Your journey to pupillage
I studied law as an undergraduate at St Peter’s College, Oxford. I then worked in the Brussels office of Latham & Watkins LLP as a stagiaire for six months on competition law cases, before returning to do an LLM in competition law at King’s College London.
After getting an Exhibition from Inner Temple, I did the BPTC (as it then was) after my LLM. People were very down on the BPTC as being a waste of time. I largely agree with that criticism, except in relation to the advocacy modules which I found very helpful preparation for advocacy exercises at pupillage interviews.
I then spent some time working in the civil service. First, for a year as a legal intern at the Competition & Markets Authority. Then for eighteen months as a Research Assistant in the Commercial & Common Law Team at the Law Commission. At the Law Commission I worked on two different projects: one reforming the Victorian Bills of Sale Acts, and the other on reforming residential leasehold. I can’t sing the praises of the Research Assistant programme at the Law Commission highly enough as a thing to do if you’re trying to get pupillage. It is without a doubt where I learned the skills that were most useful to me in both applying for pupillage and then actually doing pupillage.
Over the years, I did somewhere between five and ten mini-pupillages in a mix of areas, some assessed, some un-assessed. Ironically, I didn’t do a mini at Cornerstone!
I wasn’t one of the fortunate few who got pupillage first time and applied three or four times (I can’t quite remember which!) over the years. I took the attitude that I was happy to keep applying as long as I felt that I was a stronger candidate in that round than in the round before.
I was, for some reason, obstinately against being involved in mooting and so preferred to get my advocacy experience through the Free Representation Unit (FRU). I volunteered with the FRU social security team for a few years, doing first-tier tribunal appeals. I stopped just before I started pupillage. I also volunteered with the Citizens Advice Bureau as a gateway assessor.
The pupillage experience
It is a real eye-roll worthy cliché but everything about my pupillage application to Cornerstone just clicked. I had had no interaction with Cornerstone prior to interview but at both my interviews I was struck by how normal everyone I met seemed. The place is obviously full of immensely talented barristers with enormous brains, but despite that they are also all friendly and approachable to a noteworthy degree. I feel I have had enough experience of other sets to make that comparison fairly!
Pupillage is split into three seats of four months each. You have a different supervisor for each seat. The general rhythm tended to be one substantial piece of written work for your supervisor per week, which could vary depending on what was happening. I had a brilliant first seat with Philip Coppel QC, one of our Heads of Chambers, where I was involved in a range of public and commercial law cases, like the SNP’s judicial review against ITV’s exclusion of them from a TV leadership debate and Vote Leave’s challenge to the Electoral Commission’s publication of investigation findings about electoral offences committed during the Brexit referendum.
Just as I was gearing up for my fully practising second six, lockdown 1.0 hit. Cornerstone second sixes are usually fully practising, but sadly mine was spent home alone with my laptop.
Things perked up in time for my last seat where, sadly, there was still no chance to practise on my own, but I was lucky enough to be supervised by Rob Williams. Rob is one of Cornerstone’s many excellent planning specialists and being involved in his many High Court planning cases was a valuable grounding in public law.
Cornerstone takes feedback quite seriously and after every piece of work you do for your supervisor, you will get written feedback which you will discuss. The idea is that you don’t find yourself blindsided at the end of the year having wrongly thought everything was going swimmingly. The feedback was always constructive and helpful. You do three advocacy exercises throughout the year in planning law, licensing law and housing law respectively. The exercises are not formally assessed and are intended to be a learning exercise.
Throughout pupillage you have the chance to do pieces of written work for members of chambers other than your supervisors, as and when the opportunities arise. It’s a great chance to show off your talents as broadly as possible, which can never be a bad thing.
Cornerstone isn’t one of those places that does “Hunger Games” style pupillage where there are millions of you competing for one tenancy. We take two pupils every year and the expectation is that if you meet the required standard for tenancy, you will get taken on. So, it’s yours to lose!
The transition from pupil to tenant
My transition was probably scarier than most because I hadn’t practised at all during pupillage due to the Covid pandemic. Usually, pupils would be very busy with their own work in the second six. I had my first ever case on the day of my tenancy vote! Despite that, it was a remarkably easy transition, largely because of how much members go out of their way to help you and answer the many stupid questions that you have when you’re starting out.
The four most junior members in chambers all share a room together, which is a real asset. It means that there’s always someone around to sense-check an advice with, or moan to if you’ve had a bad day at court. Plus, you always have a lunch buddy!
I’ve also been incredibly lucky with the opportunities I’ve had to be junior to QCs in chambers on big cases. Working with Lisa Busch QC and Philip Coppel QC in the Court of Appeal and High Court respectively in my first year of practice was a real privilege.
What is your practice like now?
One of the things I like about Cornerstone is that no two weeks are the same. Some weeks I might have a full day trial (for example, a defended possession claim), with a couple of smaller interim hearings and a written advice. In other weeks, you might be asked to be someone’s junior on an urgent judicial review.
I get a lot of court time, which I really enjoy. There’s also plenty of advisory work, which is great because you don’t always want to be spending your mornings on a freezing train platform.
People’s views differ on this topic, but I try and stay firm in my policy of not working on the weekends. My view is that if you’re going to be in this job for forty years, you need to have sustainable working practices from the outset to defend against burn-out. There’s some leeway there if something truly amazing comes in last-minute (like an opportunity to be a junior on a big case). But otherwise, I turn my laptop off on Friday evening and won’t look at my emails again until Monday. The sky won’t fall in if you do that, I promise!
What is the culture of chambers?
Everyone says this, but Cornerstone is a truly collegiate place. People will wander into your room for a chat, to ask your opinion on a case, or because they want someone to go for a coffee with. Similarly, there are always loads of people you can turn to for advice – both substantive legal questions, and the more thorny issues that sometimes arise in practice.
The building itself is pretty high-tech compared to some I’ve seen. We have nice conference rooms and proper showers for those mad people that like to cycle/run to work.
The clerks and staff are all great. I have had repeated experience of them being absolute miracle workers in a crisis. On a day-to-day basis the clerks are proactive and supportive of your specific ambitions.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
These are my top tips to get pupillage at Cornerstone:
• Read the criteria against which applications are assessed as published on our website.
• Make sure that your form shows how you meet those criteria.
• Come to interview armed with concrete examples of how you meet those criteria.
• Let us see your personality!
There is a lot more information on our website about the process of applying for pupillage with lots of further tips from the pupillage committee.