Remote hearings; deserted chambers; rare forays into real court buildings… far from ‘pupillage as usual’. This article is the first of a two-part consideration of pupillage in the pandemic and the lessons learned. It covers the experience of pupil supervisor, Chris Bryden and his pupil, Karen Staunton during her ‘first six’, the period of non-practising pupillage. The second part will consider Karen’s experiences on her feet (‘second six’).


Karen Staunton (KS): I did not have the typical first-six experience, to say the least. I started my pupillage in October 2020 at 4 King’s Bench Walk, a mixed common law set based in the Temple. London was under Tier 1 restrictions at the time. Over my first six, we had seven changes of tier, including two national lockdowns. From meeting members of Chambers, to attending court and advocacy training, everything has had to be adapted for the COVID-19 pandemic.

At my Chambers, pupils typically meet the vast majority of members at a pupillage welcome drinks party before they start. Instead, I was able to meet five members, keeping socially distanced outside, under the rule of six. There were benefits to this in that it allowed a nervous pupil who had not done any networking for six months to learn their names and areas of practice in advance. However, it has taken me a lot longer than usual to meet other members, and to settle in.

Several months on, I have now met the majority of members of Chambers, either in person or by video-call. However, as a first-six pupil with no cases of my own, I have yet to meet several of the clerks, which is extremely odd given their central role.

Chris Bryden (CB): By the time Karen started her pupillage, we had already seen the impact of the pandemic over six months. By that stage most practitioners, and at least several judges, had got to grips with remote working and the difficulties posed by the need to adapt to electronic bundles, Teams, Zoom, CVP, telephone hearings and the juggling of taking client instructions, making coherent submissions while not muted and worrying about where the next case might be coming from. I already had some experience of being a pupillage supervisor in lockdown over February to May 2020; keeping in touch and providing support by phone and WhatsApp without as much of the face to face discussion and debriefing was more of a challenge than expected.

We wanted to ensure that Karen’s pupillage experience was as close to normal as was possible, within the strictures of ever-changing tiers, lockdowns and general restrictions. Chambers is very sociable and usually fairly busy. On a ‘normal’ day civil practitioners will be working on papers at their desks or coming back from court, and criminal and family practitioners coming in and out of the building. That of course had all changed, though a number of members, including myself, have continued to travel to Chambers fairly regularly, within the terms of the COVID legislation and guidance, to do work that it is not reasonably possible to carry out at home. It was very important that we made arrangements for Karen to meet in advance of starting pupillage with the maximum of five permitted members, so that she got to know at least some of the people that she would be working with, and likely those that she would see most regularly and would be able to turn to for help. This included me as her first supervisor; her second supervisor; Head of Chambers; and a new tenant, to provide a cross-section of members. Usually, Karen would have met the vast proportion of members at a gathering designed for that purpose, and then be taken for dinner by the current pupils. Unfortunately, that was not possible, but I was pleased that we were at least able to do something.

KS: Chambers have been very accepting of the extent to which I feel comfortable going to in-person hearings at court. Luckily, neither myself nor any of my household are particularly vulnerable to COVID, and so I have been going to in-person hearings on occasion. The majority of the hearings I have attended have been by video-link or telephone.

The courts have generally been very accommodating in terms of dialling me in or ensuring I have the link to the video hearing. However, due to social distancing measures limiting the number of people who can be in one room at court, I have sometimes either not been allowed into a conference room with my supervisor and their client, or once or twice into the hearing itself. Court staff are keen to assist pupils in still gaining experience, however, and on one occasion where I was not allowed into the courtroom itself, a video-link was set up, so I could attend the hearing virtually from the next room.

Over the course of my first six, I have therefore been able to experience both in-person and remote hearings. As it seems increasingly unlikely that all hearings will return to being in person after everyone has received the vaccine, I think this has provided me with a strong basis for getting on my feet.

Attending more hearings remotely has had the benefit of saving me a lot of travel time, which members of Chambers have assured me is usually one of the most tiring aspects of pupillage. So I didn’t miss out in this respect. However, both of my pupil supervisors have made sure to give me more paperwork to fill this gap!

CB: Karen and I had a frank discussion at the commencement of her time with me about the extent to which, if at all, she was comfortable with coming into Chambers and accompanying me and others to court. (I have had only a handful of in person hearings over the last 12 months or so, but junior members have been to court more frequently, particularly in the magistrates’ courts, resulting in multiple horror stories as to the abject disregard for the safety of members of the profession and the public exhibited by the Bench and by HMCTS.) I was keen to ensure that Karen knew that there was no pressure whatsoever on her to leave home; we would make things work. However, Karen was very keen to be in Chambers as much as possible and to experience real life court. I made clear to her that if I was in Chambers she was welcome to join me there but that if I was working from home it would make sense for her to do so as well. Karen took the view that she would like to be in when I was in and, following a risk assessment of the premises, this was agreed. This has meant that Karen’s time with me has been much closer to a normal pupillage than I initially expected; we have been able to discuss cases, work on papers, and get to know each other much better than through a wholly remote pupillage.

Most courts have been welcoming to Karen and there has been general judicial recognition of the need for pupils to observe in order to learn. There have been some blips, with Karen not being allowed into court, but only one objection in a remote setting – as to the latter I am gratified that the district judge made very clear that any objection was not warranted.

KS: The most terrifying part of first-six is undoubtedly Chambers advocacy training because this is the first, and in many cases only, time the members of Chambers who will be voting on whether to give me tenancy have a chance to see my oral advocacy. During my lockdown pupillage, this training has been moved to Zoom, which has allowed members of Chambers to witness my first advocacy attempts from the comfort of their own home. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a higher number of members attending. While increasing the pressure I felt during the training exercises, this allowed me to hear feedback on my advocacy from more barristers and, perhaps most importantly, having survived this, I am sure that getting on my feet will be far less intimidating in comparison.

This has certainly been an odd time to undertake pupillage, but the hybrid of in-court and remote hearings has allowed me to experience the multiple ways in which barristers undertake advocacy in this new time. Both courts and chambers have adapted to the challenges posed by a lockdown pupillage, and there is certainly recognition that this is an unusual time to be a pupil.

CB: I have been pleasantly surprised by how normal an experience (in the circumstances) it has been possible for Karen to have. She is well-prepared to get on her feet, and has had the benefit of experiencing remote hearings as well as in-person cases. I look forward to reporting back on how her second six progresses.