Pupillage: a view during Covid-19

It's been a wildly different transition to second six than anticipated: Lachlan Stewart explains what it's like to be a pupil 'on their feet' during the pandemic

The first day of second six is often regarded as a watershed moment in one’s legal career. 

‘Present, your Honour.’ These were the first words I spoke to the judge on my first day on my feet, over a telephone and, I confess, in shorts and a T-shirt, to confirm there was a pupil shadowing one of the barristers in the hearing. 

Like pupils across the country, I have had a wildly different transition to second six than anticipated. ‘Anticipated’ is, in fact, a huge understatement. Although you are nervous and trying to play it cool, deep down you are bursting with excitement. It is like a kid counting down the days to Christmas, but this Christmas Day happens only ONCE and you have been rigorously training for it; for what feels like half your life. 

Pupils I have spoken to felt ready to put into action all the skills and knowledge they had built up over the previous six months. But how ready do they feel now? Gauging your case and your judge is something that takes years to hone. I have been taught that the judicial pen is a good guide to whether one should stop talking. Through virtual hearings much of the nuance of body language and tone of voice will be lost. Although this affects all participants, it is likely to be most detrimental to pupils, who lack the experience to make up for it.

Every area is different, but the overall picture of our work is that it is near non-existent. For crime this is almost inescapable, no matter how hard your clerks try or how brilliant your set is. With jury trials adjourned, cover is not required for Crown court hearings. Remote hearings mean that a barrister can do a hearing in Birmingham and Derby on the same day, and so have no need to send out a pupil. In addition, magistrates’ trials do not have the technology to operate remotely, nor are they a priority of the Ministry of Justice to become so. For some criminal pupils, until criminal courts re-open and are fully functional, second six will not truly begin. In response, there are plans to run mock trials to keep our advocacy skills sharp. 

For pupils in the family and civil jurisdiction, there is a slightly shaky but definite light at the end of the tunnel. Current guidance states that all fast and small claims track trials are to be adjourned. All other hearings, if the court can accommodate them, will go ahead. In the family courts, public law hearings are going ahead where possible. There has also been a gradual increase in private law and financial remedy hearings since the wholesale adjournments seen at the outset. Clearly, there is scope for our diaries to improve as courts adapt.

But one also wonders that for less serious cases, where court is arguably avoidable, will proceedings be brought if we are on lockdown? In civil matters of limited value, will there be less demand for advices and subsequent drafting of statements of case? In other words, will the well dry up by the time the courts are ready to cope? This is guesswork but is something many pupils are thinking about. 

So what does a week look like at the moment? For some, the odd hearing, but for most it is a continuation of the first six. Shadowing hearings virtually has had mixed success. In the family and civil sphere, 24 hours’ notice is usually enough to get you dialled in. Criminal courts have, so far, been a different story. However, given that the judiciary and court staff are under exceptional pressure, it is understandable that pupils are low down on the priority list. 

There is plenty of paperwork to get through. Some of this is for clients but largely for supervisors. Pupils report that the tasks they are now being set are lengthier and pose more challenging questions. COVID-19 is giving us time to really think about our work and gain a deeper understanding of the law. We are also using this time to absorb the huge amounts of changing advice and guidance being disseminated by various bodies.

The Bar, like the rest of the country, has rallied around its members. Pupils I have spoken to have been overwhelmed by the support they have been shown by their chambers. As one pupil informed me: ‘It brings home that chambers have invested in training you and want you to succeed.’ Personally, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who wanted to wish me good luck for second six. They did this knowing that I may not need the luck for a long time – sometimes the thought really does count.

Pupils report touching base with members more than they would normally. My own chambers has assigned a mentor to each member, QC to pupil. We also hold a virtual ‘Wine Friday’ for a relaxed catch up. Other sets have been holding practice area ‘pow wows’ to keep each other up to date. The Birmingham pupils also have an active group chat for sharing important Bar related info, and comparing pets and gin glasses. 

An example of this spirit is the Midland Circuit Advocacy weekend held just before the beginning of second six. This year it took place over Skype, with over 20 pupils on one call. With Michelle Heeley QC (Midlands coordinator of the advocacy weekend) and others’ perseverance we made it work. I see it as an example of how a ‘can do’ attitude will find solutions during COVID-19. 

There has been much discussion on social media about many junior barristers not being eligible to apply for self-employed assistance from the government. Pupils who I spoke to were deeply grateful for their chambers’ guaranteed earnings. The most junior tenants do not have this safety blanket and their diaries have been hurt nearly as much as ours. Some pupils have questioned whether it would be fair for them to be doing hearings instead of these very junior tenants. 

How are pupils finding the technological challenges of COVID-19? I would say generally quite well. If you never really had paper bundles then you are unlikely to miss them. I have been informed that pupils have in fact been training other members in how to use video conferencing technology. No matter how skilled the user, the technology and fellow users are still far from faultless. When doing a case of your own, technological temperamentality is an added layer of concern when one may already be nervous. 

Pupillage can be a stressful time. Most of those reading this will have done it and would agree. The prospect of it being extended may seem a bit daunting at first. However, the Bar Standards Board guidance is clear that, at the moment, it is within the discretion of your AETO (training providers). Therefore, a lack of court time now may not actually spell more pupillage time later. I have also spoken to some who feel an extension would be a sensible idea. It would allow them to continue to benefit from increased monitoring and training opportunities. 

To quote a seasoned silk during a virtual Wine Friday: ‘I cannot imagine a more bizarre time to start one’s career.’ I couldn’t agree more. 

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Lachlan Stewart

Lachlan Stewart is a second six mixed common law pupil at St Ives Chambers.