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Great Expectations

I toyed with the idea of calling this post ‘Wall of Shame Redux’ and inviting posts on the topic of interviews and feedback, rather than the accusations which have bedevilled the last post. However, I thought I ought to make my position clear where it can be seen by all. Please, please do post your experiences of interview and feedback on the Post below. As I did last year, I will collate them in due course and publish the results. It is helpful to those who come next.

Now for the vexed topic of appropriate behaviour.

I started this blog because the website which preceded it (and which I began largely to amuse myself and to try to assemble a FAQ for pupillage) produced so much correspondence. I am a dreadful hoarder of correspondence, but when I cleaned out my inbox recently – as I think one should when it exceeds 15,000 emails – I discovered to my shock that in the last 10 years (my records go no further) I have received over 800 emails about pupillage and associated topics, of which I was able to answer about 630 (my apologies to those to whom I could not reply). That suggests a need for information.

When writing I express my view and no one else’s. The Bar rarely has a party line anyway. I have disclosed my involvement with the BSB and, although I acknowledge the danger of a separate regulator (ask most solicitors for their views of the SRA), it seems to me that the Spanish practices which passed without comment in the previous generation (including those which assisted me to get my own pupillage) need to be eliminated. If it is to survive, the Bar needs the best people it can attract. It also needs to be responsive to developments in the way people think and behave (essential in a referral profession of advocates) and to accommodate complaints. The days when people deferred to their social betters are now over, and thank the Lord for that. Accordingly, I have happily published criticism and challenge and I have never moderated comments; still less deleted a comment which was not spam, unless its maker requested it.

I have proceeded on the basis that most readers here are, or have at least some thought of becoming, a barrister. After all, you would have to be slightly deranged to come here otherwise. That being so it seemed to me that I could expect a particular approach from people who wished to respond to what I wrote. It seems now that it may be necessary to spell that out in slightly greater detail.

  • I have never asked people to identify themselves. The reason should be obvious but it may help to set it out. It is so that any question can be asked and any comment made without risk (real or perceived) to the maker. Anonymity goes only to weight. However, the privilege of anonymity is not granted so that accusations of professional misconduct can be made. If a reader has a concern about misconduct they are free to contact me directly. As a number of you can testify, I do not require identities and I do not pass them to anyone else without express permission from the person who has contacted me.  An anonymous accusation permits the accuser to claim a knowledge they may not have on the basis of facts about themselves which cannot be checked. It is impossible for anyone to respond to such accusations. This is not about preventing criticism, but about being fair and acting with integrity. If you cannot accept that position then the best advice I can give you is to find another job, because your own moral code does not equip you for this one.
  • Rudeness is discouraged. You are entitled to argue your corner and to point out deficiencies in what others are saying: punch pulling is not required. Occasionally, rudeness is justified (never in Court) and occasionally it is funny. I treasure the moment I heard a colleague say – to another barrister who had been appallingly and unjustifiably rude and who had then sought to make amends by issuing an invitation to dinner – ‘I am sorry but I have a subsequent engagement’. And I admire the man who said of someone considerably senior to him and most unpleasant – ‘There’s only two things I dislike about X: his face’. But unless it is in that category and unless it is aimed at someone more powerful than you, there is to be no rudeness. If you are rude to me I will not delete it, but neither should you expect an indulgent pat on the head. If you feel a need to be cheeky to the teacher then give up ideas of the Bar until you have grown up.
  • I do not prevent anyone taking out their frustrations at the pupillage process and their own difficulties. The pupillage process is frustrating and good candidates – who would make good barristers – do fail. Sometimes Chambers do not pick the best candidates and sometimes that fact is obvious to the student body. And sometimes there is a reason for the pick which goes beyond cock-up.  But not often.  There must never be an assumption that what a particular person or group of people regard as a bad or odd pick is an abuse of the system. To make such an assumption is to begin from the belief that the profession is corrupt. If you really think that, then you know nothing about Barristers and you are at risk of falling into the trap of deluding yourself that your own failures are not down to your own imperfections. That way madness lies.
  • This blog is not here for you to indulge yourself  about your own failure to become a barrister by laying it at the door of an unfeeling profession, to which you voluntarily applied;  a nepotistic pupillage committee, to which you voluntarily submitted yourself; or a determination on the part of an Oxbridge elite to perpetuate itself if your CV is distinctly average, as are your academic results. This ties in with what I have said about anonymity. If you are on the verge of making such an accusation then ask yourself whether your most critical tutor would support it: if not then why should anyone else? If your answer is that your tutors hate you then that is, I suggest, a clue to the real problem. Sometimes mistakes are made: if mistakes only happen to other people then you aren’t fit for the job.
  • No flame wars and no ad hominem attacks. This is not just about rudeness. This is a blog for aspiring barristers. If you can’t argue it in a convincing way or without attacking the person you disagree with, shut up please. And if you could do it but can’t be bothered, then comment when you can be bothered.

These are not rules and they are not an attempt to limit your freedom. I do ban racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist and other such comments, with which I have not troubled to deal above. The reason for this Post is that I cannot run the blog if my assumptions about how people will respond are not to be fulfilled in very large part.

There are good reasons for this. Firstly, I am a Barrister. I love my profession, I admire my colleagues and I am certain that the work we do is vital to the proper and fair functioning of this country and the wellbeing of its citizens. I am not interested in hosting a blog where disgruntled applicants can trash the job I do for no better reason than that their self-esteem requires them to assert that their own failings are the fault of someone else – preferably lots of other people all conspiring together. People who are not in that position would normally contact me privately before posting damaging information and certainly when asked to do so.

Secondly, this blog – for better or worse – is widely read by law students and BPTC students. I am well aware that rumours circulate like a forest fire. People are put off applying to decent sets of Chambers where they would have a chance. Other sets of Chambers then receive more applicants, thereby lessening the chances for all. The reputation of Chambers and individuals within those Chambers suffer from such rumours, without affording the people involved the slightest chance to defend themselves or confront their accusers so that they can test the evidence. That is unjust and the injustice is amplified by its  happening within a profession dedicated to the elimination of injustice. I am not interested in hosting an opportunity for that injustice.

Thirdly, such behaviour allows a few unpleasant and bellicose commentators to dominate the comments. That, in turn may deter people from asking questions and sharing information which would assist them and others.

Finally I want to make it clear that I have ensured that I have no involvement with pupillage in my own Chambers. I promote no candidates, recommend no one other than on the basis of a mini-pupillage spent with me, offer no mini-pupillages based on comments on the blog and write no recommendations which I cannot back up with personal experience. You can say what you like here and it will neither help nor hinder you, save and insofar as you learn something that assists. The reasons I want professional behaviour are transparently and fully set out above.

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Vote. For two reasons. Firstly because, as aspiring barristers in a country where Parliament is sovereign, a certain interest in the makeup of the legislature is important.

Secondly, because the rule of law is a critical component of any civilized society. We cannot guarantee to get it right, but we can guarantee that everyone is treated equally. In this election, one party is standing which is not committed to the rule of law. The British National Party would not treat everybody in the same way under the law, and would write laws which discriminated between people on the basis of their race or colour. If you vote, the share of the vote which the BNP gets goes down (assuming you don’t vote for them of course). That, in turn, makes an important statement about how repellent fascism is.

How you vote is up to you. Unlike journalists I don’t have to endorse whoever my employer feels would be most likely to invite my employer to Downing Street. But do vote.

Life at the Bar · Other Sites · This Blog

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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Let me know what you think. The Editorial is down the right hand side at the bottom. The personal information is on the ‘About the Author’ page which can be accessed from the top of this page. The jokes have a page of their own. Content is pretty well unchanged (I have slightly altered the personal information to suit the new surroundings). There is now a search function and I have also added a list of categories, which should help you find groups of posts which may be useful.

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This blog is on its holidays until the end of July. Any silence will, I trust, be forgiven. Have a good month – hope the exam results and the interview results go your way. Please let me know how you did. More, all being well, in August.