Each month one of our pupils will reflect on their experience as a pupil barrister.
I am presently in my third week of my Second Six, and it’s not yet the end of April. That doesn’t matter: I think I’ve done plenty of things in the last few days that are enough to fill this blog and then a couple more pages besides. In the best traditions of the Bar I’ll try to keep this brief.
It is natural to be raring to go as soon as you know that your first cases will be just around the corner. The same thing happened when I worked for a certain national advocacy provider, and it happened again once I knew that I was mere days away from being on my feet.
But my first day was a false start. I had nothing in my diary for my first day. Nothing! Eleanor was in the Crown Court on her first day, but I was sat at my desk in chambers. Never mind, I thought: savour the downtime, get on with your prep for later in the week, and get ready to it all again tomorrow.
Since then it has been all go and I have been instructed in most of our key practice areas in Civil, Family, and Crime.
On my second day I was well and truly thrown into the deep end and I was sent off to Shrewsbury Crown Court. My instructing solicitors had happened across the court listings and spotted that one of their (recently convicted) clients had a hearing listed, yet they didn’t know what for. Upon calling the court office they established only that the judge had listed a hearing of his own volition under the slip rule. This inevitably meant a variation of his sentence. Of immediate concern to me was the fact that he had already been sentenced to 12 years! Would I be going along to mitigate against a proposal to increase his sentence?
I had been given some advice that I should stay away from “any sentence in double figures” because it was a certainty that I would not be competent to deal with such. The best I could do, therefore, was go along and hope to find out what the judge would do ahead of time.
I’ll cut a long story short. I reached court two-and-a-half hours early and the court staff very helpfully tipped me off that the judge intended to add on a period on licence which is mandatory under s236A of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I could therefore advise my client that there was nothing I could say to prevent the addition. I had a little more involvement than that, however: I found the relevant authority in which it was made clear that the circumstances dictated that two years on licence must be added and not a single year as thought by the prosecutor. It is never attractive to come across authority which makes your client’s position worse, but it is mandatory that counsel shall assist the court and so assist I did.
Since then I’ve had one other foray into the Crown Court, one final hearing in a private law dispute regarding children, and a number of cases in the county court ranging from road traffic accidents to social housing injunctions. I am quickly getting back into the swing of advocacy after a six-month break from my three-year career as an advocate.
There have been moments of discomfort. Every new area of law and new type of hearing has been a steep learning curve; but this is a profession where learning is best achieved by doing. One of the most challenging aspects is where research should, in theory, reveal a positive answer to a particular issue, but where research neither turns up authority in support nor authority against. I have not yet reached the point where I can comfortably end a session of research after drawing blank after blank, because of the fear of missing the answer and misleading the court. This is no bad thing because it will make me a better lawyer and will keep the threat of a professional negligence claim as far away from my door as I can keep it.
I’m also pleased to find that my diary remains pretty full for the foreseeable future, and I will drive the lengths and breadths of England and Wales over the next couple of months. “Has wig, will travel” would probably be on my business card if a) I had business cards – though I can be found on LinkedIn – and b) my practice was not predominantly in civil and family. No complaints, though: with a full diary and a glut of interesting work to do, there’s no travel that can’t be improved by a good podcast. Luckily, I have plenty in my playlist.
After four months of Crime, I spent February with the Family Team which brought a host of new challenges. The BPTC focuses heavily on the Criminal and Civil Procedure Rules, and plenty of time is given over to gaining familiarity with the White Book and Blackstone’s. Family Law brings a whole new set of procedural rules to get acquainted with and an understanding of the Family Court Practice or the ‘Red Book’ is a must.
The biggest difference I found moving from Crime to Family is the amount of time advocates spend outside of court seeking to agree issues between themselves and draft orders, with matters being put before the tribunal as a last resort. I very much enjoyed the level of client care involved in Private and Public law proceedings.
During March I followed junior members of chambers to get a feel for the kind of work I will be doing when I am on my feet. This was an invaluable opportunity to research, prepare and observe cases in Chambers other main practice areas of Civil and Regulatory.
By Eleanor Lake
The final question in the interview that secured my pupillage at St Ives was: “You haven’t mentioned Crime in your application at all. Would you accept instructions in Crime?”. My answer was a firm “yes”.
The question arose because my background is entirely in civil proceedings, and my Master’s degree is in Commercial Law. It would have been more than a little disingenuous to have tried to persuade the panel that I had harboured the dream of being a leading criminal practitioner since I was a little boy. But despite that, my answer at interview was – of course – entirely truthful.
First, it would be ridiculous for me to dismiss out of hand an area of law where I have no experience. Second, Crime is interesting in a way that the minutiae of leasehold covenants never can be. Third, and most important as far as my pupillage is concerned, advocacy in the criminal courts is an art in itself and will improve my skills in a way that small claims never could.
It is with that in mind that January was Crime month. I was placed under the tutelage of one of our experienced juniors whose practice is almost entirely Crime.
It was an eye-opening month. I experienced a wide range of the serious criminal matters that members of Chambers regularly prosecute and defend in the Crown Court. For that reason the material has made for much darker reading than, say, a report on a faulty vehicle, and it has been the first time in my career that I have come across such cases.
In common with the rest of our criminal practitioners, my supervisor has demonstrated great aptitude for presenting clear and coherent cases to a lay audience. My civil background gives me the insight to know that shifts in both style and approach are necessary if you are addressing a jury rather than a judge. There is also a great degree of skill in presenting a flawed case with confidence in order that the positive aspects are amplified and the negatives are quietly swept away. Unflappability cannot be taught; but strategic marshalling of witnesses can, and seeing this in action has been invaluable.
The month has ended with an advocacy exercise involving both witness handling and jury speeches. My own approach to receiving feedback is not to write down the good, and to focus instead on that which can be improved. These advocacy exercises have been of great benefit: not too often will there be future opportunities to practise with a safety net. After my month in Crime I have the confidence to undertake work in an area of law I have spent little time in. With a little more experience and a little more practise, perhaps I will even have the opportunity to challenge my supervisor’s record of having been the most junior pupil in our set to have represented a defendant in a jury trial.
Prior to being called to the Bar in 2016, and commencing pupillage in 2017, I worked as an investigative officer within a local authority Trading Standards Department. It was during a lengthy Crown Court trial, prosecuting a complex timeshare fraud case, that my interest in joining the Bar was ignited.
I initially found the transition from full-time employment to pupil barrister to be a steep learning curve. As each day of my first six passes, I try to absorb as much as I can from this unique opportunity where I am surrounded by experienced advocates. I have found the collegiate atmosphere at the Criminal Bar to be a great benefit, as senior and junior barristers alike are willing to share their knowledge and expertise with me. I receive immense support from my pupil supervisor, who takes time from her own busy practice to ensure I am always learning, whether it be matters of law, etiquette or professional ethics.
Having spent the last three months following barristers in the Criminal Team, I feel certain that the decision to retrain as a barrister was the right one, and eagerly await the commencement of my second six where I will be ‘on my feet.’
By Eleanor Lake
Nearly two months have passed since I began pupillage in October. The stand-out takeaway has been that I have begun a steep learning curve, and this is notwithstanding the fact that I had an extensive practice as a county court advocate practising in civil matters prior to commencing pupillage.
In my first few weeks I have been exposed to a number of practice areas that I have never experienced before. Social housing and children matters (public and private) have been standard fayre, because these are the key areas of practice for my supervisor. But I have also undertaken a large amount of paperwork for personal injury matters, and I have been exposed to Crime for the first time. My work commitments have been challenging but manageable through a combination of my own time management and my supervisor’s attempts to ensure that I am not completely deluged with work falling due on the same deadlines.
Above all, though, I feel that I have been able to take a front-row seat watching exceptional advocates ply their trade. My supervisor demonstrates skills in advocacy that I had not seen before during my time in the small claims courts across the Midland Circuit; boxing witnesses into a corner as a series of undeniable propositions led to inescapable conclusions. I had the opportunity to see one of our most experienced practitioners give a closing speech for the Prosecution in a case where I had heard none of the evidence and yet could picture the scene vividly. Surely enough, conviction followed.
I feel that I am slowly absorbing sufficient knowledge and skill that I will eventually be ready to be on my feet in a little over four months’ time. I know that I have the support and assistance of all of my colleagues in chambers, and I know that help is only an email or phone call away. My application to undertake pupillage at St Ives Chambers was predicated on the basis that I would learn from barristers who are outstanding in their fields, and that is exactly what is happening.