Your journey to pupillage
I originally studied English at Oxford University, graduating with not much of a clue as to what I wanted to do next or indeed what a barrister did. I went to work for a charity and then off travelling, buying a decrepit car on the East Coast of the States and driving it to the West. Having sufficiently found myself, I came back to London to study the GDL and was drawn to the adrenaline and intellectual challenge that a career at the Bar appeared to offer.
I didn’t have any legal work experience on my CV at that point and spent a while working on it; undertaking mini-pupillages, writing legal articles, entering mooting and debating competitions, volunteering at the Free Representation Unit (FRU), and working as a research assistant at KCL in the field of business and human rights law. FRU is a great experience that I would highly recommend; it is as close as one can get to what it is really like to work as a junior barrister.
I then applied for pupillage at a range of civil and commercial sets and was happily offered a pupillage at Crown Office Chambers. I undertook the Bar Course and started pupillage the same year.
The pupillage experience
I was drawn to Crown Office Chambers by the range and quality of work on offer across a span of commercial, civil, inquest, and criminal regulatory law. I was conscious that deciding which area of law I wanted to practice in for the next 40 odd years was not a decision I wanted to make without experiencing it in practice first. Crown Office Chambers also offered the mix of working as a junior on larger cases whilst undertaking your own cases and own advocacy from day one, which is what had drawn me to the Bar in the first place.
Having started pupillage in October 2020 during a global pandemic, I feared that it would be a rather strange and socially distanced experience. Nevertheless, my pupillage was in-person, with each of my supervisors making sure they came into Chambers every day. Learning through osmosis from a barrister undertaking their work sat next to you is invaluable, and it is a testament to the commitment Chambers makes to training their pupils that my pupillage felt largely unaffected by the pandemic.
I actually found it to be a fun year, with frequent social events, from Chambers’ bi-weekly drinks to junior member curry nights, in a friendly and welcoming environment.
Pupils rotate between three pupil supervisors over the course of the year, each working in different areas of practice to offer a broad and rounded experience. Pupils will undertake four oral assessments over the course of the year, judged by a panel of members of Chambers, and also three written assessments, which will be double-marked. You will then receive feedback on each of these assessments, and will also receive a feedback session with the Head of Pupillage at the end of each seat. That, alongside the feedback pupillage supervisors will give on each piece of work set by them, gives every pupil a structured and detailed learning experience. Pupils are not expected to be the finished article at the start of pupillage, indeed there is a grace period in the first month of pupillage which will not count towards the final decision. Instead, the year is actively geared towards giving you the training and experience you need to (hopefully) become the finished article.
You are also partnered with pupillage mentors; junior members of chambers who will not have any input into the final tenancy decision. That means you can ask them any stupid questions (of which I had many) which you might be worried about asking to your pupillage supervisor.
During the second six months of pupillage, you will balance undertaking work for your supervisor with taking on your own cases; usually small personal injury trials and interim applications. For me, the only way to become a good trial advocate is to do it in practice and the chance to undertake a practising second six is one of the best things about pupillage at Crown Office Chambers.
Pupillage at Crown Office Chambers is not a competition; pupils are encouraged to work together and tenancy will be offered to those who meet the competency criteria at the end of the year. Ultimately, I found it to be a very well-organised process with a chambers that really cares about making you welcome and about developing the next generation of talent.
The transition from pupil to tenant
That you undertake a practising second six means the change from pupil to tenant is gradual and easy. Tenancy offers are made in around mid-June so the last three months of pupillage are essentially spent undertaking your own cases under the supervision of your pupillage supervisor, which is a nice half way house between pupillage and tenancy (and without the pressure of a looming tenancy decision). Having pupillage mentors, who will set up a group Whatsapp, means there is also always someone junior on hand to answer questions about your cases (sometimes even during trials) so that you are never truly on your own.
It very much helps that we have a great clerking team and a reliable stream of work for junior members. In the first year of tenancy you will develop a written practice alongside the oral advocacy, gradually start taking on larger and more complex pieces of work, and start working as a junior on larger cases.
What is your practice like now?
The best thing about Crown Office Chambers is the diversity of work; both in terms of areas of law and your role in the cases you work on. At the moment, I probably spend around half my time working as a junior on larger cases (from multi-million pound commercial litigation to an environmental prosecution of a water company) and the other half on my own cases across the full span of Chambers’ practice areas. I am probably in court 2-3 times a week, working on everything from prosecuting companies in the Magistrates’ Court to representing a local authority in an inquest into a death to variety of small commercial/civil disputes in the County Court, with all the challenge and excitement that brings. Alongside that is a written practice advising clients and drafting pleadings.
This mix of work means I get the opportunity to learn from senior barristers who are leaders in their respective fields, whilst also being able to refine my own advocacy skills in court. I also get to experience a range of different areas of law in practice, which I think is key to becoming a well-rounded lawyer but also to deciding which area is for you in the long-run.
What is the culture of chambers?
I think members of Crown Office Chambers are defined by taking their work seriously, but never themselves seriously. It is a down to earth and friendly environment with frequent social events. Just in the month of writing this we have had a formal black-tie dinner, a lunch hosting a hundred of our clients, and a junior members and clerks bowling night. We are constantly walking in and out of each other’s rooms, asking for thoughts on a particular legal problem or whether a cup of tea might be needed.
We have a brilliant team of clerks, who are also down to earth and approachable and who are as much involved in chambers’ social life as the members of chambers themselves. Importantly, there is an understanding in the clerks’ room that our best work is produced when we are happy; which means junior members have complete control over the quantity of work they take on, whether they say yes to potential instructions, holidays, and general work/life balance. Ultimately, the nature of the job is that it is hard work and stressful but having control and direction over your practice, along with a great team of clerks and support staff, makes all the difference.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
(1) Take time to understand which areas of law particular chambers actually practise in. Figure out why you’re interested in those areas and think of ways in which you can demonstrate that interest; write an article, enter an essay competition or specific moot, undertake some work experience at a relevant solicitors’ firm etc.
(2) Get used to quickly formulating arguments. I did this by jotting down three “for” and three “against” arguments every time I came across a proposition in legal news/current affairs.
(3) In interviews, be confident but not arrogant; defend your opinions, but accept when you’re wrong; be articulate, not pretentious; be persuasive, not argumentative; and be yourself rather than somebody else.