SecretE-Diary - May 2011

Changes to the nature of pupillages lead to reminiscences of more colourful times

April 9, 2011: “It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught” - Oscar Hammerstein II.

I popped in to the annual Pupillage Fair this year, spurred on by recent rumblings from the Bar Standards Board about the need to keep pupillage awards abreast with the current value of money. Sadly, my impression amongst the publicly funded sets was that this was more of a wake than a party.

I understand the grand strategy from our masters is that young barristers will continue to be churned out by a variety of providers, then achieve their training and early practising life elsewhere, coming to a radically slimmed-down Bar in their thirties. It is so potty an idea that I cannot believe it is genuine. For one thing, by then there will be no publicly funded Bar awaiting the return of the exiles.

It therefore came as no surprise that the masters of all things modern and equivocal, opportunistic and haphazard, the brothers Twist, were agitating within the walls of Gutteridge Chambers for an abolition of pupillage in favour of what they call late-term internship. It sounds like an unhappy compromise between a difficult pregnancy and those student opportunities that cause such grief to the upper echelons of the US political classes. I attended the meeting, but in some distress at the Orwellian character of the discussion, I pleaded a migraine and walked home to write this entry. Like the eponymous old schoolmaster in Goodbye, Mr Chips! I felt the tide of memory and reminiscence flowing into my troubled mind.

Pupillage…I have been forever unclear how or why my offer from Gutteridge came about. My interviewer noticed I was wearing a brown sock on one foot and a black sock on the other. He seemed bemused by my explanation that I had an orange-coloured light-bulb in the bedroom I was renting within the house of a rather odd girl called Tilly Rowbotham. The vivid orange hue tended to make the brown and black merge into one colour. Dear Tilly! She called me her “PG” and fended off increasingly urgent letters from her redoubtable mother, Lady Rowbotham, telling her that the Paying Guest had to go as even cousins in the family were now “talking”. I never knew quite how to take her “I appreciate he wouldn’t actually do anything” which Tilly insisted on showing me.

The eighties: I was now interviewing candidates for prospective pupillages. In the pre-award era, they were a mixed bunch. One girl told us about a beautiful Martello Tower in East Anglia which she had climbed. Paddy Corkhill, then in his twenties, had an unexpected knowledge of ancient monuments and asked her if she knew that she could have seen five counties from the top. “No”, she said, in a flat tone of voice. “How many did you see?” Paddy asked. “I’ve no idea,” she said, “I climbed up there to jump off and end it all.”

Then there was a spotty looking boy. When a juvenile Hetty Briar-Pitt asked him about his hobbies, doubtless hoping he was an ardent Point-to-Pointer, he replied memorably: “You’ll think it strange, but I’m addicted to launderettes. I find the endless cycle of whites and coloureds passing round the little glass door positively mesmerising.”

We did think it strange, although during an interruption of plumbing services chez Byfield, I visited a Washeteria nearby and found I had been staring at the same phenomenon myself for half-an-hour without realizing it. Perhaps my vote against him was unfair.

Then, as legal aid reached its zenith, we instituted handsome awards and joined a Bar Council pupillage scheme with the customary acronym. Research and coffee now had a large price tag. Pupil masters and mistresses, wonderful and evocative terms, became pupil supervisors - as if we were running a global cleaning company. However, the overall quality improved enormously. The era of the modern pupil had arrived – diverse, frighteningly bright, of varying ages, immaculately attired, and streets ahead of most of the tenants. I would no more ask today’s pupils to make even one cup of coffee than I would the Senior Clerk.
Snaresbrook - a particular young man standing with my opponent keeps coming to my mind. I asked him what he was doing. Doubtless through nerves, he uttered the immortal phrase: “I pupil”. My opponent and I tried not to laugh, but ended up collapsing at the time and having enormous difficulty getting through our Plea in court a few minutes later.

Now I feel guilty, and about him in particular. All those hopes…A short-term fix in which the young, with all their variety, get sacrificed may end by being the deepest nail in the proverbial coffin.


William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.

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