By the time I graduated, I still had a very limited understanding of the legal profession. Southampton had an excellent careers service, but I just didn’t take proper advantage of it. My focus was on achieving the best grades, and I had very little free time outside study hours due to family commitments. I reasoned that, if I could get good results, I could work out what to do with them later.
Fortunately, I won placements at two solicitors firms – a regional firm in Southampton, and a US firm in London. Both were excellent, but they made me realise that, if I was going to pursue a career in legal practice, it would have to be at the bar.
Before graduating from Southampton, I was offered a place to read for an LLM at the University of Cambridge. However, since I didn’t manage to secure funding, I decided to take a year off to assess my options.
During my year off, I undertook six mini-pupillages. I already knew that I wanted to do civil work, so I went to a variety of sets specialising in general commercial and commercial chancery work in London. I enjoyed all of them and knew quickly that I wanted to pursue a career at the commercial bar. I took a job at a restaurant, worked as a part-time research assistant to one of my former professors at Southampton, pursued my hobby of furniture making, and volunteered as an advocacy coach at my former secondary school. Coaching that year’s Bar Mock Trial team was a lot of fun, and they ended up proceeding to the national finals.
Later in the year, I submitted a new application to Cambridge, and this time I was offered a full scholarship to read for the LLM at Gonville & Caius College. I was also awarded a residential scholarship at Lincoln’s Inn, and I began submitting pupillage applications a few months after starting the BPTC in 2018.
4 Pump Court was still recruiting outside the Gateway timetable, so that was the first application I submitted. The interview process concluded shortly after the deadline for gateway applications, and I was made an offer a couple of weeks later. I withdrew all my gateway applications when I accepted the offer from 4 Pump Court, so I’ll never know how those might have been received.
Since 4 Pump Court recruit a year in advance, I had to take another year off after completing the BPTC. I worked as a part time research assistant, this time at the University of Glasgow, where I co-authored a paper on cryptocurrency theft. Being able to take a draw-down on my pupillage award allowed me to spend an inordinate amount of time in my workshop restoring machines and building furniture, before going travelling in Asia. Unfortunately, my adventures were cut short by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pupillage experience
I was drawn to 4 Pump Court primarily by its reputation for tech-related work. I have always been fascinated by engineering and technology – more generally, just how things work – and I developed a keen interest in IT law through my studies and subsequent research work. Barristers at 4 Pump Court were involved in a seemingly disproportionate number of the most significant cases leaving the TCC, so it seemed like the ideal place to apply for pupillage.
Pupillage was divided into three seats, with the first six split into two three-month periods. Each of my three supervisors had a different core practice area, which meant I was exposed to a very broad range of cases throughout the year. The sheer variety of the work was astonishing. Just some of the cases I worked on related to infrastructure projects in the Middle East, dangerous cladding, vessel security in dangerous waters, ship sales in South America, damaged cargo, classic cars, fraud, gambling, crypto-assets – I could go on and on.
Aside from the variety of the work, the quality of training was excellent. All of my supervisors opted for a hands-on approach, which saw me drafting pleadings, advices and skeleton arguments from day one. Within just a few weeks of starting my first seat, I was tasked with drafting rejoinder submissions on foreign law for a huge international construction arbitration. That was a steep learning curve, but it was a huge confidence boost to see my contribution accepted into the final document with minimal changes.
I received very detailed feedback on all the work I submitted during pupillage, and all criticism was truly constructive. I remember being given a clear explanation as to why a draft pleading I had produced during my second seat was too long, too complicated, and generally not a very good piece of work. The next week, I was given the chance to draft a similar document in a different case, and I did my best to take on board all the feedback I had been given earlier. The latter piece was itself the subject of a detailed feedback session in which I was told exactly what improvements I had made, and the points that still required further attention. On another occasion, I was ‘seconded’ to a different barrister while my pupil supervisor was away on holiday. I drafted a difficult advice on an insurance dispute, and the feedback session for that one piece of work took more than two hours. It was incredibly helpful. We went through my advice paragraph by paragraph, and I received a number of tips (including some strategic ones I doubt I’d have ever thought of on my own) which I continue to employ in my own practice.
Pupils are required to understand four formal pupillage assessments – two written, two oral. All of the assessments are designed primarily to test reasoning and communication skills. Although some marks were awarded for getting the ‘right’ answer, the total score depended less on what you said, and more on how you said it. It was clear that the assessment exercises were very carefully chosen to test a variety of different skills. Whereas the first written assessment was focussed on producing a clear and concise advice from a limited set of papers, the first advocacy exercise tested (amongst other things) our ability to process a large volume of material in a short space of time. Our work was assessed by two barristers outside the pupillage process, and we received detailed and constructive feedback.
The transition from pupil to tenant
The transition from pupil to tenant was not the seismic event I might have expected, since by that stage I had already passed most of the main nerve-wracking milestones in a barrister’s training. I had my first solo hearing on the first day of my second six, and I was in court between one and three times a week after that. Similarly, I had already worked through a broad range of pleadings and advices before starting tenancy. As a result, the only thing I remember feeling particularly nervous about was losing the safety net provided by having a pupil supervisor. However, I really need not have worried about that, since all of my former supervisors continued (and continue) to provide invaluable support and guidance. The community in chambers is extremely supportive in general, with a true ‘open door’ policy. In fact, rarely a week goes by when I don’t turn up announced at somebody’s room with a question, and I always find the help I need.
The clerks did a fantastic job of helping me to grow my practice after starting tenancy. I was asked at an early stage which areas I wanted to focus on, and I quickly started receiving instructions in professional negligence, construction, and even IT matters. I found that, in general, the value and complexity of my instructions increased gradually throughout the first few months of practice, which made the transition from pupil to tenant even more comfortable. However, I was also given opportunities to take on much bigger instructions in my own right at an early stage. Examples that spring to mind include a dispute arising out of the development of a prestigious hotel in London, and another relating to the international sale of a private jet. Taking leaps like that every now and then was a great way to build up my confidence and experience, whilst keeping stress to a minimum.
What is your practice like now?
I’m really happy with the way my practice is developing. It has continued to grow steadily since starting tenancy, and there is a seemingly unlimited amount of work available. On some days, it feels like just responding to all the new enquiries is a job in its own right!
We receive instructions at all stages of litigation, arbitration, mediation, adjudication and expert determination. Most of my instructions relate to construction and professional negligence, but I have a particular interest in IT and technology more generally. There aren’t so many IT disputes suitable for very junior barristers, but the clerks worked their magic and found some brilliant smaller cases for me to cut my teeth on at an early stage. I have since been instructed as a junior on a couple of IT cases, one of which is my most significant instruction to date – the kind of big ticket software dispute I never really imagined I’d get to work on, let alone in my first year of practice.
There is no shortage of led work in chambers. Another led IT instruction had me investigating where crypto-assets are ‘situated’ for the purposes of international law. On the construction side, I was recently instructed to advise on the recoverability of indirect cladding-related expenses under a building insurance policy.
I am in court almost every week, usually at least twice. During the second six, most of my hearings were small claims and fast track matters, particularly RTAs and consumer credit disputes, as well as some simple interim applications. Since starting tenancy, I have attended a much broader range of hearings, including fast track construction trials, CCMCs, and a variety of more demanding applications. The clerks have done a great job of gradually shifting the focus of my hearings away from general common law to more specialist commercial matters, but I still do quite a few of the former. Since they’re generally quite contained, they provide a great opportunity to refine and develop advocacy one’s advocacy techniques, whilst leaving space in the diary for bigger, more time-consuming instructions.
I have two mentors: a clerking mentor, and a barrister mentor. I have a pre-arranged meeting with each every couple of months, but I speak with them far more than that. Both are just brilliant. My barrister mentor checks in with me regularly, and he has given me far more advice and support than I could reasonably ask for. Even at times when I know he had more than enough on his plate, he has still shelved whatever he was working on to help me out. I’m immensely grateful for that. My clerking mentor is brilliant too – in addition to making sure that my practice is always heading in the right direction, he always checks that I am happy and coping well in general. All of the clerks really care about our well-being, and they will move heaven and earth to help out if somebody is struggling for whatever reason.
There is no such thing as a typical working week in chambers – my caseload is just too varied. Some weeks are quiet, some are hectic, and some feel like working a 9-6 job. New instructions can land at any moment, and many matters (particularly hearings in the County Courts) will disappear at a moment’s notice. Some instructions are urgent and require work late into the night, and others have more relaxed timescales.
However, subject to unavoidable unpredictability and the cab rank rule, we do have a lot of control over our diaries. Although they will flag and encourage us take advantage of any particularly good opportunities, the clerks never put us under any undue pressure to take on new work. On the contrary, they actively encourage us to maintain a level with which we feel comfortable and to keep a good work-life balance. As a result, some people choose to work every waking hour, as that suits them well. Others, like myself, prefer to keep a decent amount of time free for other pursuits. That’s definitely one of my favourite things about this job. I arguably have too many hobbies, but I am able to maintain most of them to a degree that just wouldn’t be possible alongside most other jobs. For example, over the past couple of months, I managed to build myself a wooden surfboard (a long-term ambition), whilst also maintaining a healthy amount of written and court work. The ability to work flexibly (both in terms of hours and location) meant that I could, for example, spend a couple of hours in a morning cutting and assembling components, before returning to my desk and working on an advice or pleading while the glue dried.
What is the culture of chambers?
I think all sets claim to be friendly and welcoming, but there’s something really special about 4 Pump Court. I cannot imagine working in a kinder, more supportive environment. It seems like nobody, even the most senior of silks, is ever too busy to help out. Chambers is big on social events too – “4 Pub Court”, together with a missing lyrics competition, takes place almost every week, and everyone is invited. We baby juniors have a WhatsApp group which doubles up as a Q&A hub and at a platform for arranging impromptu gatherings. Chambers also hosts a range of (typically very impressive) social events throughout the year. Staples include the Christmas and summer parties, and other recent events have included birthday and silk parties, and a private cinema screening. Members of chambers frequently arrange charity fundraisers events too.
Chambers extends beyond its namesake into the neighbouring buildings in the heart of the Middle Temple and beyond. We also have annexes in 3 Temple Gardens, 1 Brick Court, and Dr Johnson’s buildings, meaning there is space for almost every barrister to have their own room. The public-facing areas of chambers underwent a significant revamp in 2020-2021. The entire lower ground floor of the main building was stripped out, rearranged and redecorated to a very high standard. It looks fantastic, and we now have six conference rooms set up with state of the art technology for video conferencing and remote hearings.
Our clerking team is fantastic; I would be surprised if it isn’t the best in London. The team is headed by two senior clerks and divided into smaller groups of assistant practice managers, each headed by a Practice Director. Every barrister is assigned both a team and a dedicated personal clerk. All of the clerks are supremely organised, infinitely reliable, and capable of solving any problem that comes their way. They keep our diaries packed full of networking events suited to our preferred practice areas, and they are very proactive in introducing us to new clients. On top of all that, they’re also lovely people who genuinely care about our happiness and well-being.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
(1) Work hard. Good grades really aren’t the be-all and end-all, but it is a fact that almost all of the work in chambers is intellectually challenging. You need to be able to process large volumes of information efficiently and work at a consistently high level, sometimes for long periods of time.
(2) Learn to trust your instincts, and get into the habit of keeping things as simple as possible. This was probably the thing I found hardest during pupillage. Particularly if you come to the bar from an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in Law, it can be tempting to view every legal issue as something of a rabbit hole. However, clients generally want a clear and concise answer to their problems, and judges are not frequently swayed by complex arguments leading to unintuitive conclusions, however clever they may be.
(3) Have more than one string to your bow. Everyone I know in chambers is good at what they do not simply because they are well trained in the law, but because they are also approachable and engaging as individuals. Those characteristics are easier to acquire or develop if you have a genuine enthusiasm for something outside of work. Whether it’s sport, music, art, or something else, identify what it is that you love doing and pursue it to the best of your ability.