and about just about everything else. But it is still great to see the enthusiasm of those new to the job. Good luck!

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