Pupillage: What to Expect

About to start pupillage? Don’t panic! Henderson Chambers’ Rachel Tandy offers some advice to help you hit the ground running.

So. You’ve got pupillage. Congratulations! After having slogged your guts out on the interview circuit for a year or more, you could be forgiven for thinking you deserve a break.

Unfortunately for you, the hard part hasn’t even started yet. Er… sorry about that.

The truth is, we all know pupillage is a tough year. But it can help if you have at least some idea of what to expect before you begin. Obviously it’s incredibly difficult to give you a proper steer on what your pupillage will entail. All sets do different work, have different structures and different approaches, and the pupillages they offer vary wildly as a result. But what follows is a list of broad pointers that probably won’t do you any harm.

Know your audience. The character and approach of your pupil supervisor will have an enormous bearing on your experience of pupillage, so try to get a handle on who they are and what they like pretty quickly. As a general rule, I tended to mirror whatever hours my supervisors chose to keep – so if they came in early but left early, I tried to do the same; if they were night owls, I slept in and kept up.

Be visible. If you aren’t in chambers, no-one will know what you’re up to. This is not a good thing if you’re in the habit of working late. Tempting as it can be to get to 7pm and think “I’ll do the rest at home,” my personal advice would be to hang around. First, it means someone is likely to notice that you’re committed to your work. Second, it means it’s easier to keep work separate from play – so that when you do get home, you can properly relax.

Having said that, there are some sets that make their pupils go home at a certain time. Don’t be fooled into thinking this means your work does not need to get done. A deadline is a deadline – if you’re going to be sent home, you either need to cram like mad in the daytime, or sneak your work out of the door with you.

…but for the right reasons. You do, of course, want to appear friendly and a potential asset to chambers. You do not want to appear a sociopath / a total liability / an alcoholic. Sometimes (and particularly when you are in the grip of pupillage paranoia) it’s easy to convince yourself you’ve got the balance wrong and everyone in chambers thinks you’re a numpty. Obviously your ways of dealing with those worries will depend on which chambers you are at – but my golden rule was never to risk being the last one standing. If I could count the number of people left in the room on the fingers of one hand, I made my excuses and left.

Schmooze the right people. There are likely to be certain individuals within chambers who you are expected to do work for at some point during the year. Your pupil supervisor should help you coordinate this, but in case they don’t – make sure you know who you need to work for, and keep an eye on how many you get through. Don’t be tempted to save the best until last in the hope that your legal research skills will be more finely honed. Things really hot up in your second six if you have your own caseload, so you’d be wise to get as much work as you can completed before you’re on your feet.

Keep records. The amount of admin that is required when you complete pupillage is, quite frankly, staggering. One of the monstrosities that awaits you is the pupillage checklist, which you must complete in order to satisfy the Bar Standards Board that you have seen enough of the right kind of work. It’s a good idea to cast your eye over it now so you are aware what you are aiming for. And you will thank yourself later if you keep a list of all the work you’ve done as you go – it doesn’t matter if it’s a spreadsheet, a diary, or scribbled on the back of a fortune cookie scrunched up in your handbag, as long as you can find it at the end of the year. It will also help you keep track, meaning that if you feel you’re falling behind – for example, if you get to April without having done any pleadings – you can speak to your supervisor and fix it before it’s too late.

Show me the money. The vast majority of barristers are self-employed. You might know this fate awaits you, but somehow it is still a shock when, come September, your pupillage award disappears and you’re still waiting to get paid for that hearing you did six months ago. To avoid getting caught short, make sure you know how much of your award is payable when (particularly if some of it is in the form of guaranteed earnings), and try to put some of it aside to soften the blow if you can. It’s also not a bad idea to get to know your bank manager.

Don’t forget about your clerks. You should get in the habit of always going into the clerks’ room at the beginning and end of the day to check your pigeon hole. You will feel like a total plonker during your first six at least, because you’ll have absolutely no post whatsoever. I mean, what are you waiting for? A letter from the Supreme Court informing you that Jonathan Sumption isn’t feeling well today and asking you to come and fill in for him? (Embarrassingly, I once felt so awkward and silly for going into the clerks room fifty times a day that I ACTUALLY cracked a joke along these lines. The guys laughed. I think it was out of pity rather than anything else). But it can be important to be seen, say hi, and get to know your clerks the same way you try to get to know everyone else in chambers. When it comes to the crunch, they too will have – and may be asked for – an opinion on whether you stay or go. And all of that aside – they’re usually bloody good fun.

Golden rules for going to court with your supervisor

  • If you’re meeting at court, get there early.
  • Always look up how far the station is from court, get the train before the train that gets you there on time, and have enough cash for a taxi just in case.
  • Unless you’re a genius, pretty much the only thing you can do better than your supervisor at court is take notes. Make sure you have enough space in your blue book (take two if you’re not sure, or – even better – your laptop) and try to make them as detailed as possible. This is particularly important when witnesses for the other side are giving evidence.
  • Sometimes, the most helpful thing you can do is offer to go and buy lunch, then sit quietly in the corner while your supervisor preps for the afternoon.
  • Don’t advise clients, and know when to shut up (clue: if your supervisor is kicking you under the table, you’re already too late).

Golden rules when working for other people in chambers

  • Always ask for a deadline. “Whenever you can” means different things to different people.
  • If you can’t meet that deadline, say so as soon as you can, and try to offer something (e.g. a chronology) that shows you haven’t just been sitting on your backside for a week.
  • Always check whether you can mark bundles, highlight, or add post-it notes. A lot of barristers really hate having their papers tampered with, or at least will want to know which marks are yours and which are theirs.
  • Once you’ve handed in a piece of work – forget about it! It’s easy to dwell on work and convince yourself something was rubbish when in reality it was absolutely fine. You simply cannot be objective during pupillage. Accept this, and don’t try to over-analyse.

And finally – don’t forget, as well as being there to learn, you’re there to help out. During my first month of pupillage, I generally felt like a burden to everyone. That all changed when, one evening, a member of chambers popped his head round our door to find me and my supervisor both up to our eyes in lever arch files. Our visitor asked my supervisor if he was under the cosh. He nodded and agreed he was busy. Then he looked at me and said (I’ll never forget these next four words) “Thank God for pupils.”

It might have been a throwaway comment, but it meant a lot to me to realise that my presence and work was helpful. So even in the darkest moments of pupillage, don’t forget that, as much as you need your set and your supervisor – on some level, they are grateful for you, too.