Finding your feet


Never be afraid to ask for help – and more time. When Counsel grilled recent pupils about their scariest first experiences, a common theme soon emerged…

First-day-on-my-feet fears

Aadhithya Anbahan, St Ives Chambers
"Advocacy is a living, breathing beast and no amount of preparation can fully anticipate what the courtroom might throw at you"

I can unequivocally say that the worst fear I felt during pupillage, happened on the first day I spent on my feet. Having prepared the life out of the case before the hearing, I was feeling somewhat sure of myself. I held a conference with my delightful client before going into court; it all seemed swell. I managed to get through opening my case and tendering my witness all with minimal stumbling.

What I did not anticipate is by question four of a relaxed cross-examination by my opponent, was for my client to entirely crumble and give evidence wholly contrary to pretty much everything that the hearing was supposed to be about.

To this day, I can remember the creeping tentacles of nausea and panic as she gave one answer after another that unravelled the case and disparaged the conduct of her solicitors. I had zero experience for this and no idea what the implications were, but it was my job to bail out this sinking ship.

One thing that all young advocates have to realise early: there is absolutely no embarrassment in asking for time. I would love to tell you that I had the brains to ask for time after my opponent’s cross in that first hearing, but in fact it was the district judge who saw my predicament and kindly suggested that I might wish to ‘consider the claimant’s position and take some instructions’ prior to any re-examination.

That time allowed me to make panicked calls to members of chambers who set me on the right path. It allowed me to take instructions. It allowed me to negotiate with my opponent. As a result, I was able to escape the case with the claim simply dismissed as opposed to a potentially astronomical costs order against the claimant.

It was not a glorious day by any means, but what it served to teach me was the importance of not being afraid to acknowledge the problems your case might have and ask for the time in which you might remedy them. Advocacy is a living, breathing beast and no amount of preparation can fully anticipate what the courtroom might throw at you. Breathe, try not to panic and remember: time is your closest ally.

No lifeline: first prison visit

Alex Cisneros, No5 Chambers
"To calm my nerves as I walked through the prison, I used a technique that had served me well in pupillage interviews"

My scariest first experience in pupillage was going to a prison for the first time. I was representing a client for his parole board hearing on the Isle of Wight. These hearings are where parole panels, often made up of lay people, determine whether a prisoner is ready to be released or moved to a less secure prison.

Usually in pupillage you are encouraged to pick up the phone and call a more senior member of chambers if you get stuck. For this reason, my phone became a sort of security blanket during my second six. (I’m only now developing a healthy relationship with it.) However, mobile phones are not allowed in prisons, nor are computers or smart watches. I felt very exposed without my lifeline to other members of chambers. However, I knew that I could ask the panel for a break if I needed time to consider an issue.

To calm my nerves as I walked through the prison, I used a technique that had served me well in pupillage interviews. I focused on three objects that I could see, listened for two things that I could hear and noticed at least one smell. This is, apparently, a mindfulness technique and seems to work for me.

The hearing is structured in much the same way as most civil trials. I found that explaining the process to the client before we went into the hearing helped to calm me down and convince myself that I knew what I was about to do. The client eventually got what he wanted and, as we had our debrief conference, he showed me pictures of the quilts that he had made.

The advice I would give to any pupils starting out would be that you are not alone. Everyone feels nervous at the beginning and you should not be afraid to ask for help from other members of chambers. Running through your submissions before you do them for real can do wonders for your confidence and nerves.

The experience of going into prisons continues to be surreal, but I now know what to expect.

Trial nerves: help not hindrance

Joanne Kane, Carmelite Chambers
"In time, I learned that two things are in your control as a pupil: (i) punctuality and (ii) case preparation. After that, you can only do your best"

No pupillage experience was more nerve-racking, or more memorable, than my first trial. After a couple of weeks on my feet, I had been prepared to start a trial on a number of occasions, only to find that it could not proceed. This case, however, would be heard.

On that day, although I was nervous, I was aware of the support network that was around me. My supervisor was at the other end of the phone at all times, my former supervisors were always willing to help, and other members of chambers treated calls from pupils with kindness. I knew that I could call someone if I needed to discuss an issue, which was always reassuring, and this gave me confidence at my first trial.

During pupillage, it is very important to speak to other people. My supervisor provided me with a fresh perspective on my cases and we discussed the outcome of every hearing, which provided me with encouragement and advice for handling future cases. I also benefitted from speaking to other pupils as we experienced similar issues at the same time.

In time, I learned that two things are in your control as a pupil: (i) punctuality and (ii) case preparation. After that, you can only do your best.

In retrospect, I wish that I had known that my nerves before my first trial were normal. Having spoken to senior barristers who claim that they are still nervous at court, I have learned that being slightly nervous assists your overall performance. Nerves are always there, so try to view them as a help, rather than a hindrance.

Roll with it: expect the unexpected

Georgina Blower, Farringdon Chambers
"Both types of hearing are usually straightforward, but in my inexperienced mind I felt like I had been sent for a double murder at the Old Bailey"

So the day arrives! Your first time in court without your supervisor and the culmination of years of hard work. My first appearance in court (many years ago now) was at Hatfield Magistrates’ Court on a Saturday for what should have been a straightforward case. Like every pupil, I was both petrified and ecstatic with the anticipation. I had been informed the day before that the case was a breach of bail allegation, so I spent the whole evening swotting up. Feeling prepared, I trotted off to court only to be met by the horrible realisation that the case was, in fact, a breach of community order instead; something I had not prepared for and had not seen before. In fact, both types of hearing are usually straightforward, but in my inexperienced mind I felt like I had been sent for a double murder at the Old Bailey. To make matters worse, there was an enormous delay serving papers and I did not receive mine until the entire morning list had finished and everyone was waiting just for me. I ransacked my phone looking for anyone who would pick up the phone early on a Saturday morning. Thankfully, my wonderful colleague, Kate, guided me through the process and gave me some much needed moral support.

What I learned very quickly was to expect the unexpected. The cases that seem straightforward can have unpredictable difficulties. The case you think is at Willesden Magistrates’ Court may be somewhere else entirely, the offence may not be the one you expected and the client, who was delightful the last time you met, may perhaps be the toughest you have ever dealt with. I’ve also learned that nerves are to be expected and are really a sign that you have the desire to get things right. Never worry about asking for help, especially with your more junior colleagues who will routinely encounter the same issues. The magistrates’ court is a great place to cut your teeth and make your mistakes without the visibility and pressure of the Crown court. Try and enjoy it and be kind to yourself. Good luck!

Fear no more those surprises

Alice de Coverley, 3PB
"Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages"

Towards the end of my pupillage, I found myself getting married, and I opted to get the words ‘Fear No More’ engraved on the inside of my wedding band. The full wording is ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, nor the furious winter’s rages’, the first line of a song from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Act IV, Scene 2. It seemed fitting, during the finale of my 12-month experience, to mark the occasion, through this little line that I had loved since school.

The play, Cymbeline, is rather famous for having an excruciatingly complicated plot; not dissimilar from trying to untangle all the facts from your pupil supervisor’s 19-day trial. This ditty is actually a funeral song, sung by two boys over what they believed to be the dead body of another boy. The dead boy is, in fact, neither a boy nor dead, but the daughter of the king, dressed up in disguise.

This is rather apt, in itself, when comparing to starting out at the Bar. You can turn up to court and be startled to find out, contrary to your instructions, that the client you thought you were representing as the claimant was in fact the defendant all along. Or that your client is dead, bankrupt, dishonest, someone you knew from university, your next-door neighbour, or perhaps has a knife concealed in their handbag – which they somehow got past security – ready to use on you and the judge. Dealing with surprises has become far easier, given that I no longer expect anything to be straightforward. Our Code of Conduct reminds barristers to be fearless in representing clients, and I suppose I carry that useful reminder around with me always.

Author details: 
Georgina Blower

Georgina is a criminal barrister at Farringdon Chambers and a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.

Joanne Kane

Joanne is a barrister at Carmelite Chambers with a wide-ranging practice in criminal law.

Alex Cisneros

Alex is a barrister at No5 Barristers’ Chambers specialising in public law.

Alice de Coverley

Alice has a busy civil practice at 3PB, including Education, Property, Commercial and Personal Injury law. She is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.

Aadhithya Anbahan

Aadhithya Anbahan has a housing and regulatory practice at St Ives Chambers appearing in the High Court, circuit courts, district courts and magistrates’ courts.