“It is amazing what you can achieve with a well-chosen question and a polite but firm manner”. Junior barrister, Colm Kelly, describes learning how to cross-examine from the masters of the art at Devereux.
One of the hardest elements of being a junior barrister is having to practice the dark art of cross-examination. During his pupillage, Colm Kelly, now junior barrister at top commercial set, Devereux, was lucky enough to be able to watch one of the chambers’ senior advocates in action: “Seeing it live from an experienced practitioner was quite amazing. It was impressive to see how quickly this senior barrister adapted his line of questioning to the witness’s responses, you have to be very nimble to do that. But also to see what you can ‘extract’ from someone with a lot of patience and skill.”
Kelly was called to the bar in 2015. He chose Devereux because it was strong in the commercial areas he was interested in (though he has ended up pursuing slightly different practice areas to those which he had originally intended, now doing employment work and tax). His first court appearance was representing an individual facing a bankruptcy order. “Even though I had done a mock court appearance in chambers in front of a judge as part of my advocacy assessment, the real world is, of course, a bit different!”
He continues: “Chambers is fantastic at preparing you for what it might be like in court, organising mock cases so you can practice your arguments, but having to explain to a real witness what is going to happen, particularly if things aren’t likely to go as well as they might hope, you can’t really be prepared for that.”
Devereux Chambers has over 50 barristers, including 12 silks to keep you on your toes. Kelly says that the atmosphere is collegiate; he shares a floor with a number of barristers who are under ten years’ call and they are “very pleasant people” and a “fantastic resource” for the many legal and practical questions which a barrister might have as they find their feet as a pupil and in the early years of tenancy.
Devereux is known for its more organised training (see The Legal Cheek View above) but in general chambers do tend to be less structured than recent law graduates might be used to. As Kelly puts it, you are going to be “asking around, as you try and work out the best way of doing something you haven’t done before. Someone else will have done something similar.”
Devereux does like to prepare its juniors as much as possible, however, and Kelly explains how he was given written guidance about court procedures: “Early on, some of our bread and butter work is claims relating to hire cars when someone has damaged their own vehicle. Those will be your first cases. The guidance was really helpful on the practical side: what you have to do when you get to court and so on.”
Kelly’s seats were in employment, commercial and tax, the latter he enjoyed so much he carried on with it after he had been accepted for tenancy. He clearly learnt an awful lot from the experiences he had as a pupil including watching one senior advocate successfully cross-examine a witness.
Pupillage does come with stresses, however, and the process towards whether you will be accepted for tenancy is hard: “You will have assessment work to do as well as all the other stuff going on, the tenancy decision does sort of loom over you for a while.”
This sort of moment is an unavoidable part of the competitive selection process from law student to junior barrister. To make that process easier, Kelly recommends focusing from the beginning on the essentials, namely good grades: “Grades do tend to matter for the bar. Lots of candidates will have a few extra degrees as well.” (Kelly has a masters from Cambridge and has had no less than five scholarships in his academic life.)
But grades are not all: “I would distinguish yourself with any kind of demonstration of enthusiasm for oral advocacy, such as mooting and debating, or, perhaps, examples from outside the law where you have proved you are very good at persuading people.” As Kelly adds: “You need a hook for the pupillage gateway and in interviews so that when they ask you why you want to be a barrister, you can say: ‘I have done this advocacy or this job which uses the same sort of skills, and I really enjoyed doing it.’”