Gritty truths: a letter to my younger pupil-self

Dear Baby SB...


First and foremost, congratulations on getting pupillage! The hardest part is over. Having made it to this stage, you are in the enviable position of being primed and ready to be unleashed in court, leaving rivals quivering, juries weeping and judges applauding as your soaring oratory redefines the concept of advocacy.

That’s what you wanted to hear, right?

Well here’s some news for you, buddy. To channel Brian Clough, you – and all your fellow pupils – can take that glowing sense of achievement and barely concealed self-congratulation and chuck it into the biggest effing dustbin you can find. Because it counts for absolutely nothing now you are a pupil.

Nobody cares how decorated a mooter or debater you were at law school. No one is going to fawn over your degree classification or pat you on the back for making it so far in such a ruthlessly competitive industry. And nobody is going to make this easy for you. The hard work, I’m afraid, very much starts here.

And I don’t mean to sound, well, mean. When I started writing this letter four minutes ago, I had in my mind something evoking Baz Luhrmann’s The Sunscreen Song. A casserole of home-spun, kindly wisdoms, set to gentle strings and woodwind, beginning with an exhortation to ‘wear sunscreen, as the benefits of sunscreen are proven by science, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience’, and concluding on a poetically satisfying repeat of that same counsel. But I don’t think that that actually does you any favours. I think there is a tendency, for all our pretence at plain-speaking, for the Bar to shield prospective entrants from the gritty truths about life as a pupil. Certainly, I’m afraid to say that you in particular, my sweet summer child, are about to crash headfirst into an unforgiving wall of reality. So please take this advice in the spirit it is intended; my well-meaning attempt at, if not cushioning, at least preparing you for, the inevitable collision.

To start with, it’s important that you hear this and internalise it: You know nothing. In your first six, and well into your second six, you are not going to be good at this job. Some days you will be absolutely terrible. Nobody is a born barrister. Not even you, despite all those plays you were in at school and all those teachers who told you what a smashing public speaker you were. The Bar is something very different. And while Bar school and first six lay the bare foundations, nothing can fully prepare you for that first day on your feet, when the entire responsibility of a case – often the climactic day in somebody’s life, where their future, even liberty, is at stake – weighs on your shoulders as chaos reigns around you.

So make your peace with that fact. It’s going to be harder than you can possibly imagine. But you will improve quickly. Quicker than perhaps you realise at the time. There will be mistakes, big and small, you will irritate judges and colleagues with your naivety and inexperience, and some days will feel like one never-ending humiliation. This, while painful, is natural. As long as you are learning each time you stumble, you are heading in the right direction. At the end of each day, ask yourself ‘what could I have done better?’ There should always be an answer. If there’s not, ask yourself again.

The key to minimising those stumbles is simple: ask questions. Swallow your pride. You’re new at this; that’s OK. Contrary to what nice people tell you, there are such things as stupid questions, and you will ask plenty of them. But this is how you will learn. It’s how we all learn. Your pupil supervisor and colleagues in chambers will be your greatest resource. Get as many mobile numbers as you can, and use them. Anybody who feigns irritation is a hypocrite; they did this too. In any case, most of the things that stump you initially will be practical, not legal. None of the problems that you, Baby SB, will encounter on your first day on your feet, have their answers in textbooks. Dealing with a drunk defendant-in-person; being confronted by an ID-less ‘interpreter’ insistent that you allow him five minutes alone with a defendant in the cells; the magistrates keeping you in court so late that the car park shuts with your car inside it. Ninety-nine per cent of your education will be born of experience.

"If this all sounds like a counsel of despair, it isn’t. Because in spite all of the hardships, you are about to embark on the ride of a lifetime."

As you progress, place trust in your judgement. You will assume – often correctly – that your judge, opponent or solicitor knows more than you. But don’t automatically defer. You are a qualified lawyer, and there is an outside chance that you may, on occasion, be right. If, having researched a point, you believe you are correct, say so. You are paid for your opinion, not merely to agree with people. Don’t mistake confidence and a posh accent for intellectual heft or integrity. There are many brilliant people in the legal profession. But there are also some who have coasted through life on an Atkins diet of self-belief and braggadocio. Don’t be intimidated.

You will, on at least one occasion, be encouraged to do something unethical. Lie to the court; withhold disclosure; accept a bribe. These shouldn’t happen, but all will crop up in your first few years. You know the right answer. Be strong enough to give it.

On this theme, don’t be pressured into accepting work beyond your ability. Every practitioner should challenge themselves, and no pupil likes to say no; but if you’re accepting a rape trial in your second six, something has gone very wrong. If you’re nervous about confronting your clerks as a pupil, your supervisor should be your shield.

You may be tempted on occasion to bullshit. Don’t. Everyone you deal with professionally – fellow counsel, solicitors and judges – has a lifetime’s experience of spivs and charlatans. You will be found out. It will not end well. If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it. Accept that you should have known it, and undertake to find the answer. Reputations, once earned, are hard to unmake. If you are kind and honest with people, they will forgive the inevitable errors you will make as you grow. ‘A bit green with a lot to learn’ is a whisper you can shake off with experience; ‘sharp and untrustworthy’ sticks to your gown like chewed bubblegum.

If you are doing well, you probably won’t know it. You will rarely get positive feedback. If affirmation is important to you, turn back now. Clients will walk out of court following your improbable victory without so much as waving at you. If you prosecute, the CPS will not so much as acknowledge (let alone pay for) the advice you spent eight hours researching and crafting. Judges will demand you prepare lengthy, gratis skeleton arguments and written openings, and then proceed the next day without even reading them. When you do receive thanks or praise, treasure it and hold it close to sustain you through the lean times.

Your personal life, I’m afraid, is going to take a bashing, at least at first. Get used to cancelling plans at late notice. You are going to be that person from now on. You will also grow accustomed to having even less money than you did as a student. It takes at least six months until anything approaching a regular income stream begins to dribble through your accounts, and most of your first year in practice will be spent building up your aged debt, a large chunk of which you’ll never see. The bargain aisle at Tesco is your friend. Go just before 7pm and the yellow-stickered discounted produce will yield some absolute bargains. I recommend the full-size children’s birthday cakes.

If this all sounds like a counsel of despair, it isn’t. Because in spite all of the hardships, you are about to embark on the ride of a lifetime. There is simply no other job like it. It’s why, for all of our complaining, we are still here. You will have the privilege of being surrounded by some of the most brilliant people you will ever meet. Learn as much as you can from being in their company. Pick at their brains and gobble up their advice.

Perch at robing room tables and listen. Enjoy the camaraderie and learn the politics; it may not make much sense at the start, but you’ll be part of the scene one day. See how people negotiate and charm their opponents. You’ll see some of the very best out-of-court advocacy at play. You will also witness some of the worst. Learn from all of it. If you happen to be in the crown court in a busy list, just sit and observe. Absorb the graceful elegance of silks and senior juniors as they joust with judges. Marvel at their fearlessness as they bat away judicial barbs; see how they concede when they need to and how they fight when they have to. That confidence, that ease – that will be you one day. But not yet.

Get to know your fellow pupils and junior tenants. You will need them. Share in their victories, commiserate in their defeats, and tell each other what nobody else will – You’re Doing Fine. It Will Be OK. It may be all-consuming, it may be everything you’ve spent your life working towards, but ultimately, it is just a job. Other things – friends, family, health, happiness – matter more.

Finally, it is a cliché, but you absolutely must be nice to the court staff. I know you’ve heard it a hundred times before, but you will be shocked by how many barristers – senior and junior – snap and bark at clerks and ushers as if they’re The Help. They’re not; the court staff are ones who keep those places running. They are the most important people in the building. What’s more, they talk. They have nicknames for us. Make sure yours is one of the nice ones.

And this, I think is the best advice I can offer, handed as it was to me by one of the kindest and wisest barristers I know: Be kind to people. You will rarely if ever be the best barrister in the courtroom. That is not in your gift. But it is within your power to be the nicest. Smile, be courteous, swallow your irritation and remember that ultimately we’re all on the same side; just doing our best to keep the rickety justice system on the rails for one more day.

Oh, and trust me on the sunscreen.

Yours,

SB

The Secret Barrister is a junior barrister specialising in criminal law and blogs at thesecretbarrister.com. SB’s debut novel Stories of The Law and How It’s Broken is a Sunday Times No. 1 Bestseller and Winner of the Books are My Bag Non-Fiction Award.

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The Secret Barrister

Winner of Independent Blogger of the Year in the 2017 and 2016 Comment Awards, the Secret Barrister is a junior barrister specialising in criminal law and blogs at thesecretbarrister.com.