Your journey to pupillage
I chose to do a classics degree, knowing that there was the possibility of doing a law conversion course after it. I loved my time doing classics, but after finishing, and with the very generous help of scholarships from Lincoln’s Inn, I did the GDL and BPTC at City in London.
I really enjoyed being back in London and doing a very different sort of study. I was very lucky and got to do some great mooting both in my GDL year (with a trip to Vienna for the Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot) and later doing the BPTC where the moot final was held in the Supreme Court. I was also part of a really excellent pro bono initiative at Islington Law Centre working on, in particular, benefits appeals – while I didn’t do any oral advocacy as part of this, I was able to draft written submissions, seeking to explain how the applicant met the statutory criteria and to rebut any points made in opposition to this. I was able to talk about this in my pupillage applications.
I applied to a range of chambers doing broadly commercial or chancery work during the conversion course, but didn’t get a pupillage. However, I really enjoyed the two sets of questions that had been part of the application process at Pump Court Tax Chambers – an interview focused on a piece of statutory construction and a written exercise on the merits of an appeal in a VAT case, followed by an interview discussing my written answers. Although I hadn’t done a mini-pupillage in tax, I was therefore aware that this was an area of law I might like to work in. I reapplied and was successful (and would go on to find that I was very much right to think I would like it!).
In the year between bar school and starting pupillage, I was offered a scholarship by Lincoln’s Inn to do an internship (or ‘stage’) in the European Commission in the office of the Hearing Officer for Competition Proceedings. The Hearing Officers’ task is to safeguard the procedural rights of all parties involved in competition proceedings – including the parties undergoing a merger or the subject of a Statement of Objections and other actors in the market who had provided confidential information to the Commission. Most of my work there was on the various big cases regarding Google which were going on. When the stage was over, I was offered a short-term contract for the rest of the year to continue working in the office. I think that the time spent in Brussels (as well as being a lot of fun!) really helped me to be a better pupil and then a better barrister.
The pupillage experience
As I mentioned previously, it was our application process which helped me realise that I wanted to come here.
Our pupillage programme started with three relatively long stints (October to Christmas with my first supervisor, and just over a month with the next two supervisors). During the course of this roughly six months, I did a mixture of advisory and contentious work across the broad range of taxes and in various courts and tribunals (the First-tier and Upper Tribunals, the High Court (both in relation to judicial review and actions for professional negligence), the Court of Appeal, the CJEU (although sadly no trip to Luxembourg)). I received feedback on my work as I went along and at the end of the time with each supervisor. It was made clear that the particular focus of the first six, and especially the first 3-month rotation, was on learning rather than assessment. In the second six, the pace accelerated, spending first two weeks with each supervisor and then one week with some of the senior silks in Chambers. My co-pupil and I rotated through the same supervisors, and we had three moots in our second six – one in April, and another in July, and then a final one at the very end of September with a pupil at another tax set. The tenancy decision was made in mid-July, and we both got taken on as tenants. We never felt like we were in competition with each other, and as a chambers we have since amended our pupillage policy to make it clear that pupils are only assessed on their own merits (and not by reference to other pupils or to the perceived short-term need for tenants etc).
After the decision, and some holiday, our supervisors focused on making sure that we had filled any gaps in our pupillage checklists. At the very end of pupillage, I started work on some cases that I would continue working on as a new tenant.
The transition from pupil to tenant
My co-pupil and I were one of the first years of new tenants to benefit from a formal mentoring scheme – one of my main supervisors was appointed as a designated person to go to with any concerns or questions. In addition to our mentors, we had a panel of senior members with different specialties to whom we were also encouraged to go and seek help and advice. One thing which I had been concerned about was the move from the regular payments of my pupillage award to getting paid for work done, and whether there would be a cash flow gap. However, Chambers provides a cash flow scheme for the first year of tenancy to ensure that each month we received the equivalent of the pupillage award payment.
It was exciting to start to have opinions and skeleton arguments go out in my own name. In some ways, things were easier because whereas when we were pupils any help could only come from our supervisors, as tenants we could ask all the other juniors as well as our panel/mentors for help with both practical questions (what do you call a High Court Judge when they’re sitting in the Upper Tribunal?) and technical ones (has anyone thought about section X before?).
What is your practice like now?
My practice is made up of a mix between litigation (most of which is currently led) and advisory work (generally solo). Much of my advisory work focuses on the ‘big events’ in people’s lives – purchases/sale of houses, sale of businesses, and death (both people preparing their wills and people whose relatives have died) – each of these points can raise important tax questions. Another important part relates to people who are facing HMRC investigation or HMRC have already indicated that they don’t agree with their analysis so far. My litigation work varies from major led corporate tax cases with tens of millions of pounds at stake to penalties which are significant in the context of a business but may amount to some thirty thousand pounds. I am generally in court approximately every few weeks, and my cases have tended to last up to two weeks. I attempt to work relatively standard ‘business’ hours as both a matter of discipline and to allow for some flexibility when relatively short deadlines land unpredictably (in particular dealing with judgments). This is generally easier to maintain in relation to advisory work than with litigation and court deadlines/hearing preparation. I’ve been lucky to get to do some of my own advocacy since the beginning of tenancy, appearing in the Upper Tribunal on my own within my first six months of tenancy, as well as in the FTT and the County Court.
What is the culture of chambers?
Chambers occupies three early-18th Century buildings on Bedford Row and the modern mews building behind it. This is close to the excellent lunch options on Red Lion Street and Lamb’s Conduit Street – lunches in small (or sometimes large) groups there or eaten in Gray’s Inn Walks are a frequent occurrence – as too are trips to one of the Inns for (most frequently) fish and chips. On a monthly basis, the social committee arranges for a table or tables to be booked in one of the Inns for lunch with both members and staff, and for an afternoon tea in chambers with tea, coffee, cake and drinks, again this is with everyone in chambers, not just the barristers. We also have chambers coffee three times a week – an opportunity to discuss tax questions with the other members of chambers. During lockdown, our social events changed to include remote painting, playing Among Us, a video tour of the Frick Collection in New York, and a virtual cheese tasting.
Colleagues are very willing to listen to and help with questions. The clerks and other support staff are always excellent – as a sounding board and support structure as well as e.g. finding work and negotiating fees. There are very transparent procedures relating both to opportunities for work and for marketing which avoids what I understand could be a concern elsewhere. In summary, I would say that we are collaborative and friendly.
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
(1) Read the questions on the form carefully. The markers want you to do well but will generally be marking against a rubric. Answers which don’t answer the question are unlikely to be able to be highly marked (e.g. if you’re asked “tell me about a time when”, it is unlikely to be successful simply to list occasions rather than to explain a single occasion fully).
(2) Try to enjoy the process. If you find the questions you are asked interesting, and you enjoy discussing the answers with the panel, you are likely to come across much better.
(3) Be willing to try areas of law that you have not experienced much or at all when studying law.
(4) Have a back-up plan. The numbers for becoming a barrister are very difficult and every year very good applicants don’t get pupillage (and some get pupillage and don’t get tenancy). There are some 300-500 new pupils a year but each set is likely only to have a relatively small number of pupils, and to interview in their final rounds only a slightly larger number of candidates (many of whom will be in the final rounds of several places). This both means trying to identify something hopefully enjoyable and productive to do in semi-gap years if you either delay doing bar school or have a spare year after that, and thinking about alternative options more broadly.
I would also encourage any potential pupils out there that have an interest in Chancery/Commercial work to consider a mini at a tax set.