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How to be a pupil barrister

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By Jasmine Murphy on

As this year’s baby barristers prepare to commence pupillage, Hardwicke’s Jasmine Murphy offers some words of wisdom


It may be thought that if you’ve never gone to school, a career as a barrister is out of your reach. I certainly thought this — for a while at least. But as it turns out, as long as you have a degree, most people don’t really care where you went to school, or even whether you went at all.

My sister and I were home-schooled by my parents. As a result, I had a fairly alternative education, which ended up with a significant legal flavour. I often went to court for entertainment; either on my own if there was a particularly gruesome murder trial, or with my court-artist mother to colour in the jury in her pictures. I accompanied my father — an environmentalist and (non-mad) litigant-in-person — to court in his cases against polluters as well. As a consequence, I soon learned an important skill for barristers: often it’s not when to stand up and talk; it’s knowing when to sit down and shut up.

After my degree and part-time Bar Vocational Course (now the Bar Professional Training Course) Hardwicke gave me pupillage in 2002 and it was a fantastic place to be a pupil. Then a mixed set, there was the opportunity to try out different practice areas. All the barristers, not just my supervisors, were generous with their time and experience and helped me to succeed. If only I knew then that these senior members of chambers who were apparently baffled by legal problems were actually employing subtle teaching tools — so subtle that it took me months to realise what was happening…

So what do I wish I knew then that I know now….?

Say yes to as much as possible (this comes with a caveat…)

I wish that I had gained more practical experience before I started pupillage. Stupidly, I had not volunteered for any pro bono work or advice clinics or done any voluntary legal work. Trust me, when your second six starts, you want a little more experience behind you then just your bar school practical exercises involving Miss Eve Rest and her faulty double glazing.

I found that bar school is about as much use at the bar as a bikini on a water slide: so prepare to be embarrassed. For the first few weeks I called my pupil supervisor from court almost every day. Fortunately he, and chambers, had more faith in my abilities than I (or probably my clients) did.

Pupillage is an incredible opportunity. Make the most of it. See as many different practice areas as possible. Question your supervisor about tactics and cross-examination skills: “Why did you do that and not this?” Adopt their (better) turns of phrase into your repertoire. Offer to do paperwork for different members of chambers and ask for feedback and to see their work so that you can compare their work with yours. Don’t forget that after pupillage, you’ll probably never see anyone handle a client conference again, other than yourself (or maybe leading counsel).

…but don’t burn out

Barristers all face unrealistic workloads, usually self-imposed. For pupils and those in the early stages of tenancy, the need to earn combined with pressure from clerks and clients together with conscientiousness and absorbing work can be difficult to manage. I would advise my younger self to put together a plan to deal with the stress and tiredness inherent in our work.

Being realistic, having to-do lists, prioritising tasks and planning work ahead as much as you can will help. Your non-law friends will help keep you balanced so they should not be neglected. However recognise that sometimes, just sometimes, you need to skip the cocktails and go to bed early to do your job properly.

Expect to lose

When I first started my second six I seemed to lose all my cases. It didn’t help that they all seemed to be doomed bail applications for (alleged) murderers. Winning is an instant high, especially if it is one of those rare occasions where you recognise that what you said or did made a difference. Consequently, losing feels like withdrawal, and it’s all your fault.

After one particularly demoralising hearing, I called my mother as I trudged back to the station. She pointed out that in every case I had won, someone else had had to lose. You will lose. You may lose a lot, depending on the nature of your work. But losing will make you better. Analyse why you lost and think about how you can improve in the next case and don’t give up. Don’t assume that if you win, your approach was correct and doesn’t need the same critical analysis. But savour the feeling of winning, enjoy it when it happens and don’t give up!

*Jasmine Murphy will be speaking at Legal Cheek‘s latest careers advice event at Gray’s Inn on the evening of Tuesday 21 October. To reserve a place before the general release of tickets next week email, giving your name and quoting quoting ‘Legal Cheek at Gray’s Inn’ in the subject line.*

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