Your journey to pupillage
I studied law at university, and then I had other jobs in the legal industry for a couple of years before doing the Bar course, because I wanted to get some experience and work abroad for a bit.
I was a ‘stagiaire’ (basically a trainee) for six months in the Paris office of an English law firm, in its arbitration team; I did a short internship working on death-penalty appeals in Louisiana; and I worked for a year in the Legal Office of the UN World Food Programme in Rome (initially on a paid internship, after which I stayed on as an employee).
Thankfully, internships now seem increasingly to be paid, and there are a lot of opportunities out there either to get legal work experience (whether as a judicial assistant, as a paralegal or as something else entirely) or career experience in other fields. There really is no rush to do a pupillage, and lots of people have done a job in a completely different area for a few years beforehand (one of my co-pupils was in PR).
I think I did five or six mini-pupillages over the course of two application rounds. Minis give you some insight into what interests you, and are a way of showing interest in your target area. But I don’t think Chambers expects applicants to have done tens and tens of mini-pupillages – there is an awareness that it can be hard to fit them in around study and any work or family commitments.
I did some mooting at Gray’s Inn and with my Bar course provider, although I don’t think I won any prizes or anything. I also took on a social security case with FRU and did a bit of volunteering at a law centre. There is no prescribed set of things that you need to do in terms of mini-pupillages and pro bono work – the aim is just to gain a bit of experience and show interest.
It took me two rounds of applications to get pupillage, out of which I got one offer. I found the 11KBW application process to be refreshingly straight-up. There was no “tell me about a time when …”. Instead, there was an initial interview involving a short debate around a topical issue; then a mini-pupillage involving assessed written work and a discussion around that; then a final interview centred around a case I’d been sent a few days beforehand. (No specific prior legal knowledge was expected for any of this.)
The pupillage experience
Pupillage is structured into two three-month seats and one six-month one. The tenancy decision is normally taken nine months in. Pupillage is non-practising, save that you have the option of starting to practise post-decision. Pupils are not in competition with each other – in any given round, Chambers has capacity to take on all pupils as tenants.
Pupillage involves an ongoing assessment process. The bulk of time is spent doing written work for members of Chambers, whether on a live case or one that they have worked on recently. This is intended to test and develop pupils’ legal analysis and written advocacy skills.
In my first seat, almost all of my work was set by my pupil supervisor, and they marked and gave me feedback on each piece. This structure gives pupils time to find their feet without having to navigate different members’ ways of working. You get quite a lot of leeway in your first seat, especially, and it’s fine to make mistakes! I shadowed my supervisor to hearings, conferences and so on, but the focus was on written work.
In the second and third seats, I did work for a wider range of people (but with my supervisor allocating work and making sure that I wasn’t overloaded). The idea is that, by the end of nine months, most members of Chambers will have seen some of your work. All work in the second and third seats is double marked, against a scorecard, with feedback given by both markers. This makes the process feel very fair and objective.
I also had three oral advocacy assessments. For these, I was given a set of papers and two or three days to prepare, after which I appeared before two members of Chambers who acted as ‘judges’ and made the relevant application. The exercises focused on legal argument – for example, strike-out on a point of law.
The tenancy decision is made by the Pupillage and Tenancy Committee, on the basis of all the feedback gathered over the previous nine months from your written work and advocacy exercise (in some rare circumstances there can be a Chambers vote). It is fine to make some mistakes along the way, but the aim is to be hitting ‘tenancy standard’ fairly consistently in the last few months’ work.
Pupillage was a bit tiring at times, but it was incredibly effective at developing me as a lawyer. You spend a year doing what is often silk-level work, and getting feedback from very experienced barristers on what you’ve done well and what you could improve on.
The transition from pupil to tenant
Very smooth! The standard advice is that you should take an enormous holiday straight after the tenancy decision is made. After that, you can start work straight away – any earnings are on top of the pupillage award – and/or work with your final pupil supervisor to plug any gaps in experience.
The clerks will have an initial meeting with you to explain how things work and to discuss where you’d like to focus your practice etc. Most people keep their practice quite broad in the first two or three years at least, before deciding to become more specialised, but this is completely up to the individual tenant.
Right from the start, you are given total autonomy on how you want to develop your practice. Some people retain very broad practices even as QCs, and some people want to specialise quite early on. If you’re especially keen to do a particular area, the clerks will help you to target it.
Your first year of practice at 11KBW is rent free, and rent is capped at a lower rate than normal in your second year.
What is your practice like now?
Quite a lot of my day-to-day practice involves (by choice) employment law, which breaks down broadly into Employment Tribunal work (claims of unfair dismissal, discrimination, whistleblowing etc.) and High Court work (more ‘commercial’ cases, involving team moves, restrictive covenants and confidential information).
I also practise in other areas, especially information law (FOIA and data protection cases) and public law (judicial reviews). One of the great things about Chambers is that we have high quality practices in a lot of different areas, so there are juniors who focus on things as diverse as education law, public international law and environmental law.
It is hard to describe a typical day – the variety of the job is enormous, and is one of its biggest appeals for me. If I am doing a big trial, I could be in court for days at a time. On the other hand, in another month I might be doing a lot of drafting and advisory work and client calls, but only have four or five short hearings. This can vary heavily depending on luck, personal preference and practice area.
Chambers gets really good quality work, and you can get very early led experience in the High Court and appellate courts: in our first year of practice, my co-pupil appeared in the Supreme Court and I appeared in the Court of Appeal. There is also plenty of unled work to do, including for big-name clients and including at High Court and appellate levels (the Upper Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal are great forums in which to get early appellate experience in front of High Court judges).
The mix of led and unled opportunities is one of the things I like most about Chambers. Led work is good because it gives you the chance to learn from more senior barristers and it gets you involved in high-profile cases. But it’s also nice to run with things yourself sometimes, and to do your own advocacy. Junior tenants get a lot of good quality unled work in (for example) the Employment Tribunal and the First-Tier Tribunal.
My working hours are pretty variable, but I have complete control over how much I take on. Chambers really respects your autonomy, even when you are very junior. For example, I decided to take three months out to go abroad when I was only a couple of years into practice, and faced no pushback at all. The clerks won’t put a hearing in your diary without checking in with you first.
There have been periods in which I have ended up working long hours seven days a week, but that will generally be because I have overcommitted myself or am in the thick of a big case. The nature of the job is such that it’s hard to avoid weekend and evening work completely, but some people are very good at keeping it to a rarity. There is absolutely no obligation to take on so much work that it spills over into your evenings and weekends on a regular basis (or indeed to take on any particular level of work at all).
What is the culture of chambers?
Chambers is an incredibly friendly and supportive place to practice. I’ve lost count of the number of times that colleagues have helped me out with a legal question, an ethical conundrum or a stressful situation that I’ve found myself in.
I remember one occasion, in pupillage, on which I had somehow ended up agreeing to do a four-day trial in the Employment Tribunal via FRU. I bumped into another barrister as I left Chambers on the first morning, and she walked over to the Tribunal with me answering all of my newbie questions about procedure.
All this goes just as much for the clerks and other staff as other barristers. The clerks are great to work with and are very supportive, both in terms of helping you to develop your practice in the way that you want and in making your life a lot easier day to day.
Chambers is pretty sociable. We have a standing ‘Chambers tea’ once a week which is basically drop-in tea and cake, and there’s a committee that organises specific social events both in and out of chambers, probably about once a month or so. It’s generally easy enough to find someone to go to the pub with, of an evening, if you want to.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
The prerequisites are solid grades (subject to any mitigating circumstances) and the demonstration of interest through some combination of things like mooting, advocacy experience, career background etc. (although there is no particular magic formula there).
If you have those, then the key thing is to showcase your legal and advocacy skills at every stage of the application process. Make sure that your application form is super concise, and be prepared to argue a point at interview and on the assessed mini.