The curious case of the mini-pupillage…

All aspiring barristers know that careers advisers, established practitioners and indeed even law student websites wax lyrical about the importance of mini-pupillages. What’s more my BPTC provider’s strict admissions criteria require applicants to have completed no fewer than three.

Some chambers even insist that you do a mini-pupillage with them before you can be considered for the real thing. But what do they entail and what’s to be said for their utility?

Having done a few mini-pupillages before commencing the GDL last September I thought I had a pretty good idea of what they’re about. Unlike vacation schemes for budding solicitors, there’s no actual work to be done (unless it’s an assessed mini-pupillage, though these aren’t prevalent in my chosen practice areas). As such, the utility is found mostly in what you see and from the experience. For those who don’t know, on mini-pupillages one ‘shadows’ various barristers at court, sits in chambers reading bundles and if lucky, is taken to lunch.

I recently completed a three day mini-pupillage with a London personal injury and employment set. The experience was decidedly different to what I expected based on previous mini-pupillages and it was refreshing to see that they aren’t all homogenous. 

On day one I found myself hurrying to West London County Court and to watch a ‘credit hire’ hearing before a District Judge. It lasted about 30 minutes – featuring a fairly straightforward cross-examination by my barrister. After the case, the barrister had to leave and told me I was meeting another barrister in the afternoon at Central London County Court. I had three hours to kill so had a (very) leisurely lunch near my next court. The second barrister was relatively junior and rattled through the case facts when we met. Apparently we were there to ask for the case be transferred to the multi-track as the value of the claim was too high for small claims. The District Judge agreed with my barrister’s solitary yet apt submission: eight minutes in and job done.

On my second day I was sent to Bromley County Court (in Kent). The first hearing (credit hire small claims) was listed for 10am but our case was eventually heard at around midday. My barrister chatted to me for a bit and then immersed herself in a rather hefty novel, candidly informing me that she had read over two thirds of it in the last two days due to delays in court. The afternoon hearing in the same court and with the same barrister was a personal injury case on quantum and the District Judge flung his judgment down from the bench with rapidity. The day had been approximately 70 per cent sitting in the waiting room reading the Metro and twiddling my thumbs, 25 per cent train travel and just 5 per cent in court watching fairly mundane procedural matters (not the dazzling displays of rhetoric one sees in courtroom dramas). However, I gauged that this was the norm.

On the third day, far from creating the Earth and sea, I found myself at Liverpool Street Station calling the clerks and asking what far flung corner of London (or Kent) I was being sent to since I hadn’t been told the night before as was customary. I was sent to Medway County Court in Chatham, Kent. Due to the general incompetence of national rail services the journey took around two hours. The train was empty save for myself and one or two other travellers. And despite being the hottest day of the year the train, predictably, lacked air conditioning. The voyage of the damned was made worse by the fact that some industrious network rail employee had already cleared all the Metros leaving me with nothing to read and a blackberry with no signal. If any of you have travelled to this area of Kent you will also know that the ‘scenery’ leaves something to be desired so I had literally nothing to do save fret about arriving so late. After a harrowing search for the county court (the locals could understandably only direct me to the Magistrate’s and Crown Courts) I arrived at court to be told by a sympathetic junior barrister that the claimants had gone to the wrong court (in Wales) and the hearing had been adjourned. I returned to chambers and in the afternoon was treated to afternoon tea with some of the other members.

Readers would be forgiven for thinking I found this mini-pupillage to be a disappointing waste of time. If measured against other mini-pupillages where I have shadowed silks in the Crown and High courts, it was. But only in terms of excitement. Indeed the account of my three days would suggest that the sum total of my three days was train travel and sitting around in court waiting rooms. However, I can quite honestly say that this was the most useful mini-pupillage I’ve undertaken. If the primary purpose of (non-assessed) mini-pupillages is seeing what life is really like as a barrister at that specific set then this mini-pupillage was a triumph. Life at the junior end of the civil bar (I can’t speak for commercial/ criminal practice) will involve lots of small claims and procedural matters like costs applications. Juniors will be sent to remote areas outside of London and told on arrival that the case is adjourned. It’s a fact of life at the Bar and I was grateful to learn this.

Some chambers try to impress their mini-pupils by sending them to the Court of Appeal with silks to see cases debating obscenely difficult points of law or to Crown courts to watch media riddled murder trials. The trouble is, you won’t be at this stage for many years and so one ponders – what is the point of the experience? Some argue that seeing such cases is useful experience for when a pupil or junior is eventually ‘led’ in such cases or that it serves to whet mini-pupils’ appetites for the Bar for those who are still undecided. These are both valid points and I have certainly enjoyed all my mini-pupillages. However, this most recent one addled with train delays, waiting rooms, last minute changes and sprints around unfamiliar areas cursing Google maps, was the most useful. The mini-pupillage did what it was supposed to – it showed me what life would be like as a pupil or a junior tenant at this set. No smoke and mirrors, just cold reality. I didn’t have too much to write on my CV under the heading ‘mini-pupillage 2010’ but by Jove I gained some real experience of life as a junior tenant at this set. 

So it seems the careers advisors were right. All my mini-pupillages have been markedly different and given me entirely different impressions about both the Bar and each particular set. However, I wouldn’t advise doing tonnes of mini-pupillages – a girl on the GDL this year seemed to collect them like ‘Scouts’ badges and I don’t think she gained much from them except maybe another line on her CV. One hundred mini-pupillages is no guarantee of pupillage and probably make the applicant look a bit deranged. A well chosen handful should suffice and if you’re very lucky you might find ‘the’ chambers for you.