Life at the Bar · Qualities Required · Tenancy

Tenancy and How to Get It Part 4: Getting On

teamwork_teamwork_aChambers have, in recent times, invested quite a lot of effort in pupillage selection. I think it can be fairly said that most Chambers are now committed to diversity in terms of sex, colour, race and creed (the Bar, strangely enough, was never particularly fussed about sexual orientation and it isn’t much of an issue today either). However, once your pupillage begins it is a 6 or 12 month interview and you are mainly judged on 3 things. Firstly, your ability; secondly, whether you can pay your way; and thirdly, whether you can get on with people.

That third element includes 4 quite distinct groups. Your pupil supervisor(s); your clerks; other members of Chambers; and your instructing solicitors. Some things are common to all 4 groups and I shall deal with those things below. The additional things which are particular to particular groups will form the subject of the next post. What is said here is equally applicable to mini-pupillages, save that you will barely impact on solicitors or clerks during a mini unless you spectacularly screw up.

By the way, please note the absence of clients from that list. It is nice if clients like you because it may help you to get on with your solicitors. But it is a sort of optional extra. Quite often clients don’t particularly like you. That is because you tend to give them bad news – “you aren’t going to recover all your money”: “you may well loose”: “about 7 years”: “putting up for adoption means you can’t see your children”. It is also because you tend to be very busy doing the work required to minimise the prospect of saying those things and thus unable to listen to why the social workers are conspiring with the ex-wife and ex-boss. It may also be because too many barristers just aren’t very good at getting on with people – maybe a topic for later.

Of all the people listed above I would say that your supervisor and your solicitors are the easy marks. Other members of Chambers and clerks are more difficult. It is fairly easy to see why this is the case. Both of the former types of people have clearly defined requirements. If you meet those requirements, you are a long way to a successful working relationship. The latter types may well have ill-defined requirements, which vary from time to time. Moreover the former people want you to succeed. Your supervisor has quite a lot invested in you. She is in charge of your professional development for which everyone else is paying. If you fail people will ask questions about her (of course that means that the relationship between a failing pupil and their supervisor can be dreadful). Your solicitor wants you to win.

So, what is required? Firstly, application. Barristers are used to working hard. Some pretend not to, but anyone who is succeeding at the Bar is working hard. An intolerance of laziness soon becomes inbuilt. Taking the view that you only have to skim something because your supervisor will be doing the job himself is, in almost all cases, the quickest way out of the window (the door is reserved for more deserving cases).

Secondly, reliability. You need to be there on time – or preferrably early. You need to have what you are supposed to have be it books, pens, paper or a pleasant expression. Your work needs to be reliable. The words “I’m certain” – whilst at first regarded with suspicion – are, having been tested and found to be reliable, words which your supervisor will value. It means that they can rely on you and save time and effort.

Thirdly, improvement. At the beginning expectations of you are low. You will be expected to know some law – after all you have had less time to forget it than everyone else in Chambers. You will be expected to have some sense. But courtcraft, judgement, skill and calmness under pressure are things your supervisor expect to develop with you. However, you are expected to learn fast. One of the best things that can ever be said about a pupil is “you only have to tell him something once”.

Fourthly, commitment. Barristers have to make their own living. That is not as trite as it sounds. There is no sick pay. There is no guaranteed salary, paid regardless of how good you actually are (at least until you plow your bank into the ground) and attracting a pension whether you leave honourably or have to be pushed. That means that work often comes before a social life. For too many barristers work also comes before (or is equivalent to) a private life, which is a different issue. Whilst you ought to try not to be like that it is important to realise that commitment is necessary. You may actually have to say ‘no’ to yourself. You may miss the party, the dinner, the film, because you have to work. In pupillage this can be aggravating because you are doing it for someone else. But there it is.

Fifthly, integrity. This cannot be stressed enough. If you cannot recognise the difference between absolutely honest and compromised honesty then do something else. Read stories of schools in the 1930s. You know the bit where Blenkinsop Minor glances over at Swothead’s paper in the Bio exam? That’s not ok. You know where Eleanor is left alone in Bunty’s room and reads the open diary which reveals that Bunty has a bit of a crush on Miss Thrillinglystrict? That’s not ok either – even if Eleanor doesn’t tell anyone (although she usually does, so that she can be sent to Coventry in chapter 8 and rehabilitated in chapter 10). I am serious about this. The maxim is, “when in doubt, do the right thing”. If you don’t know what the right thing is then you may have a problem. If anyone suggests to you that doing the wrong thing is ok/justifiable/right then they are wrong.

Sixthly, an appreciation of personal space. I don’t simply mean physically, although continually taking a step backwards and treading on your pupil is annoying. I mean knowing when to do what. Ecclesiastes puts it best (3:7): ‘a time to rend and a time to mend: a time to be silent and a time to speak’. You simply have to know when your contribution is welcome and when it isn’t. When you should be hovering and when you shouldn’t be there. Some people do this naturally but it’s necessary anyway. The first rule is not to make things worse; so, if your supervisor is under pressure, think first, appear second, speak third.

Finally, at least insofar as this personal list is concerned, don’t get too up yourself. As far as solicitors are concerned this means accepting that they may actually have a contribution to make and it might be better than yours. Talking down to people should not be essential to your image of yourself as a barrister. Being asked to make an occasional cup of coffee or photocopy an occasional case isn’t the end of the world (if that’s all you are doing you should complain). Pretending that chatting to your solicitor’s clerk is a bit beneath you will not endear you to any decent set. Ditto sniggering at the clerks’ appearance, looks, weight or dress sense. All of which I have seen and heard junior barristers do. If you have flu – get on with it. If your personal issues are making life hard – get on with it. The Bar is a hugely sympathetic environment for those who cannot work because of illness. But for those who are merely suffering day-to-day afflictions, no one cares and it comes over as precious.

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