Tag Archives: university

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!

Silence is Golden

I am trained in the Hampel Method. This is not a type of breathing designed to allay my fear of flying, heights and unfeasibly cheery Scotsmen. It is not a method of yoghurt weaving favoured by certain sections of Chorlton society (that is a joke for only the Mancunians amongst you…) The Hampel Method is a method of training advocacy. I must confess I scoffed at the idea of advocacy being taught but the Hampel Method is actually pretty darn good at laying down the basics and improving certain areas of an individual’s advocacy.

The first thing they tell you when you are schooled in the Hampel Method is that you should leave the war stories behind. Nobody wants to know how great you once were in a case, nothing is learnt by you telling the student of advocacy of how you once demolished a witness and the tale of the set piece flourish of producing the answer the witness has just given on a piece of paper from your pocket with a “how could I have known that unless my client is telling the truth” line to the jury is the stuff of Magician School, not Advocacy School. 

So let me break the rule immediately. Let me tell you one of my favourite war stories. And I do so because it perfectly encapsulates the little bit of advice that I want to get across in this blog. It is a totally true story. I am not one of the advocates involved but I was in court and witnessed it first hand. 

There was once a PCMH, that is the hearing at which the defendant enters his plea and the advoactes tell the Judge a little bit about the case (such as which witnesses are going to be called, how long the trial will last, what matters of law can be anticipated). In fact, this was so long ago it may have been a PDH. The modern amongst you will now know it as a PTPH. But let us get over that initial detail and get on with the story. 

The case that was before the court involved a man who objected to his neighbours. He particularly objected to the children, a boy and a girl. He took the greatest offence at the boy and the girl repeatedly kicking their ball into his garden. This much, I discovered, was agreed between the Prosecution and the Defence as I listened to the PCMH meandering onwards. The issue in the case was simply this – the defendant said he had intended to shoot the ball with his air rifle and that it was an accident that he had in fact shot a child….or two. They were only flesh wounds, you will be glad to know. But the Prosecution said that he had intended that which had happened, a pellet in a buttock of each transgressing child. 

The trial was fixed for the following September and the necessary orders were made. A PCMH that had proved a brief distraction from the usual diet of burglaries and tenner bags of heroin was about to conclude. With everything done and dusted the defence barrister (who shall remain nameless and is no longer an advocate in this jurisdiction) got to his feet and addressed the Judge;

“Your Honour, with them being neighbours and all that, it is within my client’s certain knowledge that the complainant family, his neighbours, as it were, are due to emigrate to Australia in June, and that being the case, may I invite my learned friend to consider at an early opportunity the viability of the prosecution that is going to be without a single witness to events come September and that the prosecution take an early view of this matter so as not to prolong the suffering and anxiety of my lay client….”

Which goes down in history as the greatest own goal in advocacy I have ever witnessed. Prosecution counsel immediately got to his feet, thanked his learned friend for that piece of information and invited the court to bring the case forward to before the anticipated departure to Australia. Which the Judge duly did. 

This truly snatched a defeat from the jaws of a certain victory. This hearing took place so long ago that, not only is the defence barrister now overseas, the Judge has passed away and the prosecution barrister is no longer practising, but this was the days before video links and easy admissibility of hearsay evidence in criminal trials. You can tell how long ago it was by the fact that both sides were represented by barristers in independent practice.

The absence of videolinks to foreign climes and trials in the absence of witnesses means that, had the defence barrister kept his powder dry there was a prospect that his client would be acquitted in the September. As it was, he was tried in the May. Sadly I do not know the outcome. 

This war story illustrates one of my advocacy bugbears and the reason why I am right to condemn it. Just because you are an advocate it does not mean you have to go about advocating all the time. There are many instances when the greatest advocacy you undertake is what you do not say. Many of my finest hours in court have been the times when I have got what I wanted by saying very little. 

The enemy of good advocacy is the advocate who likes the sound of their own voice. There are times when it is just tiresome, the advocate who has nothing to add to the hearing but wants the client or the solicitor to see them doing their bit. Tiresome can, however, also be troublesome. Pointless advocacy can often turn the mind of the listener, the Judge or the Jury, against the advocate who drones on. If you say twenty pointless things, it is difficult to spot the one pearl of wisdom that you hit upon. This is where Ronan Keating and I have something in common, you say it best when you say nothing at all.

It is also a case of “loose talk costs lives”. The advocate who feels the need to add their two penneth when the victory has already been secured does nothing but risk undoing that victory. Whether it be the question too far in cross-examination or further submissions to a Judge who is with you, all you are doing is risking that which you have gained. You can have no idea, until it happens to you, how frustrating it is for your co-accused counsel to let the other side back in because they feel the need to have their say. 

If you have nothing to add, then keep your bum firmly on the seat. 

And the story of the over sharing advocate that I have just told you shows the value of patience. The value of not saying something until you have thought it through. The value of keeping your powder dry. A brilliant point can be the worst point, dependent upon when the point is made. Trying to keep your advocacy concise and economical is not only good advice for advocacy that is easy to listen to, it is also a good discipline to ensure that your advocacy is the result of proper judgement, not just a desire to be heard. 

All advocates should, in reality, like the sound of our own voice. But only when you are hitting the right notes. And never, never, just for the sake of it.