Life experience is the new work experience
May 22, 2022 – Richie Norton


Despite all the doom and gloom, things are looking up. Mini-pupils are back! This curious term describing youngsters from university law level to sixth formers refers to generally (although not invariably) younger people who are taking a week or so to come and look at the barristers’ world from the inside. It did not exist when I was young – a fact I don’t normally mention as it provokes a round of ‘like planes, television, railways’ as the juniors try to outbid each other in aging me.

My own early experiences of court-watching seemed to attract trouble. I managed to get myself a holiday job in the sixth form with a local solicitor in the Midlands. Arriving a little early, I produced the cigar I had nicked from my father’s box of Romeo Y Julietas and walked down the street to the courthouse. Then, it was a rather stately Victorian building, representing the former majesty of the city. I smiled confidently at the policeman on the door, who represented the entirety of ‘security’, and made my way with my father’s briefcase (loaned on dire warnings) to Court 1.

The barristers barely noticed me and in came the judge who looked like a sprightly nonagenarian, but I recognise now was probably only in his mid-sixties, to try what sounded like a rather interesting tax fraud. As he came in, the prosecuting barrister turned round and said to me: ‘He was one of England’s greatest runners in the 1920s.’ I tittered politely, only to discover to my huge embarrassment that he hadn’t been joking.

Suddenly, the effect of the cigar started to work its horror on me and I began to feel increasingly nauseous. In the end, to the judge’s annoyance, I had to climb at very great speed over a number of bodies in solicitors’ row to get out before the inevitable supervened. At lunch, I was asked to sit with both counsel. I noticed then something which is still true now, whether you call it focus or being self-centred. Both of them knew of the poor sixth former who had to flee court. Neither remembered my face. I had to endure comments such as ‘I wonder where he went?’ and ‘If he throws up in a tax case, I hope they don’t give him a Murder.’ I put on a sickly smile.

It got no better when I was a Bar student. Every Wednesday we were despatched to a court to watch proceedings. One Wednesday I was at Lambeth County Court. The case droned on – something to do with evicting an unruly tenant – while we students passed sweets to one another. Suddenly, I noticed the judge was staring at me in a rather unnerving way. ‘Are you chewing gum?’ he asked. When I tried to answer I found that somehow it had stuck to my lower and upper teeth at the same time and I could not open my mouth. ‘Don’t add insolence to yobbery,’ he said, I thought a little unreasonably. ‘Leave my court and return when you are in a fit state to observe proceedings in a seemly manner.’ Funnily enough, I appeared in front of him three or four years later and he was charming, although he did give me a lingering look from time to time, as if trying to remember something.

Now, it is entirely different. Mini-pupils generally have a very enjoyable time and are treated as part of the team. I have presided over a rigorous policy of fair selection in Chambers and it is rather like applying for pupillage to come and do a week’s work experience with us. So, it was an absolute joy to see them back after all the horrors of COVID.

One was at court this morning to watch a juicy fraud case. He, too, was chewing gum and spoke at enormous speed. Tiger Bearpit appeared to be his name when I asked him. It turned out that it was indeed ‘Tiger’ but that his surname was Briar-Pitt. An alarm bell rang in my head. I phoned Andrew, our senior clerk and enquired if Tiger might by any chance be related to our own Hetty Briar-Pitt, of equestrian fame. ‘No worries, sir,’ said Andrew. ‘He did it properly. He and Aunt Hetty are not exactly close. He hates the animal kingdom apparently.’ Relieved, I returned to talk to Tiger about life, ambition and his relations but found he had vanished. I asked my junior where he had gone. She looked over her horn-rimmed spectacles and said: ‘He’s having a small cigar with the defendant in the car park.’