How to survive pupillage

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As the new pupils settle in, Daniel Sokol offers his views on the challenges of pupillage

Final-year medical students in the UK spend several weeks shadowing the most junior doctor in a hospital – the ‘F1’ – to get a sense of life as a doctor. 


They experience the mundane (filling in forms) to the sublime (attending ‘crash’ calls and performing cardio-pulmonary resuscitation). There is no such training for those about to embark on pupillage. The mini-pupillages that most pupils have completed prior to starting are not truncated pupillages but a sanitised glimpse of life as a tenant.

Indeed – as the experiences in this article show on p 16 – every pupillage is different, even within the same set. Behaving in a certain way in one chambers, with one supervisor, may be ill-advised in another chambers with a different supervisor. When conducting the research for Pupillage Inside Out, for example, one pupil told me: ‘My supervisor told me that he does not like to speak on the train, so I knew where I stood, but I know of other pupils who felt very awkward on train journeys.’ Former pupils are a good source of information on such sensitive matters.

Areas of anxiety

There are two primary areas of worry for pupils. The first concerns the quality of their work (both written work and their advocacy in the second six); the second the social aspects of life in chambers. Both areas require pupils to be adaptable. I remember a supervisor being most upset when I included a separate section on ‘The Law’ in an advice: ‘The solicitor couldn’t care less about all this!’ Yet this was the preferred structure of a previous supervisor, who insisted on a distinct ‘law’ section. There are many more anecdotes involving the use of Latin in pleadings (seriatim, inter alia, etc), the choice of font, the length of pleadings, and so on. Again, a little detective work – or simply asking the supervisor or requesting barrister for precedents (unless warned against this by someone in the know) – can minimise the likelihood of such unfair rebukes.

Essential qualities

The two most important intellectual qualities for the pupil are probably attention to detail and sound judgement. Pupils must develop an inordinate concern for accuracy, again both in their written work and oral advocacy. Pupils, as budding barristers, must also ‘stick their neck out’ when giving their advice and resist the temptation to write an academic essay. Most pupils can expect to be plagued by this disquieting thought on submission of their work: ‘I hope I haven’t messed this up.’ This thought sadly persists until enough experience is obtained to extinguish it. With regard to creating relationships in chambers, pupils must learn to get on with everyone, from the head of chambers to the most junior clerk.

The chameleon and rhinoceros

A successful pupil has the adaptability of a chameleon and the skin of a rhinoceros. All pupils will make mistakes in the course of their pupillage. Mistakes should be seen as opportunities to improve and criticism by a supervisor should, as a general rule, be accepted graciously. Pupils should not panic or become disheartened if they make a mistake. A mistake is seldom fatal and, as the astronaut Chris Hadfield has observed, there is no problem so bad you can’t make it worse.

A call to supervisors

Pupil supervisors are now briefed by the Inns on how to be good supervisors. Whether the ‘classroom lessons’ are translated into practice is another matter. Supervisors, and barristers who ask pupils to do work, could usefully pause to remember what they were like as pupils and to apply the ‘golden rule’: treat pupils as they would have wanted to be treated. For all but the saintly, this is easier said than done and requires conscious effort.

A final word of advice

Perhaps the best piece of advice for any pupil is the one commonly given to a couple just before the wedding day: remember to enjoy it. You have obtained a coveted pupillage. You have passed all the exams and the selection process. You are good enough to be there. Make the most of it.

Contributor Daniel Sokol, 12 King’s Bench Walk, and co-author of Pupillage Inside Out: How to Succeed as a Pupil Barrister (Sweet & Maxwell)

LOOKING BACK:TIPS FOR GETTING THROUGH PUPILLAGE

Joseph Switalski: the one-year job interview

Pupillage is a testing period for anyone. As my supervisor said on my first day, this is the only profession in the world cruel enough to give you a one-year job interview.

The problem, of course, is that in this year, you develop friendships and understandings like you would in any workplace. Knowing how to be professional without constantly having your guard up is key – how can members of chambers possibly vote in your favour if they have not had the opportunity to get to know you?

My biggest tip would be to try to adopt an attitude where you are always looking forward to the next challenge. There will be pieces of work you feel you could have handled better and conversations where you worry you may have said the wrong thing. Dwelling on those moments will achieve nothing. In my experience, the majority of members of chambers can remember what it was like to be a pupil and are sympathetic to your position. They want to see you excel and know you are unlikely to be the polished final product from day one.

Practising in family law does pose particular challenges for pupils, for example preventing yourself from becoming overwhelmed by the subject matter at hand. For many clients, there is nothing more important than their case: it can concern their children or the entirety of their assets. As their legal representative, it is critical that you maintain your objectivity.

A colleague and a friend compared this job to seeing a specialist medical professional. You would not want them to give you good news just for the sake of it. What you are after is expertise. I think it’s important to remember that when practising at the junior end.

George Symes: the employed Bar

The main ‘top tip’ for employed barristers is not to let comments such as ‘Well, it’s not a real pupillage, is it?’ affect you. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Almost all employed barristers will have advocacy opportunities nowadays; the main concern from those outside the employed Bar. Don’t let people talk your pupillage down, just because they choose a more traditional route. So what are the insider tips?

  1. As an employed barrister, you will be working very closely with those instructing you. Use this to your advantage for networking. It can make your life so much easier.
  2. Take advantage of the training and events. In-house barristers at solicitors’ firms, and barristers in government departments (GLD, BEIS, HRMC, CPS etc) will have access to the training budgets which might not be offered as readily at chambers.
  3. Try to work on the big cases – don’t be intimidated, go for it.
  4. Organise your paperwork for the Bar Standards Board (BSB) as soon as possible.
  5. Keep your pupillage diary up to date, work out which checklist(s) you need to complete, and keep your (very busy) supervisor informed of everything.
  6. Know the difference between being qualified in the eyes of the BSB, and being qualified in the eyes of your employer: this could be different, given some places have their own training schemes.

Alice de Coverley: clerks are your rock

The relationship you have with your clerks is fundamental to a good self-employed practice. They will be your rock throughout pupillage, but more importantly your future career at the Bar.

During pupillage and beyond, be reliable, be punctual and above all, be communicative. Ensure that you contact the clerk who allocated you a hearing with the result of it, especially if this means you will be available again that afternoon for more work, but also so they can keep an eye on your progress. If you cannot get through to your solicitors about your hearing the next day, tell your clerks. If you are moving house, have a doctor’s appointment or have suffered a bereavement, tell your clerks. If they do not know, they cannot help you. But pick your time wisely; clerking teams at criminal sets, for instance, will be particularly hard at work between around 4-6 pm every day.

As a pupil, you need to be receptive to work given to you by your clerks. You cannot be fastidious, only nudging, but do discuss with them the kind of work you would like to observe in your first six. Let them know your prior experience, as well; if you have been working in a specialist law firm prior to pupillage for example. Talk to them about any connections you have in the legal sector. Towards the end of my second six, I was able to speak more openly with my clerks about the direction I wanted to go in but maintained that I would do whatever I was given. As a result, I was given many opportunities to step right outside my comfort zone.

Be present too – the days you are not in court, go into the clerks’ room and say good morning. Let them know you are there. Equally, you may have a range of practice managers, marketing managers and even a CEO working in your chambers. Ensure that you form lasting relationships with these individuals, who each bring vital skills to the table. Those relationships are just as, if not more, important to your career than those you will create with other members of chambers.

WHERE TO GO FOR ADVICE IF THINGS DON’T WORK OUT AS YOU HOPED

Bar Council Pupils' Helpline

Tel/email: Dominique Smith 020 7092 6802 or DSmith@BarCouncil.org.uk; Onyeka Onyekwelu 020 7611 1323 or OOnyekwelu@BarCouncil.org.uk

The Bar Council runs a confidential advice service just for pupils. There may be occasions where you want or need to speak to someone outside of chambers, for an objective perspective on ethical or professional issues. Contact can be made, anonymously if wished, by email or telephone. The Bar Council will put pupils who wish to discuss a problem in confidence in contact with an appropriate adviser.

Bar Council Equality and Diversity Helpline

Tel: 020 7611 1320

The Bar Council also offers a confidential equality and diversity helpline to all pupils and members of the Bar. Advice can be sought about any equality and diversity, parental leave or harassment issue.

LawCare

Tel: 0800 279 6888

LawCare is a free and completely confidential advisory service to help all lawyers, their immediate families and their staff to deal with the health issues and related emotional difficulties that can result from a stressful career in the law. LawCare operates through five helplines which are open: 9am–7.30pm, Monday to Friday and 10am–4pm, Saturday and Sunday.

The Young Bar Toolkit

The Young Bar Toolkit resource is written by members of the Bar Council’s Young Barristers’ Committee, with input from solicitors, fellow barristers, pupil supervisors and clerks, and from Bar Council staff. It is designed for barristers, including pupils, in the early years of practice and provides a wealth of useful information on: building and managing a practice; the self-employed Bar; financial affairs, accounting and tax for the self-employed Bar; the employed Bar; wellbeing and work/life balance; pupillage and how to get it.

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Daniel Sokol

Daniel is a tenant at 12kbw and a former university lecturer in medical ethics and law. He is the co-author of Pupillage Inside Out. He specialises in clinical negligence and personal injury. He is also an accomplished close-up magician.