Life at the Bar · Mini-Pupillage

I’d Rather Have A Coffee Than A Pupil (El Pupil Passed Over)


I like Legal Cheek and I like Alex Aldridge who runs it. Nonetheless, it has recently gone all tabloid on the issue of funding for pupillages, and I told Alex so. This post, which will be cross-posted on Legal Cheek will, I hope explain why. The idea with which it deals – that barristers should be taxed £3 per day to ‘sponsor’ pupillages – is so off the wall that I write with some concern that I am publicising something which should be allowed to perish as it deserves. But there may be an audience for even stupid ideas, even amongst Barristers. So here we go.

The idea emanates from a tenant at 5 Pump Court. Having looked him up, it isn’t clear whether he is involved with the profession at all, or even if he has ever had a pupil. The idea is that every set of Chambers must take one pupil per 25 tenants at £25,000 pa. That will cost about £3 per day and, as the originator of the scheme observes:

At those prices, a pupil would cost less than two cups of coffee a day. I suggest prospective pupils only have to visit the pubs and wine bars around chambers to see barristers drinking heartily as to why they ‘cannot afford to pay pupils more’.

The idea has been taken up by the anonymous paralegal whose idea was to occupy the Inns of Court because he hadn’t got a pupillage. He is confident that the

proposal would, of course, also have extremely positive repercussions for the outrageous situation with regard to lack of pupillages at the Bar. Force barristers to pay a contribution towards pupils’ training and more pupillages would undoubtedly flow from the wider availability of funding.

To which I can only respond: Stone. Cold. Wrong.

There are so many problems with this idea that it’s hard to know where to begin. But, for me, the stand out point is that more money for pupillages would not mean more pupillages. It is right that, in these straightened times, a number of chambers find it hard to fund a pupillage award. And it’s hard to see how a proposal that  involves more than doubling the minimum award is going to help. But that is a symptom, not a cause, of the reduced number of pupillages. The reason for the reduction is that there isn’t the work. The reason that there isn’t the work is because solicitors are increasingly representing clients in Court. The more your chosen field involves publicly funded work, the more desperate the need for solicitors to collar the work for themselves and the less work there is for the Bar. And in crime, the CPS pay their Higher Courts Advocates a premium on top of salary, which must be recouped by not briefing barristers.

Of course, this playing field is not so much level as vertical. But that’s how it is. And when you factor in the Government’s earnest desire that no one gets public funds to ensure that they can take advantage of their legal rights (which the same Government trumpets – when it suits them – as the proud heritage of these Islands) you can see why the work available for a pupil might be restricted, and why your pupillage, if externally imposed, represents a direct threat to the livelihood of the junior tenants and, perhaps, their less gifted senior compatriots.

That is an end to the idea: it won’t work. That it is implicit in the proposer’s worldview that all barristers really have their snouts in the trough, deliberately gorging themselves on third-rate coffee in order to ensure that prospective pupils are shut out, merely makes the whole thing offensive as well as daft.

There is another objection based on fairness. The £25,000 pa figure is supposed to represent the average graduate salary. We can quibble about the figures but let’s not. The reality is that – as most of us would recognise of ourselves – pupils contribute nothing to their Chambers during their pupillage. They take up a huge amount of time because they don’t know where anything is, they don’t know where anyone is, they don’t know how to do anything, they get under the clerks’ feet and they don’t pay Chamber’s fees. (Most) Pupil supervisors (mostly) willingly put the time in because they see it as giving something back and because they enjoy the encounter with a bright mind determined to become a legal star. For which they do not get paid. And, when the pupil gets taken on, the contribution to Chambers from the earnings made as a result of the training is about 20%.

Why, therefore, a pupil should be paid as if they were contributing to Chambers is beyond me. The compulsory funding of awards rests on a consensus within the profession that unfunded awards unfairly privilege the already privileged. It is a way of ensuring diversity and fairness. It should not be measured as if the pupil were an employee because a pupil is not an employee and nor – thank the Lord – is a barrister. We are self-employed independent professionals. We accept that we have expenses to pay for running our practices. We accept we need to purchase professional liability insurance. And, in order to do so, we ensure that we are less expensive than solicitors because we keep our overheads down, we don’t have a secretary because we do our own typing, we don’t demand our own desk unless we are using it nearly all day nearly every day and we work without regard to the hours of our “working week” because we don’t have a working week – just work.

From that flows 2 things. First, we won’t take you unless you can do what we do. That is uncontroversial when we talk in terms of talent. But it also refers to opportunity. Secondly, we don’t get “taxed” by our profession unless we can be convinced that the payment is necessary. Our governing body funds itself via a practising fee and it is constantly, and correctly, challenged to demonstrate that we are getting value for our money. It is the essence of being a barrister that no one turns round to me in Starbucks and tells me that I have to use my coffee money for some cause he has arbitrarily decided is better. Especially when a lot of my colleagues don’t go to Starbucks because they are worried about their reducing incomes. And especially when the proposal is wrong.

I feel better now.

Mini-Pupillage · Qualities Required

Here Are the (Frankly Bizarre) Results of the Blog-Readers’ Jury


A whole year’s worth of students have now been able to vote in the polls to the left of this post. The results are statistically irrelevant (139/144 votes out of 17,000 visits and, I assume, less than 17,000 visitors) but are worth analysing anyway.

On the BVC question, 48% of voters wanted the bar to be raised to require a 2:1. Why? You are unlikely to obtain an interview without a 2:1 – therefore, the proposed alteration would, in fact, alter nothing. What’s more, the pressure would then be on the Universities to lower standards so that a 2:1 was obtained by more people – otherwise why bother to pay for a law degree? This was a truly bizarre vote. The 8% who voted to leave the system as it is were at least being intellectually consistent. Having said that, Anya has put an alternative view in the comments section to which I direct you, because it is worthy of attention.

28% wanted a barrister sift. Why so few? You cannot get pupillage or tenancy without a barrister sift. Why would anyone want to delay it for a year just so that they could shell out £12,000 all of which is absolutely irrecoverable?

I am afraid that there is a strong whiff of inability to receive bad news here. It sounds to me as if the lemmings are voting not to have a signpost at the top of the cliff, in the hope that this means that someone kind has put a trampoline at the bottom. No doubt the legal education providers are cracking open the Bolly even as I write.

60% of those without an offer wanted another go of some description. I can understand that result if there has been no barrister sift. After all, if you have blindly ploughed ahead with the BVC it must be dispiriting when reality finally kicks the door in.

I have real sympathy with those 27% who wanted just one more go – the system is so overwhelmed with candidates who are astonishingly similar that being overlooked is all too easy. But the 33% who believe that multiple applications prove commitment are in a different category. How many people are going to say “this is my ninth year of applications and so far I have failed – but just look at my commitment!”? And, if you aren’t going to say that, then why on earth did you answer the question as you did?

A further 24% were prepared to do a job they didn’t want to do on the off chance that they might be able to find a way to be a barrister by doing it. Why? This is your life – if you can’t be a barrister that’s sad, but why on earth not look for something else that you want to do? Even if I grant that half of people answering this way felt they might quite like being a solicitor (and why not?), that leaves 17 people who ought really to be looking for a job in the field of professional masochism – shame there isn’t going to be an election then.

Hats off to those who said they would happily join the CPS. At least they know what they want.

This is not meant to sound discouraging. I hope you all succeed and I am absolutely positive that, if I were allowed to speak to each and every final year law/CPE student for as long as I wanted, I would only select about half of those who ultimately succeeded. But I also think I would select 70% of those who would not succeed no matter what. And they would include most of the people in the voting majority on this site.

Please: do mini-pupillages – more than one and in more than one place; look up the junior tenants where you went and compare your academic record to theirs to see if it stands up; compare your real-life experience to theirs (particularly important for mature entrants); try and find someone who will disinterestedly tell you if you will make it in their Chambers (every barrister will tell you that you will make it in someone else’s Chambers) – try the person who you did the mini-pupillage with and ask yourself what it means if they don’t say yes; ask yourself how hard you are prepared to work to look up the law, discover and arrange the facts, look up your opponent, look up your solicitor, look up your Judge, look up your client, discuss your opponent and your Judge with a colleague, discuss your best point and your worst point with another colleague and if the answer isn’t “24 hours straight if necessary” then think again.

After that, if you think you have a decent chance, apply for the BVC.

I can write the “you unsympathetic depressing bastard. What about encouragement and good cheer?” comments myself. But the reality is that there are about 550 pupillages for the 2,500 or so of you BVC students out there. How many of there are you? I don’t know for sure because the last figures I have seen on the web relate to 2003. The BSB website says that the provider websites tell you how many places there are – but as far as I can see they don’t (something I shall be raising). And the above assumes that you are already on the BVC (see above). However, thanks to ‘Anonymous’ I can now point you all here and, having done the maths, the numbers are 1816 full time students, and 324 part-time students, making 2140 in all. Given that Anon says that the College of Law regularly exceeds its validated numbers (anyone from there care to comment?), 2,500 looks like a fair assessment.

I believe that the chances are about 1 in 3. That is because the remainder of the candidates have no genuine chance at all. If you are one of those then neither I nor anyone else does you a service by encouraging you to chase a dream without prospect of success. If you can identify yourself as such a person then I am sorry but the Bar is terribly unlikely to be for you.

Ok, thank you for listening. You can all start shouting now…

Life at the Bar · Mini-Pupillage

Speakers for Schools


This is a Bar Council project which is hugely worthwhile. It sends barristers into any school that asks, armed with a slideshow and a template for a talk about the Bar. The aim is to reach the places we have not yet reached. Private schools tend (not always) to have decent careers advice. State schools tend not to be able to help about the Bar.

Why do I mention this? Well, you are off on your mini-pupillages. When your mpMaster (sounds like a rap artist but that is likely to be as close as it gets) asks what brought you to the Bar – and most do because it is a ‘get them talking’ type question – you fix them with your baby blues and say ‘The Speakers for Schools project. It’s brilliant. I bet you do it, don’t you? No? You should – you’d be fantastic‘.

You have killed two birds with one stone. You have flattered your mpM and s/he will remember it (try and tone it down a bit if you are of the same sex and heterosexual). You have done good for the future generations and the legal gods will smile upon you – when they have finished litigating in about 1,000,000,000 years time.

Also ring your school if you are still allowed contact and tell them to get in touch with Marissa Booker at the Bar Council.

Thank you for reading this public service announcement. I am off to try and hack Troubled Barrister’s blog…

Mini-Pupillage · Recommended Reading

All Beginnings Are Difficult


I have been reflecting on when you might first seek a mini-pupillage and whether any one time is better than any other. This is prompted by judging a moot in which neither of the winners had yet done a mini-pupillage, although both were certain about going to the Bar.

Most Chambers draw a sharp distinction between students and school-children. Just check the number of websites which make it clear that work experience isn’t available. Most Chambers, as far as I can tell, draw no distinction between either law students and non-law students or University students and BVC students. Nor is much, if any, distinction made between first years and third years.

That means that Chambers have a basic expectation that the mini-pupil will be interested in the Bar and have some knowledge of the law. That is on a par with a barrister’s basic beliefs – namely that what they do is a) fascinating; and b) vital. You may not share this view…

In which case the best advice I can give is to chose a set for that first mini-pupillage (you know, the one where you’re just sussing out whether you can ever be old enough or farty enough to do the job) which you are likely never to want to go to again, even as the office junior. And also not to ask basic questions but to look it up instead. There are two really good books for this purpose – both I fear may be out of print but second hand bookshops should be able to help.

The first is Henry Cecil’s ‘Brief to Counsel’. This was written over 50 years ago and much of the detail is out of date. However, it is still outstanding for the tone which accurately reflects the way that barristers think (and should think in my view). Cecil – actually the pseudonym of HH Judge Leon – also wrote some amusingish legal novels. The second is Glanville-Williams ‘Learning the Law’ which is an easily assimilated basic introduction to legal concepts. If you do not find it fairly easy and you are over 19 then think again about the law.

Those two books should stop you making a complete fool of yourself and may even give you that veneer of knowledge that makes you an attractive candidate. Remember that barristers expect you to know the law – that’s why you have paid a fortune for your education. The ‘added value’ is the ability to talk with a degree of confidence and knowledge about how the profession operates – how Judges take to people who only take good points; how clients like business minded advice. Add a mini-pupillage to that mix and you should be able to head for the sets you want to join with some confidence. But it’s a hell of a risk to head for the dream place first, especially as most Chambers will only let you have one mini-pupillage in total.

Most sets book early and allocate on a first come first served basis. So I would apply at Christmas in my first year and expect to do my first mini-pupillage in the summer. Then you have time to assimilate the experience, get some more law under your belt, decide if the Bar is really for you, do your research and apply for the mini-pupillages that really matter in your second year and onwards.

If you convert then the timetable is necessarily shorter. But I would still be looking for a mini-pupillage in my third year and I would still read Glanville-Williams’ book (at least) before I started. By the stage I am discussing, you must know you want to try for the law and you must be wondering about the Bar. It isn’t exactly unfair to expect you to have done a little reading up.

I know that this sounds incredibly basic, but it is astonishing how many people do not do these things. Most barristers are very happy to have people tagging along with them – at the very least a student is likely to take them at their own valuation for a day or so and this is deeply satisfying – but the pleasure quickly dissipates when the mini-pupil asks, ‘Please could you tell me who the person all on his own on that big bench up there is?’ Especially if you are cross-examining at the time. And especially as the mini-pupil has used a preposition to end a sentence with (more on grammar another time).

Very occasionally someone like this makes it and becomes a member of a Chambers. Invariably they feel that asking obvious questions has served them well, and they keep doing it. I remember the outstanding question ‘What is it about this incident that you least remember?’ being asked by one such person. The witness, unsurprisingly, was stuck for an answer – a fact treated as a triumph by the barrister concerned.

Another such example, who was anxious to tell all and sundry that he did ‘mainly civil and mainly big-value commercial work’ was persuaded by the boys and girls at the criminal bar that, just as the County Court Practice was called ‘The Green Book (because it was green) and the Supreme Court Practice was called ‘The White Book’ (because it was white – are we barristers logical or what?), Archbold (the bible of the criminal practitioner) should be called The Red Book (because it was, with elegant inevitability, red). In fact Archbold is called (Criminal Barristers being simple souls) ‘Archbold’. Court was crowded to watch the results…

The point is that mini-pupillage is a time for you to assess your own reaction to the job. If the thought of doing the preliminary spade-work fills you with revulsion or you don’t quite see what is wrong with the above stories then it might really be better to do something else.

Interviews · Mini-Pupillage · Qualities Required

An Excellent Prospect – Or Not


Having been asked to expand regarding interviews, I have dug around a bit and present the results below. Please note – this is a far from scientific sample.

Most Chambers have some idea of what sort of work they want the prospective pupil to do. They are also looking for specific qualities. Normally these include academic aptitude, aptitude for the job, motivation and the all important ‘clubability’ – or ‘will work well as part of a team’ as it is now known in these PC times in which we rejoice.

Academic aptitude is not necessarily a 1st class degree. I suspect that in some of the ‘top sets’ (as they like to think of themselves) it does mean that. But, having been in this game for 20 years and having been against a fair number of people from these sets I have yet to meet a case which requires a 1st class degree. You may have guessed that I do not have one. And I wasn’t even this close. Still, there are some areas of law where bursting with brains helps – providing it is aligned to other qualities. More important is an orderly mind. So I wouldn’t peddle your academic qualifications above all else and expect to succeed – one of the very worst interviewees I ever saw had an Oxbridge 1st. They were so convinced they were correct that they had omitted to include a reverse gear in their toolbox. We said, ‘don’t call us’.

But, as I have said below, it’s easy to weed people out by saying a 2i or above is required. So, if you got a Desmond, get a letter from your academic tutor saying that it was all the fault of the hayfever/sad death of your hamster/physical inability to revise without inflicting gbh on yourself – and attach it to the form.

Motivation should be self-explanatory. This job has risks. Acknowledge them and say why they appeal. Then bore in on the town and the specific set. Be in a position to answer basic questions. Saying you want to come to Leeds because you’ve always loved the castle indicates low motivation.

Job aptitude is a little like motivation. It is your opportunity to show that you can be a barrister. Normally you are asked a test question – this seems to be the pattern in most chambers. The answer is unlikely to be legal. The problem is practical or ethical and is aimed at eliciting your response to a real-life situation where you have to think on your feet, under pressure. Do not moan about this – it is what really happens.

The best advice I can give is to slice up the problem into its component parts; work out which one comes first and give your honest view. Yes, your judgment is being tested and you may get it wrong. Better in interview than with a real client (I appreciate that you may disagree about this). Take your time if required – I know people at the Bar whose instant decisions are almost always wrong. But the good ones always buy the time they need. Don’t fall into the trap of looking for visual clues to the right answer – there almost certainly isn’t one.

Clubability is the issue of whether you will get on and fit in. Please do not take a stand here on the basis of sexism/racism/anti-semitism/anti-islamism/anti-moronic fascists for an all-white Britain. Of course there are racist barristers – and sexist ones, etc. But the Bar is actually a pretty meritocratic profession and heading in the right direction. Barristers have a number of things in common: they are at the sharp end and like it, so they tend to have egos and believe they are right. They do serious work with serious consequences, so they tend to take themselves seriously. They are a small profession, so they tend to have in-jokes and like gossip. And – shock horror – they look for people who will adapt easily to the culture.

Now, you may or you may not enjoy this type of atmosphere. You may or may not be offended by it. But everyone in the Chambers is self-employed. They are not paying you (except for your pupillage award) and they are not assessing you for a partnership. They are looking for people to work with others and take Chambers forward. They are entitled to decide that based upon their assessment of you and of Chambers. And that applies across the board: there are well known ‘left-wing’ sets of Chambers. Try being interviewed there and saying that you want to dedicate your personal life and professional abilities to prosecuting welfare cheats.

So, you may be discriminated against – I truly hope you are not and I believe you should complain if you are – but you may also just not give a very good impression. Don’t assume the former until you can dismiss the latter.

Also, my own personal view is that really good barristers are not hugely egotistical, self-regarding or dependant on gossip for their own self-regard. And that might be a good way to assess whether you want to be in the Chambers who are interviewing you… But sadly, the boot is usually on the other foot.

All necessary information is usually obtained through question and answer. I hear that there are some Chambers who set a written question or test. Information would be helpful, but I suspect that this is nothing more than a convenience for busy people who find it easier to read it than to see it. Ultimately there is an interview, and it’s not just what you say, it’s the way that you say it. My best advice is to relax and be yourself. Humour is fine if gentle, well-judged and not your primary motif. Otherwise be polite, play it straight, and try to be you – on your best behaviour obviously, not down at the pub with your mates, half-pissed going on falling-over and hooting over the hilarious sight of someone trying to eat crisps through their nostrils.

I do recommend asking to spend a day or so in Chambers before saying yes to an offer – most sets have some sort of arrangement like this these days. It is a way of meeting the junior tenants who may be more congenial company for you. It is a way of seeing whether the people get on, where the social centre lies and whether you like what you may be joining. Some Chambers have bullies, some have cliques. If you have more than one offer (lucky soul) you may actually be in the position of having to turn a set down. Even though moving Chambers is more acceptable than it once was, it is sensible to approach the decision on the basis that these people will be your colleagues for a long time.

Mini-Pupillage

The Mini Pupillage


You should do these. Remember that the vast majority of mini-pupillages these days are assessed. There is, therefore, an element of risk.

It pays to:
1. Write your application letter on the basis that it’s as hard to get a mini-pupillage as it is to get an interview.
2. Say why you want to go to that set of Chambers.
3. Apply early. I emphasise this point. Often first come is first served.

It pays not to:
1. Do your first mini-pupillage at your dream set.
2. Fail to clue yourself up on the place you’re going to and the type of work they do.
3. Fail to turn up at all, or fail to turn up on time every day, or ask for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday off. Don’t laugh – it happens. Actually, do laugh; if the competition wants to commit hari-kiri why should you worry?
4. Fail to dress the part. I’m sure I shouldn’t have to say this but Court Dress still means something. Think about the message you’re sending in your velvet jeans (female) or sarong (male). It might just be me getting old but I don’t think so.

Once in Chambers you will inevitably come into contact with the members. Ask, why are they called ‘members’ of Chambers? Right. So, unless you have specifically been told that you are being looked over with a view to an offer, it is unlikely that your mini-pupillage will register with anyone to whom you are not directly attached. Therefore, please don’t tell everyone about your burning desire to be a barrister. They already know. Everyone has a burning desire etc etc…

Your aim as regards your mini-pupil master should be for him/her to say what a joy you were to have around. No-one but the poshest or most pretentious sets expects you to be at a stage to contribute very much. Everyone remembers the mini-pupil whose company they enjoyed.
If you’re given something to do don’t say that you can’t do it – the person who asked you already knows. Do the best you can with the knowledge you have.

Remember, in most sets everyone who takes you somewhere will add something to your record. By and large the decision to interview you or not will be made very shortly after you leave.
Also, you should expect the person you’re with to buy your lunch. If they don’t then think twice before applying. You are entitled to be looked after properly and that means that your pupil-master should be nice to you as well as the other way round.

Don’t be aggravating. This is important. We know you’re nervous. But asking bloody silly questions shouldn’t make you feel better. If you can look it up then you should have done that already. If you have looked it up and can’t find the answer it’s either a very good question or a very bad one. Well, this is a job centring on judgment. Choose.

Don’t be a space invader. If your mini-pupil master’s trolley is running over your feet, you’re too close.

Do enter into the spirit of it all – go for a drink, have a laugh. But try and be average. I had a pupil who drank so much on their first weekend out with Chambers that they suffered an embarrassing accident… No one will ever forget but ask yourself, is that why you want to be remembered? And if the answer to that question is ‘yes’ then stand for Parliament.