Surviving pupillage: the view from the clerks’ room

You are low in the hierarchy here,” said the senior clerk to the junior clerk, “but he” – pointing at the pupil – “is lower than you”.*

Such was the way of the world when I first started clerking. Pupils were the frightened rabbits of chambers, scurrying around after their pupil masters or mistresses looking bewildered and terrified in equal measure.

Things have changed and thankfully for the better. The term pupil master or mistress has gone to be replaced by the far less sinister pupil supervisor. No more should pupils be obliged to act as a courier service or nanny for their pupil supervisor – there is still, however, the horror of updating loose leaf legal texts.

Tea
A clerks’ room runs on tea and coffee so it’s always worth offering to provide some fuel for the engine room.

If things have changed then what challenges will the modern pupil face and how best should pupillage be approached?

The first six months is primarily a learning exercise. It is therefore vital that every opportunity is taken to learn from as many different sources as possible. In practical terms this means offering to attend court with and undertake work for as many tenants as you possibly can.

This provides two key benefits: the first is that you get to see lots of different approaches to preparation, advocacy, paperwork etc.

The second is that you get to network with the people who will one day decide on your future application for tenancy. A couple of notes of caution in your approach; always get your pupil supervisor’s approval before undertaking work for others, and if you are given work for another tenant whatever you do make sure you meet whatever deadline is set for completion. No-one in chambers is looking to catch you out or see you fail; they are, however, looking to see how you will manage as a practising barrister. If you miss a deadline in practice you may be looking at a wasted costs order or a claim being struck out.

There may well come a point where you have too much work. If you find that you aren’t going to be able to get everything done then remember the invaluable advice of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – Don’t Panic! Speak to your pupil supervisor and get their advice – ask them which you should prioritise. If you have promised work to other barristers make sure you inform them of your difficulties and ask for more time if necessary.

You will need to forge a relationship with your clerks. They may ask you to deal with certain tasks, finding and printing case law being a common request. Remember that as you begin your second six months you will be relying on the clerks to find you work. If you can show the clerks your abilities, enthusiasm and efficiency by helping them out it will give them an impression of you which will then form part of way that they sell you to solicitors.

Remember that a clerks’ room runs on tea and coffee so it’s always worth offering to provide some fuel for the engine room.

All being well you have navigated your first six and have worked for and with a good range of the tenants, you will have impressed the clerks with your willingness to get stuck in and will now be on the verge of dealing with your own case load. Now is the time to start building the relationships that will pay your rent and put food on your table.

Ultimately it is your instructing solicitor, chartered legal executive or paralegal who will provide your income. You will have made some connections in your first six but that would have been through your pupil supervisor or other tenants, now it’s all about you. Providing a good solid legal service is not enough on its own. You need to provide a high level of service from start to finish.

Make contact with those instructing you before you do the work to show your diligence in reading and understanding your instructions. Follow up when you have completed the work so your instructing solicitor knows the outcome. The correct method of contact will vary based on individual preferences so find out if the solicitor wants a phone call or an e-mail after a hearing.

If you get the chance to touch base in a more social environment, over a coffee or a beer, then take the opportunity. Chambers provides you with a base and a support network, the clerks will administer your practice and find you some work but if you want to really succeed you have to put some considerable effort into ensuring that you have a network of instructing solicitors who will ask for you.

Pupillage can be hard but do the basics well, work hard, be conscientious and try and keep a smile on your face and you should find it bearable.

The author is a senior clerk. He Tweets at @notabarrister and his blog can be found here.

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