Your journey to pupillage
I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics for my undergraduate degree at Oxford University, before going straight on to do both the GDL and BPTC at City University in London. I didn’t have much legal work experience before starting law school, so ended up applying for and doing quite a few mini-pupillages during the first term of the GDL. City provided various opportunities for mooting, both internally and externally, so I was also able to gain experience of that at the same time.
I applied to a number of sets of chambers following my first term of the GDL. I had already done mini-pupillages at some, though not all, of them. These were all sets operating outside the “Pupillage Gateway”, so their application processes varied. However, in broad terms each consisted of: (i) a written application, including a full CV and answering various questions about your attributes, why you wanted to be a barrister etc; (ii) if selected, a short first-round interview, usually in front of one or two members of chambers; and (iii) if successful, a longer second-round interview in front of a larger panel, often involving a legal problem which candidates had to work through.
The pupillage experience
I first became aware of 4 New Square when they ran the introductory mooting course for City students during the first week of the GDL. This is a great event where each group of four is assigned their own member of chambers, who judges a moot and then gives feedback on oral advocacy. I subsequently applied for a mini-pupillage there, which I enjoyed, and so made a full application for pupillage. I was attracted in particular by the prestigious varied nature of the work, as well as the opportunities to be in court and doing oral advocacy from a very early stage.
My pupillage at 4 New Square was divided into three “seats”, the first two of three months each and the final one of six months. During each seat, I sat with a different supervisor, each of whom were of around ten years call. The day-to-day experience of pupillage was carrying out work for your supervisor, whether assisting with their current work or being set a task based on work they had done in the past. All work done for our supervisors was marked by them and we were given regular feedback. There were also, throughout the year, four written assessments set by members of chambers other than the pupil supervisors. These would be marked by the setter and formed another part of the overall decision. These assessments took the form of pleadings or advice which we had around 24-hours to complete. Finally, there were two moots held by chambers, where the pupils would moot against one another, judged by former members of chambers who are now High Court or Court of Appeal judges. These were very enjoyable, not only because you got to go up against your fellow pupils but also because it provided something very different to the usual experience of sitting behind your supervisor in court!
At the end of each seat, we would receive a full written appraisal and attend a formal review meeting. The process is very transparent; it was always made clear to us at each stage how things were going and any areas which needed improvement. Finally, after nine months (i.e. in the middle of the third seat) we received a decision on whether we would be offered tenancy.
The advantage of sitting with three different supervisors is that it allows you to see the full spectrum of chambers’ work. For example, during my pupillage I assisted with various claims for and against a wide array of professionals, a construction arbitration concerning a large development in London and a £50 million fraud and conspiracy claim arising out of the sale of classic cars.
Pupillage at 4 New Square also involves a practising second six, so during your third seat, alongside continuing to carry out work for your supervisor, you are able to accept instructions in your own right. This generally means getting “on your feet” and attending your own hearings. These tend to be relatively low-value claims in the County Court, but the opportunities they provide for real oral advocacy are invaluable. Unfortunately, the first lockdown hit just as my second six was starting, so my opportunities to get into court were initially quite limited. However, I was able to get into court (albeit remotely!) very frequently from the first few months of tenancy onwards. There may also be opportunities to work on larger cases while still a pupil. For example, towards the end of my pupillage I was instructed to carry out work relating to a high-profile insurance dispute, which involved (virtually) attending a two-week Commercial Court trial.
The transition from pupil to tenant
The transition can be a tricky one at the best of times, and it was made even stranger by the fact that the country was still in lockdown and I was largely working remotely. However, chambers is very supportive of new tenants and this helps make things as smooth as possible. For example, you usually begin by sharing a room with a more senior member of chambers who is around the same level of seniority as a pupil supervisor. I have found that this allows you to carry on learning things from them in your early months as a tenant – and it is also very useful to have a friendly ear whenever you encounter an issue for the first time!
During my first few months in chambers, I was instructed as part of a large counsel team in chambers in relation to a $1 billion Russian fraud claim in the Chancery Division. This was a case which I had previously assisted my supervisor on while still a pupil, so the fact that I was already familiar with the case was certainly very useful. I also increasingly began to attend my own hearings, mostly remotely, on a wide range of matters in the County Court and High Court. I am now instructed on a number of matters which I first encountered in my time as a pupil.
What is your practice like now?
My practice is split fairly evenly between larger matters where I am led by other, more senior, members of chambers, and working on my own cases. The latter category involves advising, drafting pleadings and other documents and attending court. I have a broad commercial practice, with a particular focus on professional liability, insurance, construction and civil fraud.
I have found that there is no such thing as a “typical working week” in this job, although generally I appear in court once or twice a week, with the rest of my time spent working on documents and attending conferences on other matters. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of litigation, the hours you might need to work in a given week are unpredictable. There are always going to be late nights and weekend work when you are in the middle of a big trial or a deadline is looming, but the flipside is that it is certainly possible to build in gaps in your diary when needed. Opportunities for work come in very frequently, so it can be a bit of a balancing act to work out the exact amount to take on and when. But the clerks are very supportive and understanding, which helps you to build the kind of practice that you want.
What is the culture of chambers?
Being able to work in handsome rooms overlooking New Square is definitely a perk of working at 4 New Square. Chambers also has several conference rooms on site, some of which are now equipped for video-conferencing and the new world of remote hearings. There are a number of kitchens for those who want to make breakfast, lunch or just a cup of coffee. 4 New Square is a relatively large set, spread across two buildings, so inevitably you get to know some colleagues better than others. People often have their doors open, which means you end up becoming very familiar with the people on your corridor. There was always a large contingent who would go for lunch together in the Hall at Lincoln’s Inn, which will no doubt regroup once it is open again!
Since the pandemic hit there have, obviously, been far fewer chambers events. However, chambers is usually a very sociable place and puts on various events for members and staff. There are regular chambers drinks and lunches, as well as larger parties at Christmas and in the summer. The annual dinner for juniors and clerks was a particular highlight.
The clerking team are excellent, and really go out of their way to make everything a lot smoother. Each barrister is assigned their own clerk, who manages their diary and day-to-day work, but you end up working with the whole team at various points. In the first few years of tenancy, chambers also holds “Practice Development Meetings” which are attended by you, your clerk, the senior clerk and a more senior member of chambers who acts as a “mentor”. These are a very good opportunity to assess your practice and work out what you want to be doing more of in future.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
One piece of advice you often hear is to “fill in the gaps” on your CV, and I would also recommend it. It might be that you have a very good academic record but very little legal experience, so you would benefit from doing more mini-pupillages. Or perhaps you don’t have much experience of oral advocacy, and it would be advisable to enter a few mooting competitions or take on pro bono work through programmes like the Free Representation Unit or School Exclusion Project. I would certainly advise people to start doing mini-pupillages as early as possible, so that you don’t end up in the position I was in – i.e. trying to squeeze them all into the space of a couple of weeks! Doing an array of mini-pupillages allows you both to experience lots of different areas of law, so you can decide which you’d like to go into, and then to demonstrate to those sets where you would like to apply for pupillage in future that you are serious about doing so. Many chambers will offer mini-pupillages to students in their second or third year of university, and it is always worth checking in any case.
I found that the pupillage application process at 4 New Square placed a real emphasis on the quality of your oral advocacy. Specifically, the panel wanted to see that you were able to argue and defend a position persuasively. They were not as concerned with the amount of black letter law you knew, but rather your ability to analyse problems and then make arguments in the most convincing way possible. One task at the second-round interview was to give a five minute presentation to the panel on a topic of the candidate’s own choosing, which had nothing at all to do with law. This was definitely useful for me, I had only been in law school for a term when I applied but had always enjoyed advocacy in all its forms! I would also recommend looking at the kinds of work and cases members of chambers have been involved in recently, both so you can see whether it is something you would also like to be doing, and to allow you to demonstrate that it is a place you would thrive as a pupil.
The final piece of advice I would give to all applicants is to be resilient. It is a tough process, and there is always going to be some rejection along the way. But showing that you are able to stick with it is a great way to demonstrate that you are a good candidate, and also prepares you well for life at the bar.