A year in the life of a pupil

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You’ve spent years preparing for this moment and it’s finally arrived. So what to expect? Lachlan Stewart reflects on an unprecedented year as a pupil and how to own – and enjoy – it

First six

Day 1. Is it still in the same place as the interviews? I know I double-checked last night but it is perfectly possible they will have moved the entire chambers overnight. It is certainly more likely than me getting pupillage. Will I be struck by lightning on the way there? Will they email me once I get on the bus to tell me there has been a mistake?

Fortunately, all the above turned out to be nonsense. I walked through the front door and our exceptionally friendly receptionist greeted me and told me to take a seat. Below are some of my reflections on the 11 months that followed.

I was initially a bit concerned at the prospect of the pupil-supervisor relationship. A good chunk of six months seemed a serious amount of time to spend with one person (in any capacity, let alone professionally!). However, like many of the other quirky traditions of the Bar, you soon get very comfortable with it. It helps that everyone around you has been through the process and knows what it is like.

Having settled in with my supervisor, I was initially reticent to spend any time without her. Your supervisor is your life raft in a sea of confusion. I had asked for my first six supervisor to be a public family law specialist. Bar school had taught me next to nothing about family law and procedure. Contrary to what the civil Bar might say, there is plenty to learn about both. This probably added a bit of stress at the beginning. In response to this, I changed my mindset. I focused on commending myself for the crumbs of understanding I was acquiring rather than fretting about the mountain that remained.

The reality of the beginning of first six, which they don’t say on the (wig) tin, is that I spent a lot of my time at court feeling like I was a spare part. I was. You will be too. Your job is to observe, absorb and take a note. When I spoke to my friends outside of the profession, they would equate pupillage with me triumphing in courtroom battles and striving for justice like Atticus Finch. The reality was far different.

This is in sharp contrast to my supervisor – who was actually winning courtroom battles. However, at that point, I genuinely could not have done any more. My supervisor had been at the Bar since before I was born. I had been a pupil since her September mini-break. I think this dynamic gave me a slight sense of guilt. When I was eventually properly useful to her, it felt fantastic. In my mind it signified my own progress.

My Chambers is big on internal training exercises. This prospect caused me no alarm: at Bar school I had become accustomed to good feedback and the reassuring gaze of my classmates. Cut to 5.30pm, on a Monday night, in front of five tired practitioners who perhaps may not be so impressed.

I made a fool of myself many times in the exercises. I see this as a good thing, it is an advocacy training session not an ego stroking session. That being said, everyone is there because they want to help you and progress is quickly made. I also continued to try and approach the hypothetical lectern with my Bar school confidence. Confidence in advocacy is a bit like swinging your arms when you run – it just makes everything else work better.

First piece of written work: I was told, not anything major, can you just look this up and give me a few sentences on it. Please avoid my naivety. As I was informed after, when it was indecorously laid out and with a few typos in it: ‘Pieces of written work are a very good opportunity to impress (or unimpress) members of Chambers.’ Format everything as you would when putting it before a judge.

First piece of proper written work: Are the legal issues actually as hard as those that I had mooted about in the past? Probably not. Did I put in twice the amount of effort and doubt myself at every turn? Probably yes.

Training events, talks and seminars: There are a lot of them. They are almost always after working hours, it will be raining and all you probably want to do is go home. You do not have to attend all of them. But I did my best to attend them if I could. This is a year of being an information sponge and you never know what you will pick up or who you will meet.

Travel: Again, there is lots of it. The cluttered way the main protagonist in the BBC drama/comedy ‘Defending the Guilty’ dashes between courts on every mode of public transport is probably its greatest accuracy.

Many musings on pupillage express the importance of getting on with your co-pupils – I endorse this submission entirely. It was great to be able to have a laugh with them at the end of a stressful day. It helps that they get it and means you don’t go home and bore those you live with.

Second six

When I first met members of Chambers they would often say, ‘If you need anything just phone me’, for which I felt grateful and reassured. I would then think, ‘Phone them for what?’ What they actually mean is, you are welcome to phone when inevitably you are unsure about something in a case of your own. This happens often. It is one of my favourite things about the Bar and what brochures mean when they describe it as ‘collegiate’. It is a system of mutual support where the inexperienced draw on the help of the experienced. Chances are that they, like you, quite enjoying chewing the fat about cases anyway.

Another thing that I was told quite a lot was that the first month on your feet will be like no other, but you will be amazed how quickly you get into the swing of things. COVID-19 has not really allowed this to happen. I have completed about half as many hearings as I would have in normal circumstances. This has meant that confidence is taking longer to build.

Another issue is that if you do not have your best day in court, there is not the comfort of having to put it behind you because you need to focus on the next case. However, I have tried to use this extra time to stew for proper critical reflection. I believe that when I get to the ‘case every day’ situation, I will be a better barrister for it.

Apart from the numerous serious reasons why I wanted to join the Bar, I also joined because I like the quirks of the profession. Unfortunately, some of these rites of passage and traditions were put on hold due to lockdown. One can easily see that for 2020 pupils this will also be the case. 2020 pupils, your pupillage year is your year. Own it. It will be different from normal, some may even call it ‘unprecedented’, but you must enjoy it because before you know it, it will be over, and you will be writing articles about it.

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Lachlan Stewart

Lachlan Stewart is a common law barrister at St Ives Chambers.