Fundamental to a career in the Law is the gathering of work experience in the two main fields of legal work in the UK, that of the Barrister, or of the Solicitor. Gathering such experience shows prospective employers three things; Firstly that you are dedicated to a career as an advocate or solicitor, secondly that you have a good understanding of where you wish your legal career to go, and thirdly an understanding of the particular area of Law in which you wish to specialise.
For any prospective barrister, the place to begin is with a mini-pupillage. Anybody with a good knowledge of the bar, and the process by which a lawyer becomes a barrister will know what a pupillage is, but for those who are not aware, it is the opportunity to shadow a barrister who is at any level in their career through their daily workings in and out side of court. In particular a mini-pupil can expect to sit in court proceedings for any matter of law (depending on what the specialism of the set you have your mini-pupillage at) and observe barristers at work in open court, as well as take notes on the case at hand and offer opinion on how the case is going. This type of experience is a fantastic opportunity to observe how a practicing barrister works in a court room, and the types of complications and issues that advocates face both in law and on a factual in the given case.
My personal experience was in a criminal set of chambers specifically focusing on matters of criminal defence. This type of specialism is very fast paced and allows you the chance to watch your barrister under pressure in a scenario where the law often constrains how the barrister can fight the case. For example, during one of the trials which I sat in, there were several issues surrounding the admission of evidence for the defence's case due to the unavailability of the witness in open court. However, the issue was resolved swiftly by the barrister I was shadowing, by applying the rules of hearsay in evidence and allowing the witnesses statement to be read aloud. Such efforts by the barrister to resolve the issue that day do drive home how important the concept of thinking on your feet is to an advocate, and is an example of the type of experience that one should take away from their time as a mini-pupil. Experience that will develop into skills important to a barrister.
One of the more daunting parts of a mini-pupillage is meeting the barrister that you are going to shadowing for the duration of your work experience, or for the case that you have been assigned to for that part of your mini-pupillage. For part of your mini-pupillage you may simply be assigned to a junior barrister that has only recently gained a tenancy, or even be placed with a pupil in their first, second or third six. However there is always the chance that you may be placed with a very senior junior barrister, or indeed a Queen’s Counsel. Of course the prospect of being placed with such senior figures in the area of practice that you are conducting your mini-pupillage is a daunting prospect, senior barristers are often far less scary than one would initially assume.
However, the best experience can be gained from a pupil, whilst this may not be the best experience as far as going to high profile cases in some of the higher courts in the country, it provides a wealth of knowledge from the point of view of a person that has not long since been in exactly the same position as you. Most importantly, a pupil can give you invaluable advice on what to put in a covering letter that attracts the attention of the chambers that you are making applications to, as well as what to expect at interviews and ultimately what is expected of you as a prospective barrister. Of course this does not discount the wealth of experience that can be gained from being placed with a Queen’s Counsel. Although, the experience that can be gained from a Queen’s Counsel, or indeed a senior junior barrister is substantially different – one can expect to draw from a senior barrister a far more in depth look at the life of a barrister, quite often with extremely different perceptions of what that life is like, and always from a different period where the law and the professionals within it were starkly different.
It is important to remember that, on top of what you are going to be doing on a day to day basis and the type of experience you will gain from the different types of barrister, you have to be selective in the different sets of chambers that you aim yourself at. Not only are the areas of law substantively different (i.e. between a chancery set, and a criminal set), but also the attitudes of the barristers within those chambers and their manner of approaching the law. If one was to look at a criminal set for example, the attitude is often far more relaxed than that of a chancery or commercial set – something which can be shown in the selection of prospective barrister; a criminal set doesn’t specifically look at academic ability (although that is important), they focus on your ability to debate and advocate an argument. However, a Commercial set will often look at the particular modules you studied in your final year of your degree (particularly those which carry a commercial basis), and will often require nothing less than a 1st class standard, in order to get the crème de la crème of potential pupils. For a mini-pupillage, applicants are not put against such rigorous requirements; all that is essential is a aptitude for the law, an interest in area of law that the chambers that the application is being made to specialises in, a good covering letter and CV, and an intellectual rigor that would impress the barristers that you will be placed with.
Whilst all of the above may seem a little daunting for a fresh Law student who isn’t quite sure what to expect, a mini-pupillage is nothing to be scared of, but rather embraced. It is an opportunity like no other; the chance to what it’s like after all of the studying and hard work getting to the point of being a practicing barrister. If any advice can be given, it is to take every chance at gaining this type of experience. It will benefit your career, whichever direction you wish to go, and will show the aptitude and passion that sets of chambers are interested in. From my experience, this will set you apart from the crowd and make you the more admirable candidate; an advantage that is indescribably important if you are indeed intent on success.
Thanks to Michael Silburn for this useful piece, based on the mini-pupillage he undertook at 25 Bedford Row. Michael is in his third year of the LLB at City.