Maximise your mini

It is common for law undergraduates to be told to do a mini pupillage before thinking seriously about the bar as a career choice. But with just a few days in chambers, how do you impress, and what can you really get out of the experience in such a short time? Henderson Chambers’ Rachel Tandy has the answers.

Mini pupillages. They are weird things. Every self-respecting young barrister has done them, but it’s easy to treat them just as something to be got out of the way in time for pupillage applications. After all, once you have one, all you need to do is sit at the back of court and try not to fall asleep. Right?

Wrong. No matter how hard it tries not to be, the bar is still a slightly oddball profession, and one which is difficult to fully understand or appreciate until you’re already up to your neck in it. There are so many sets out there that it can be difficult to get a handle on what each one is all about. Yet many talk about the elusive concept of a pupillage candidate’s “fit” with chambers.

So how do you know whether you are going to “fit” – with a set, or with the bar at all? To set yourself apart from the hundreds of other applicants stuck in this conundrum, you need insider information on the chambers you are applying to, how they work, and what the relevant areas of law involve. That’s where your mini comes in.

What to get out of it

Your mini can help you find out what you want out of your future career. Use it to watch the way other barristers work, and decide what suits you and what doesn’t. If you find that you love being in court twice a day, every day, you’re likely to thrive at criminal sets; alternatively if you would rather spend all your time at your desk reading obscure cases from the 1700s, you’re probably more suited to chancery work. These are obviously pretty broad generalisations, but they will help you to at least start narrowing down your pupillage search.

You should take the opportunity to tap up the junior juniors and pupils for their opinions. Obviously they are unlikely to thank you for simply turning up at their door with a list of questions, but do make the most of any opportunity you have to chat with anyone under five years’ call. What kind of practice do they have? How often are they in court? What areas do they practice in? What kind of work generally is there at the bottom end? Do they tend to be led or are they in court on their own from the outset? It is also wise to look out for things which will tell you about the social makeup of chambers, such as whether there is an ‘open-door’ policy, and any chambers rituals like afternoon tea or chambers drinks. All of these bits of information will help you piece together what sort of set it is, so that when you’re asked “why these chambers?” you will actually have something to say.

Unfortunately, there’s no getting away from the fact that minis can sometimes be spectacularly, fist-crashingly dull. But there is usually something – however small – that you can salvage from any moments of boredom. For example, if you are out at court with junior juniors, you might find yourself watching very basic, short applications in the county court. The hearings won’t usually last more than five minutes, but they will often be on a long list that runs over, meaning you can find yourself waiting for hours in far-flung places to get in front of a Judge. At the end of all that, you might be forgiven for thinking that you have learnt nothing, and you have missed lunch in the process. But what you will have gained in that afternoon is a proper understanding of the reality of life as a junior barrister. So, rather than wheeling out a load of idealistic rhetoric in your pupillage interviews, you can make sure you present as someone with a clear picture of what you want and what it entails.

Finally, take good notes, in a notebook, and not on the back of an envelope. It’s no good putting a mini on your CV if you can’t talk intelligently about it four months later in an interview. You might also find yourself in a position where the barrister you are with wants to see your note in case he or she has missed anything out – it’s mighty embarrassing if they flick through your book to find nothing but a shopping list and some doodles of sheep. I still have a note I kept of some expert evidence on the street value of cocaine circa 2007 – not because I’m thinking of changing career, but because a barrister in a drugs trial once got the numbers confused, asked to see my note, and referred to it in his closing speech. I still remember the rush I felt at having contributed in some small way to that case.

Mini Pupil Etiquette

The one thing I want to emphasise here is that all barristers know that you are likely to be at the beginning of your career. No-one is expecting you to be the complete package yet, and most will forgive you a few trips and slips whilst you’re finding your way. But having said that, there are a few ground rules you would be wise to observe whilst you’re on a mini pupillage:

  • Be discreet. Most sets will ask you to sign a confidentiality policy, but even if they don’t, you will be unpopular if you spill the details of a marriage breakdown or a particularly gruesome medical report. Be careful to look after any paperwork you are given (or return it at the end of the week), try not to discuss cases outside work, and don’t refer to any involved parties by name.

  • Don’t be afraid to say (politely) what you need. If you have an interest in any particular area of law, speak up, so that your chambers can try to arrange for you to see that kind of work. Similarly, if you have literally no idea, there is no shame in saying so; your barrister should understand that the thing that will help you the most is gaining experience of as broad a range of work as possible.

  • Don’t ask stupid questions. I always find it surprising how often mini-pupils and law fair attendees fail to prepare and end up asking about, for example, the difference between a solicitor and a barrister. You might not be expected to have any in-depth legal knowledge, but it is easy enough to arm yourself with the basics about the profession in general. Doing so will ensure you can get the most out of your time in chambers, and will help you avoid looking like an idiot.

  • The best time to ask questions about something is on the way back from court. That tends to be the least stressful point in a barrister’s day, so he or she is more likely to be willing to chat unreservedly. Make sure your solicitor, lay client, and your opponent are all out of earshot before you begin, and again, if you are somewhere public, remember to be discreet.

  • When you are at court, the old adage “speak when you’re spoken to” is a very good rule of thumb. Of course you can take the lead from your barrister – if they are trying to engage you in conversation, staying mute is not going to win you any friends – but if in doubt, play it safe and stay quiet.

  • If you’re meeting at court, always make sure you know where you’re going, and leave plenty of time to get there. For girls, flat shoes (so you can keep up with a barrister hot-footing it between courts) are a must.

  • If you’re working in chambers, the worst thing you can do is talk through your papers aimlessly as you go. As helpful as your barrister might want to be, they will have work to do too, and they will probably want to get on with it without interruption. So, make a list of the questions you want to ask or the issues that don’t make sense to you, and ask whether you can set aside some time to talk through those things later in the afternoon. They will be more than happy to help you if they can plan the rest of their day accordingly.

Ultimately, as a mini-pupil, you need to strike a balance between being a shrinking violet and being downright overbearing. Neither extreme is appropriate, and it can be nerve-wracking to try to avoid both. When I think back over the mini pupils I have looked after since I have been a tenant, the ones I remember are those who were bright, engaging, asked intelligent, well-considered questions, behaved appropriately, and were interesting and fun to be around. It might sound like a big shopping list, but it is one any applicant would be wise to covet – not just as a mini, but as a prospective pupil too.