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Slightly Famous For About 3 Minutes

It has been an interesting few days and, in the tiny world of the legal blogosphere, I haven’t been so famous since those guys who would write your essay for you for money, threatened to sue me. I gather that Twitter has been even more lively, although I don’t use it myself because: a) I doubt my ability to stop once started, b) There is already far too much legal hot air out there and c) It is frequently so unpleasant that it adds little to actual understanding. The commotion has been because in the last post (also on Legal Cheek) I said that pupils contributed nothing to Chambers. That was an error. As I said in my comment on the last post, after Sara accused me of undervaluing pupils over at Stret Law:

You are quite right and all the points you make are entirely valid. I succumbed to irritation at the original proposal and made a sweeping generalisation.

We obviously have to pay pupils, otherwise Pupillage would be restricted to the already comfortably off and, perhaps, those willing to gamble with a massive debt. But they are not being paid for what they do – even though I agree that they are usually useful (and that includes all of mine). The balance is between what pupils need to survive and what the Bar can afford and – crucially – is willing to pay. There may be an argument there for London weighting.

That, however, has not stopped people having a go. Depressingly, the standard tack amongst those who want to beat up a bit of trade has been to accuse me of not caring about pupils and being a relic of the dark ages. I am not sure if that behaviour is based on a startling lack of research – after all, anyone reading this blog is unlikely to hold that opinion and the blog is hardly a secret – or simply disregarding reality for the sake of a momentary satisfaction. The justification for such a stance is usually that the blogosphere is an unforgiving place. This isn’t a justification: that there are lots of unpleasant morons in your home town does not justify you being an unpleasant moron. The blogosphere is the same and such “justifications” are merely an attempt to avoid personal responsibility. I am unimpressed. As I have said to a number of the knockers, I spend a lot of time answering individual emails from people looking for help. It would be a shame if those people were put off by reading a load of nonsense, and I don’t see any of those people making the accusations stepping up to help aspiring barristers. Bah, humbug.

On the other hand, as one of my correspondents said to me – whilst refusing to make any alteration to what they had written, despite acknowledging it to be wrong now that they had done the basic research – I wrote it. That being so, I ought to make it clear that of course pupils contribute something during pupillage. My original comment was made in the context of a suggestion that pupils should be compulsorily recruited and compulsorily funded to an extent which more than doubles the current minimum, and should be (and, I suspect, by a majority of people, was) read in that light. And, as I said above, I succumbed to irritation at a patently silly idea and made a sweeping generalisation. As Ambrose Bierce said, “Speak when you’re angry and you’ll make the best speech you ever regret.”

I do, however, stand by the view that payment to pupils should not reflect the value they contribute. It isn’t merely that defining such value is extraordinarily difficult: the primary reason is that the aim of pupillage should not be to reward pupils for contributing value or even for pupils to contribute value. The aim of pupillage is for a pupil to be trained to become a successful member of the independent Bar.

That means that Chambers should not be constantly assessing the value their pupil adds. The question should be entirely the other way around: ask not what your pupil can do for you; ask what you can do for your pupil. What I have found really worrying about the way that people are pretending to support pupils whilst pretending that I do not, is the way in which they have phrased such “support”. Far too many of the reactions I have seen are full of self-serving ersatz indignation and can be fairly summarised as: “Look at me. I can show I’m down wid da kids by saying they contribute value by helping established figures do their research and answer questions about new law and sit there taking notes. And, if I say so, I’ll look well cool and gain even more cred by calling out a silk”. But to respond in such a way is simply to demonstrate a misunderstanding of what we should be about: if that is how Chambers are valuing the pupil, then the pupil is being let down and, potentially, exploited (I wonder, does the fee note for work based on a pupil’s research reflect the supervisor’s hourly rate, or the pupil’s?). I should make it clear that this is in no sense any criticism of Sara, whose points were made in response to me and who was nothing other than wholly reasonable. I am addressing the “contributions” of those seeking to make capital for themselves by posing as the pupils’ friend.

Pupils should be encouraged to understand their supervisors’ cases, to contribute to the process of developing an argument and to practice drafting documentation. But they should not be used as a researcher, still less as a notetaker. Research is the barrister’s responsibility. If they can’t do it, or they have too much on, they should employ a librarian/researcher in Chambers, work harder or turn the work away. Pupils’ notes should be for the pupil’s own use, not because their supervisor would rather not take their own. You don’t learn much by writing down a note of the evidence or of a con.

The big commercial sets pay a lot of money to pupils because they regard themselves as competing with the city solicitors. Personally, I wonder if they really are. Don’t the pupils at those sets have a real passion to be a barrister? Are they really going to allow the amount of money paid to them aged 23 to determine their career? But that is none of my business, because I’m not in such a set. The only sadness, as I have previously suggested, is that those sets could do something to ease the crisis in pupil numbers by splitting their award in 2 and taking on double the number of pupils who then compete with each other. But for most Chambers, who don’t have blue-chip corporate clients, the money paid to pupils is a significant feature of the budget. If a pupil is paid the minimum £12,000 and Chambers charge 20% on what is earned, then a pupil will have to earn £60,000 before the money advanced by the other members of Chambers is repaid. If the pupil makes that sum in the first year of being taken on (and not many do), that is the equivalent of a 2 year interest-free loan. Furthermore, the basic economics dictate that if there are about 200 applicants for each £12,000 post, then there is no need to pay more.

The point is that the focus of this debate should not be about the amount of the award, providing it allows basic needs to be met. It should be about increasing the number of pupillages (which, ironically, was the point the initial article focussed on, even though I think the idea a bad one). However, the number of pupillages is currently outside the control of the Bar, because it is subject to external forces to which the profession can, currently, only react. Accordingly, the debate is actually about decreasing the number of people paying the providers an extremely large sum of money for which they get very little value (that word again). The sad truth is that the BPTC is the world’s most expensive lottery ticket and it is, moreover, a ticket which gives different people a different chance of winning, without providing the purchasers with any clue about what chance they actually have. This blog exists to try and assist you when it comes to how to assess and maximise your own chances. If anything that has been written recently (by me or anyone else) makes you doubt that, please be reassured.

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Career Opportunities

Willsden County Court is looking for duty advisers. It is an opportunity to get some advocacy experience and there are currently four roles the Court would like to fill with BPTC/LPC graduates and current students. The job is limited to London only, but still offers a significant opportunity to some of you. Advisers deal primarily with repossession but there are overlapping legal issues which should mean that you get a chance to look at quite a lot of areas. I sit in general County Court civil and I would have thought that these roles would be challenging, enjoyable and offer real experience that looks good on a CV. It’s also a chance to help other people.

You can find out more by going to the site they have set up for recruitment purposes. You will be supervised by practising solicitors, so there will hopefully be real feedback and support. The application process closes on Wednesday, so you can do it over the weekend. Good luck, and if you get the job, please let me know. I will ask you to write something about it if you would like and will publish your (anonymised or not, as you wish) post.

As for the picture – whilst you are doing your application you can listen to one of the greatest bands who ever made an album.

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New Kid on the Block

I want to introduce you to a new site called The Pupillage Pages. It has been added to the Useful Links list below. The site is run by two pupils to be (that is to say, they have secured pupillages and start in due course). I’ve reviewed the information and advice they provide and it is solidly reliable. For those of you applying this year it should be of assistance.

The site is super-duper up to date and makes me feel old and tired. It includes live fora, the development of which I shall watch with interest. It also includes a space for people to keep each other up to date on applications and progress. I would like to think that everyone will contribute to that part of the site in a careful and constructive way, focussing on disseminating knowledge to their peers: as trying to get barristers to agree is commonly compared to herding cats, that might be slightly optimistic but I live in hope. For those feeling bilious, the Wall of Shame will be open here for business as usual.

The authors are open to advertising. Although I have mixed feelings about this, I know that they have invested in the development of the site and I trust them to declare any conflicts of interest. It seems to me that they are unlikely to go in for quite the same amount of expression of opinion as I do, so the issues are not as tricky. Certainly, what is currently up there is trustworthy. It is also better, more focussed and more in depth than the Bar Council’s new “Become a Barrister” website. I say that with some regret, because the very fact that the Bar Council has produced such a site is good news and one which would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. The difficulty is that professional bodies have to keep it to information only and the site is thus a bit vanilla (if this site is – as I hope it is – chilli, then The Pupillage Pages is, say, saffron. Any competing spice analogies gratefully received below). The authors are also anonymous. I have urged them to out themselves, because it seems to me that when a site offers information, those wondering whether to use that information are entitled to know the background of the person offering it. They have, perfectly reasonably, said they would like to discuss that with their Chambers. I very much hope their Chambers support the endeavour. For the time being I am prepared to say that the authors know what they are talking about.

I am excited, because the site seems to me to potentially fulfil a real need. Some of its content is covered here as well, and that has the advantage of allowing you either two opinions, or the comfort of agreement. Some of it will, hopefully, consist of information which I frankly doubt I would be given – information directly from Chambers for example – because I wish to retain the right to criticise and suggest improvements. Some of it consists of basic information which I am too idle to put up because it is available elsewhere, but there are distinct advantages to gathering it all together in one place. Go and have a look and let me – and them – know what you think.

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Counsel Magazine has an interesting article by Andrew Neish QC, dealing with the lack of diversity at the so called ‘magic-circle’ sets. I’d like to link to it but Lexis-Nexis thinks I should pay to do so and, as I get my paper copy anyway, I won’t. If  you or your institution has an account then this is the link to the click-on.

The proposal is not one I like – to choose additional random candidates for interview. It strikes me that this is not so much diversity as tokenism. But at least the problem is being looked at, which is better than ignoring it, and an email address is provided for comments and contributions. However a more focussed, more interesting and more thoughtful examination of the same issue is Lawminx’s letter to a pupillage committee. Minx’s idiosyncratic style isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the Bar ought to read decent points made by non-traditional students. We might learn something.

Meanwhile, as the time arrives for the Portal gates to creak open, I cannot stress the need to research your choices too much. It is not enough to want to be a pupil at the particular set, or to want to do the work they do. Get on the website, look at the cv of every tenant under 7 years call and compare yourself. If you don’t match up, don’t apply. This will have the consequence that you won’t waste an application – the sets which are weighting their selection system to prioritise 1st class degrees from 10 Universities (of whom 2 are preferred) need not be troubled by you.

If there is to be a debate here, then it should be an honest one. As Andrew Neish points out, it isn’t really arguable that only people with 1st class degrees from 10 Universities can handle the complexities of commercial law (although – as he doesn’t say – it is hugely flattering to believe that this is the position). He may be wrong about that – I am not qualified to comment. But, if that qualification isn’t necessary then sets who find themselves unable to recruit different candidates should be explaining why.

If you are in doubt about whether to make an application, contact Chambers and ask them how they score the different qualities they seek. There is a world of difference between a Chambers giving a 1st 20 points out of a 100 and a 2.1 14 points and a Chambers giving a 1st 55 points and a 2.1 20 points. Both might say that a 2.1 is a minimum requirement but only one of them is offering you a real chance to let your extra-curricular activities catch up.

In times of recession people pull in their claws and barristers are no exception. Chambers are less inclined to take a chance on what they don’t know and less inclined to offer pupillage at all. It makes it even more important for you to match yourself with the right set. The debate about whether we approach diversity adequately is for another day as far as your application is concerned – although comments are welcome as always.

Meanwhile, if you are a “non-traditional candidate” (this normally means that your A levels – if they exist at all – were a long time ago and not brilliant, and that you have actually succeeded in a real job since then) then try and correlate your real life successes to what you perceive as necessary to success at the Bar and relate one to the other. Somewhere out there – if you do it properly – there might (just might) be a set of Chambers which is prepared to back you, rather than to take what is – let’s face it – a chance on someone fresh out of the BPTC. Just make sure that you emphasise your intellectual flexibility: I know of very few Chambers who believe that the BPTC turns out a product which is fit to practice and it therefore follows that we need to teach you. Don’t fall into the trap of allowing the pupillage committee to wonder whether you are able to learn.

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An Invitation

TheFishFootmanDeliveringAnInvitationToTheDuchessIllustrationFromAliceInWonderlandByLewisCarroll18329I got a pingback from Charon’s blog and went to look. I discovered that my ears should have been burning, although, oddly they weren’t. Bang goes that theory then.

What was said was this (all quotes include exact spelling and punctuation):

I discussed my views last night with other members of Chambers. One person called SM’s blog an as arrogance and always putting the Bar down; another person said (without any prodding from me) SM by posting an attack on Chambers is being defamtory, bringing the Bar into disrepute and shows an extreme lack of judgement. I posted some time ago SM always puts the Bar down this is just another example of it.

Maybe you will get off the student bandwagon of it is everbodies  fault but mine that I can’t get a pupillage and reconsider your stance.

“The debate needs to happen and it will”. Where? On a blog with anonymous posts from anonymous disatisfies students who cant find a pupillage and want to blame everyone but themselves. And where do you think your so called “debate” will end up and what do you think will be the end result of your “debate”? This isn’t a debate – it is a bunch of grumbling students who as I said blame everybody but temselves for their failure. Of interest is that when in your “debate” one student resorts to swearing to which you seek to mimic.

I want to make a number of points clear:

  1. The above was not posted on my blog and no one has emailed me with it either. That is inimical to real debate and, to my mind, suggests other motives.
  2. An objective look at the Blog – perhaps starting with the post ‘Why I Want to be a Barrister’ (which is the most viewed post on the Blog) will, I think, demonstrate clearly that I love the Bar and being a barrister, and believe that we perform a vital function in a free society. Nor, by the way, do I remotely agree that this is like any other job when sometimes you like it and sometimes you don’t. I regard it as a vocation and I have never – in 23 years –  woken up and thought I didn’t like what I do.
  3. It is not putting anything down to give a view which encompasses the good and the bad. If you really love something there is no need to pretend that things are other than they really are.
  4. Everyone is entitled to their own view of the value of the Blog and what I post. This is a profession where you have to back your own judgement on a daily basis. There is nothing official about the Blog: I don’t ask what I can say and I don’t seek guidance. If anyone really feels it brings the Bar into disrepute, the usual channels are available to them.
  5. I would welcome competition. I get nothing from this – I refuse advertising and commercial link-ups. The Bar has been good to me: a huge number of people at the Bar have helped me throughout my career, and continue to help me when they did not, and do not, have to. This is what I do to honour that behaviour. That there is no competition is just how things are – but criticism about what I write might fairly be looked at in that context.
  6. I detect no bandwagon of students complaining. On the contrary: the number of pupillages has gone down; the number of applicants have gone up; the cost has gone up. That formula should logically lead to resentment and frustration. What is noticeable is the extent to which it has not. The complaints voiced here (and elsewhere) are about particular behaviour. They can be – and they deserve to be – treated on their merits, rather than being made the subject of a non-particularised attack aimed at diminishing all of them.
  7. That a confident profession wishing to inspire public trust would be prepared to debate its use to society in public is something I take as a given. We are nothing if we are not trusted by our end users and potential end users. This debate merely extends that principle to our own behaviour to aspirants. It is neither a new departure nor a particularly remarkable thing.
  8. Where I do depart from regular debate is in permitting anonymity. That, of course, is open to abuse, which is why the post identifying particular Chambers makes it clear that these are subjective views and offers a right of reply (which no one has yet asked for). I take the view that people are more likely to express themselves freely when granted the right to be anonymous. Looking at what has been said by the various contributors it appears that I am correct in that assumption… I rely on the reader to sort the wheat from the chaff.
  9. It is important that aspirants do express themselves freely, because the nature of the system under which they formally labour is that they cannot really do so. I believe that the Bar thereby misses important feedback, which would assist it to be more responsive and even fairer than it currently is. The risk of damaged egos is less important. The risk of unfairness and duplicity is offset by the right to reply.
  10. Because it is difficult to assess the value of anonymous comment it is entirely conceivable that the Chambers named by particular commentators might simply ignore what has been said. Equally, they might chose to think about whether anything said could be justified. It is up to them.

The invitation referred to in the title is to those who wish me to think about what they say. Unlike student applicants they are in a position where they need not be concerned about what anyone thinks of them: they have already made it. And they have the best interests of the Bar at heart.

I invite them, therefore, to the conclusion that they should email me with their comments about the way in which the profession should treat applicants, the best way to deal with the sort of perceived (or, perish the thought, actual) problems that have been expressed below, and the value to the profession of not discussing these difficulties but simply leaving them to fester. Those emails should, of course, be in the real names of the people who have these concerns. I will publish – uncut – what I receive. Then everyone can judge for themselves.

All barristers are familiar with the issue of whether they will put their name to a particular submission. If they won’t it can be safely assumed that the submission is a poor one.

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A Modest Milestone

sylvester_i_and_constantineAt about 11pm this blog recorded its 100,000th hit. That includes both sites, so there is some duplication but nevertheless it is a milestone.

Some figures:

  • The blog has been up for 22 months
  • 84 posts
  • 961 people have clicked on ‘Why I Want to be a Barrister” making it the most popular post overall.
  • The “Tenancy and How to Get It Part 2: Advocacy” post attracted the most traffic within 72 hours.
  • 344 of you have emailed me asking for help or simply saying thank you. If I have not replied, I apologise. I think I have managed to respond to over 90% of those emails (this is not an invitation).
  • 2 institutions have offered to take me over and pay me to write. 4 organisations have offered me money to take advertising. But the main pleasure in doing this has been to say what I like, so the answer has always been no.

Some thank yous:

  • I hate the word blawg, but those who practice this secret vice have been extremely supportive.
  • The Benchers of my Inn (Middle) have recommended the blog to their students and have been kind enough to invite me to get involved with educational events run by the Inn. I have thoroughly enjoyed it and the peer support has been welcome.
  • A number of people teaching the BVC have also been very good about recommending the blog, especially Charon QC and the people in charge at Northumbria.
  • Alexander Robson and Georgina Woolfe were nice about the blog in their (helpful) book.

I have written 2 posts I regretted but have taken nothing down, because I think that rewriting history is wrong. Two people commented (fairly) on those posts, and about thirty have been nice about the whole enterprise but, as I would expect, the vast majority of the profession are utterly indifferent to the whole business save for making vaguely approving noises if a mini-pupil mentions the blog. Three barristers have expressed the view that this blog is really most undignified and does nothing for the image of the profession. It’s a free country.

The people for whom the blog is written seem to like it and to find it useful. I hope so. The Bar has, to its great credit, tried hard for at least 60 years to embrace diversity. What we do is important and it makes sense that people from every segment of society can play their part in that project. It helps us all if people feel that the law is something that involves them – not simply something that happens to them. The Bar as a whole – from top to bottom – wants to encourage you and wants you to succeed.

In the picture, the barrister is the not the man on the left. I hope that clears up any confusion.

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Interesting Non-Law Blogs

According to Charon QC I am now supposed to recommend 5 non-law blogs. I would not normally do this, but anything that expands the reading of the average law student is worth a try. Having just insulted my audience, let me give the recommendations to which they will now, I am sure, be receptive.

Strangely, I don’t actually spend all that much time looking at blogs, still less non-legal ones. But browsing the web, like anything else, reflects my individual interests. Therefore, for those who are interested in other legal systems I recommend Hirhurim. This is a moderate view of my religion (really) and is interesting for the range of subject matter upon which Jewish Law, or halacha, impacts.

Then there is English Cut. My grandfather was a tailor, as were so many Jewish immigrants to this country. I don’t think I can afford a suit from Mr Mahon, but the site is interesting about a difficult job and how to do it supremely well.

I don’t know if this is a site really, but I collect old watches (the other grandfather was a Jeweller) and this is a consistently interesting collection of exactly that. Don’t buy a Rolex – they’re hugely overrated.

Then there is the world’s greatest cartoon, delivered to my inbox every day and available here. Doonesbury has made me laugh for over 25 years, ever since my flatmate – who had taken the then remarkably adventurous step of spending a year at Georgetown University – introduced me to it.

Finally there is wine. I know, I know – it’s a sterotypical barrister thing. But I do like it and the endless variety, occasional disappointments and the ability to get a bargain is both seductive and reminiscent of life at the Bar. Robert Parker isn’t my thing – scores out of 100 with a minimum of 50 and a preference for blockbuster fruit over interest and subtlety. Jancis Robinson is excellent, but you have to pay. The best free site is Bordoverview. This has every critic’s score for every Bordeaux vintage since 2005. If you find something you like then enter it here and you’ll see if you can afford it – or not. Bordeaux is actually overpriced at the moment, but I haven’t been able to find a similar facility for Italien wine which is very good value. If you know of one, please tell me.

Have a nice weekend.