Harriet Di Francesco
Your journey to pupillage
My journey up until pupillage was meandering. I graduated with a BA in History from the University of Sheffield and an MA in International Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (“SAIS”) in Bologna and Washington DC. After graduating from Johns Hopkins SAIS, I stayed in the US for a year to work and travel. I worked in various jobs in the US, from being a research assistant to a waitress, but I spent most of my time meeting new people and discovering new places. It was an unforgettable year.
When I returned to the UK, I worked in various administrative jobs to save money either for travelling or further study. I ultimately decided to undertake the Graduate Diploma in Law, with the intention of becoming either a solicitor or barrister. During the GDL, I shadowed a variety of barristers and solicitors through mini-pupillages and internships. I then spent six months at the ICC International Court of Arbitration in Paris. By the end, I knew I wanted to be a barrister specialising in commercial law.
I started applying for pupillages during the GDL. I was initially unsuccessful. Although I had one interview, I was not asked back for a second. I applied again the following year and was invited to two interviews, one of which was at Keating Chambers.
The pupillage experience
Whilst at the ICC in Paris, I reviewed submissions and awards drafted by members of Keating Chambers. It was clear to me that Keating Chambers was highly regarded in the arbitration world as a specialist construction law set and that attracted me.
I also found construction cases to be particularly interesting. Factually they involved large, complex projects all over the world and legally they involved issues in contract and tort (which had been my favourite subjects on the GDL). However, construction law was not a topic I was familiar with. I had no academic or practical background in any aspect of construction. I learned that this is not a prerequisite by speaking to barristers in the field. It is, however, necessary to be able rapidly to analyse complex and voluminous facts and materials to identify relevant points.
During pupillage, it became apparent that those facts and materials could relate to all manner of things. The metallurgy of bolts used to construct a coal-powered fire station and the causes of differential settlement of a concrete slab in a warehouse storing wine are just two examples. I was required to learn something new with each case. This was challenging but also rewarding.
As to format, pupillage at Keating Chambers is split into four seats. Each seat is with a different pupil supervisor. Initially I produced work for my supervisors only. I was gradually encouraged to do work for other members of chambers. I was given feedback on each piece of work. The cases were often very complex and involved knotty questions of fact and law. I was not required to achieve perfection but I understood that I was expected to improve in those areas where fault was found.
In addition to work for members of chambers, there were written and oral assessments throughout the year. All work was considered as part of our overall assessment.
During pupillage I also took part in the Worshipful Company of Arbitrator’s Arbitration Competition, which was a weekend-long oral advocacy competition where participants compete individually and in teams. I cross-examined an expert. This was a great experience and one which chambers encouraged us to do.
The transition from pupil to tenant
It was both terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. I still feel that way now when something new lands on my desk. I nevertheless felt (and feel) supported. New tenants at Keating Chambers are allocated mentors for the first couple of years with whom they keep regular contact. My mentors have been incredibly supportive. I have no doubt we will remain regularly in touch.
Prior to the pandemic, it helped that I was able to knock on anyone’s door with a question. This undoubtedly became more difficult once the pandemic hit as most barristers worked remotely. Having said that, both staff and members of chambers have been very responsive and quick to help virtually. I feel very fortunate to have that network of colleagues.
What is your practice like now?
My practice covers chambers’ specialisms: construction and engineering, professional negligence, some procurement, arbitration and a lot of adjudication. I work 40-50 hours per week although it can be less or more depending on caseload.
There is no “typical” working week per se. It really depends on the stage at which the cases I am instructed on are. Some weeks comprise mostly phone calls, emails and video conferences with desperate attempts to get drafting done in between. Other weeks are dictated by court hearings and deadlines which can be characterised by very early mornings and/or late nights. The one defining feature of each week is that I am learning something new. Whether it is to do with court process, substantive law or simply how best to respond to clients or deliver advice (or, indeed, how not to!). But no week is the same.
I have had a good amount of advocacy experience for a junior tenant at the commercial bar. I am generally in court once a month, sometimes as sole counsel and other times led by more senior counsel. At present, my work is split 50:50 between work in my own right and led work. This is a comfortable balance for me.
As to work/life balance, I make rules and try to keep to them. As a rule, I choose not to work weekends. There are obviously times when I do work at the weekend in order to deliver a piece of work on time and/or to a proper standard. But if my work is to continue to be of a proper standard, I need to take care of my mental and physical well-being. That means taking time to do things and build relationships outside of work. I do my best to maintain the right balance for me.
What is the culture of chambers?
The culture of chambers is collegiate. There is always something going on. We have various sports teams including a netball team and a cricket team. Prior to the pandemic, these teams played in matches regularly. I played for the netball team.
There is no discernible hierarchy in chambers. Everyone works hard and plays together. This is reflected in the way staff and members of chambers interact. Every Thursday (again, sadly, prior to the pandemic), chambers hosted lunch for all staff and members of chambers. This was a great way to meet and chat to everyone that works in the building. I look forward to these lunches returning!
Despite the lockdown, chambers maintained a good social network. During term time, we met virtually on Friday afternoon for drinks. It was great to catch up with staff and other members of chambers (and to see how their lockdown hair/beards were growing!). Marketing opportunities also continued. Before the summer break we had a virtual cheese and wine-tasting event with clients which was a fantastic way of getting to know clients better whilst enjoying some wine in the comfort of your own home. I have also contributed to the Practical Law construction blog and have given virtual talks to law firms. I personally prefer face-to-face interaction, but Chambers has fared very well in the circumstances. I have the staff to thank for that.
Chambers is also actively involved in social outreach programmes. There are regular opportunities to get involved in initiatives promoting diversity at the bar. More recently, this has included working with other sets on a mentoring scheme for underrepresented groups at the bar.
I interact most with my clerks. I keep them up to date on my caseload and they check in regularly to see how I am doing. Having a good relationship with clerks is extremely important and the culture at Keating Chambers is to foster those relationships for the long run.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
My top tips are three-fold:
Firstly, read Keating Chambers’ selection criteria and have these selection criteria in mind when filling in the pupillage application form. Ask yourself: what examples can I give that evidence the requisite abilities? The examples you give do not need to relate to experiences in law or construction. They may relate to experiences working as a bartender (ability to have sustained collaborative relationships with a wide range of other people) or in the army (ability to think and respond under pressure). I am sure you have more examples than you realise. The broader your range of experiences, the more interesting you are as an individual.
Secondly, ask both lawyers and non-lawyers to read your draft answers to application questions and provide feedback. The Inns of Court and course providers can arrange for a barrister to do this, or you may already know one. But your written advocacy (which is precisely what your pupillage application is) needs to be clear, concise, and persuasive to all manner of readers. It therefore helps to have a variety of people provide feedback on your written answers. You can use that feedback as you wish.
Thirdly, do not give up if you fall at the first hurdle. Becoming (and being!) a barrister is a long game. This means there will be short-term losses, including rejection. Part of the process is learning from those experiences rather than feeling defeated by them. Approaching the process of becoming a barrister with this mindset kept me motivated. It also made me better able to deal with the vagaries of being a junior barrister. I quickly learned that the challenges do not end when you become a tenant. On the contrary, as a tenant, the real challenges begin!