2020 pupils, how are you doing?

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What are the key concerns of incoming pupils during the pandemic and how are they coping? Advice for chambers, the 2020 cohort and prospective pupils

By Adiba Bassam and Shina Animashaun 


In September and October this year a cohort of new pupils commenced pupillage. While Twitter and LinkedIn showed accounts of excited pupils embarking upon pupillage – many of whom have waited years for this opportunity – there are also concerns and apprehension at starting such an important 12-16 months of your career during a pandemic.

As such, we decided to speak to some of the incoming pupils to see how they are finding pupillage during a global pandemic and list some of the worries they had in mind. This may also assist chambers in anticipating what to look out for and prepare for, to alleviate such concerns. The concerns can broadly be divided into the following categories:

Exposure to cases

The common concern is that while pupils may be shadowing some cases in-person, they are not able to see trials or attend hearings freely due to restrictions on the number of people allowed in the courtrooms and cases being relisted/postponed. In terms of remote hearings, for example, technical difficulties may disrupt shadowing and learning cross-examination is difficult over a screen/telephone.

Building relationships with members of chambers

Some of the pupils who have started pupillage are wondering how to get to know other members of chambers when no one is attending chambers including themselves. Pupils are worried that if they are not seen in chambers and not forging relationships with others, it may affect their prospects of tenancy. Also, in chambers it is common to discuss cases and get advice from others, which is harder to access remotely.

Tenancy/retention

Even at the start of pupillage, it is understandable for pupils to think about tenancy and worry about the future. The apprehension is that pupils may not be kept on at the conclusion of pupillage as chambers may feel that they do not have enough work to expand. There is also a concern that during pupillage, pupils are not able to ‘prove themselves’ to their best ability which may affect retention.

Third sixes

At present there are not as many third sixes being advertised, which means that those pupils who are not taken on are left in a difficult position.

Addressing these worries

Exposure to cases

As of 21 October, there were 107 listed trials across all Circuits. Hopefully, a few members of your chambers will have started trials. Co-pupils can ask the pupillage committee if pupils can rotate attendance at the trial, creating a rota which permits each of you to see various elements of a trial. If you are the only pupil, then you have a better chance of seeing a substantive case.

As a pupil, you not only have the opportunity to virtually attend multiple hearings a day, you can also observe different advocacy styles within the same day, which in turn can assist in forging and improving your own advocacy style. This will enable you to see various types of contested hearings and expose you to various members of chambers.

Building relationships with members of chambers

In many industries and sectors, companies have had to adjust during these times to ensure that new joiners feel welcomed and connected. Chambers should be doing the same. During the lockdown, chambers have organised virtual socials and inter-chambers quizzes. It is incumbent on chambers to be creative here, to ensure pupils are welcomed and have ample opportunities to connect, even if only virtually for now.

Some chambers and Bar associations are running a buddy system whereby you are ‘buddied’ up with a junior member of chambers who can support you as well. You can also set up a meeting with your supervisor to discuss:

  • what you can do to get to know members of chambers;
  • the areas of practice you are interested in – ask who does those practice areas in chambers and perhaps your supervisor can arrange for you to go to court with them as well;
  • whether you can have regular catch-up calls with your supervisor to assess how pupillage is going;
  • whether there are any projects in chambers that you can assist with as a pupil or write articles on any current issues/cases.

Ultimately, it is about creating a plan to ensure you are in a position to obtain tenancy regardless of the impact of the pandemic.

Tenancy/retention

It is understandable to be concerned that the pandemic may harm your prospects of becoming tenants. Despite the impact of the pandemic on various practice areas, pupils are securing tenancy. As a demonstration of hope, and taking the opportunity to congratulate newly made tenants, a number of chambers have recently put out announcements.

Many of these new tenants will have started their second six during the pandemic, and despite the impact it had on getting on their feet, they found ways to prove themselves and secure tenancy. Almost all of them will have assisted members of chambers with their cases, many of them wrote articles for chambers blogs, and some chaired or spoke on webinars. Your competency as a barrister can be demonstrated in various ways. Even if you do not secure tenancy at chambers, there are still opportunities to succeed elsewhere.

Opportunities for third sixes

It is worth remembering that chambers benefit from having third sixes, even during the pandemic. Many chambers have no financial responsibility towards third sixes, as such there is less of a cash flow risk to taking on third sixes than there is with pupils.

In terms of recruitment, those who wish to apply for third sixes should regularly check vacancies on the Bar Council website. If there is a chambers you are interested in and it appears they are not advertising, you should send a speculative email to their tenancy committee.

Applying for pupillage 2020-2021

With the worries that current pupils have, a prospective pupil may be even more concerned about applying for pupillage, securing pupillage and then tenancy. This article has hopefully demonstrated that while this is a new way of working, it is possible to still highlight your skills as a barrister in creative ways and secure tenancy or third sixes. It is a profession still worth applying for.

While there may be fewer pupillage slots available in this upcoming round, see it as an opportunity to really tailor your applications. Year in, year out pupillage committees reject applicants because their applications read generically or mention an area of law that the set does not practise. Having (perhaps) fewer options may give more focus to your applications.

One way to ensure that your application stands out, and is tailored to the set you are applying to, is to create a document setting out all the chambers you have applied to with some key details about each of them. For example: head of chambers, area(s) of law, notable cases in the past year, anything interesting from their social media/website and why you would fit this particular chambers well. Have a look at the work they are known for. Are the clientele diverse or international? Do you speak languages that could assist? It is also worth remembering that sometimes the most interesting thing you can say about yourself can be non-law related and there is nothing wrong with that. We wish the best of luck to current and prospective pupils! 

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Adiba Bassam

Adiba Bassam is a barrister at 3 Dr Johnson’s Buildings practising family law (private and public children and financial remedies).

Shina Animashaun

Shina Animashaun is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, practising in crime (general, international, and white collar), financial services regulation, and professional discipline.