Pupillage is a twelve-month job interview where both parties are under review. You are considering whether you want to stay at that chambers and they are considering whether they want you to join them.
It’s also an extremely trying time when you are bombarded with a great deal of information and are flung into a challenging set circumstances. This will be stressful, difficult, but incredibly fun and interesting.
Here are some tips to manage your pupillage and get the most out of it:
Impress your pupil supervisors
Your pupil supervisor will provide your chambers with a report which will feed into your tenancy decision, so it’s important to make a good impression. Developing a reputation as a well-informed and efficient pupil is a good start to your career.
Everyone has their own supervisor style, so it may be helpful to speak to someone in chambers who has had that supervisor before. Some supervisors are very laid back and just expect you to observe, others will expect you to do a great deal of work. It may help you to have a conversation with your supervisor at the start of your term with them, so you know what they expect from you. If for any reason you have concerns about your pupil supervisor, then speak to someone in chambers about it. You are there to learn not to be bullied or made to feel uncomfortable.
When you’re shadowing your supervisor, ask for access to the papers and get to know the case. Look up the law and consider any issues you may want to ask your supervisor about. When you’re at court, try to make their life a little easier, for example by taking a note of proceedings without waiting to be asked.
If you’re in a conference with your supervisor and a lay/professional client you will need to know when to speak and when not to speak – it’s doubtful your pupil supervisor will thank you for chiming in uninvited with your own limited legal insights, but it will reflect well on you if you have references for documents easily to hand and can provide a helpful contribution e.g. by discreetly
As a rule, you go where your supervisor goes unless told otherwise. If you take this advice too literally and follow them to the bathroom you will not be the first pupil to make this mistake.
Make an impression on your solicitors
The solicitors you meet in your first six months may be the solicitors who are instructing you in your second six months and for the rest of your career.
You may have varying contact with your solicitors initially depending on the cases you are exposed to by your supervisor, but it’s always worth the effort to engage the solicitor, to remember their name for the next time you meet, and to take an interest in the work they do.
Ultimately solicitors want barristers who will get on with clients, achieve good results and make their lives easier. This is how you get repeat instructions.
Find allies you can ask for help
Your pupil supervisor should be supportive and helpful when you have questions, but it’s highly likely you will also need to rely on other people from time to time, particularly when you start on your feet.
Remember no one expects you to know what you are doing in the beginning, so it’s acceptable ask questions. Your colleagues will bear this with better grace if you try to find the answers yourself first. It’s also advisable to have a bank of people you can ask questions, so you don’t over burden one person and always have help when you need it.
Chambers will have different rules about pupils’ physical attendance, but you should aim to attend chambers regularly, so you get to know people. It’s also advisable you try to attend chambers’ social events, as this is an opportunity to build a rapport with your colleagues which could be useful to your tenancy decision. Traditionally many of these events take place in the pub, which may be problematic for pupils who don’t drink or have caring responsibilities that mean they can’t stay late. It may be worth discussing this with your supervisor, or chambers social committee if there is one, to see if any daytime or non-drinking events can be organised. You could sell this as an inclusive social event for solicitors as well. Chambers may appreciate this as proof of your initiative and good commercial sense.
You can also build a rapport with members of chambers and accumulate some good references for your tenancy decision by offering to do work for people. Speak to your supervisor about this first as they may want you to prioritise their work. They will also protect you from becoming overloaded by colleagues keen to exploit the offer of help.
Make an effort with your clerks
Make an effort with your clerks. Make an effort with your clerks. Make. An. Effort. With. Your. Clerks. This is very important.
The clerks room is the beating heart of chambers. They will provide a report for the tenancy committee at the conclusion of your pupillage and in that report they will indicate what solicitors thought of you, how frequently you were instructed, whether they had any difficulties with you, and how willing you were to help chambers out.
Your clerks will also be the ones recommending you to solicitors who are looking for barristers to instruct. This is especially important at the beginning of your career before you have regular instruction.
Memorize your clerks’ names and take the time to chat to them and get to know them. When you’re on your feet, let them know when you have finished a case and ask them if you can help with anything else. They will love you for this.
Send your attendance notes on the day or at least within 24 hours. Don’t make your clerks chase you for this. Getting an attendance note in on time with correct details of upcoming hearings and deadlines, is a very easy thing you can do to make a good impression with your clerks and solicitors.
Work with your clerks to identify any issues in your diary in advance. You should also provide them with as much notice as possible if you need to take time off for appointments or holiday.
Make a note of who you are meeting
The Bar is a small place and you will meet a lot of people in the early days of your practice: barristers from your chambers, barristers from other chambers and a number of solicitors.
It may help to write a list on your computer or phone of who you are meeting, which chambers/ firm they are at, which court you met them at and which case you worked on together.
It’s always helpful to know people in your chambers and it never hurts to know people in other chambers, especially if you may need to move in future.
Get to know your cohort
Pupillage is a challenging process and your co-pupils are best able to relate to your experience. The same can be said for pupils in other chambers. It’s inevitable you will bump into each other in court or at social events and it will benefit you to get along and help each other out where possible.
Play your own game
You will enjoy your pupillage more if you simply focus on being the best pupil you can be and avoid comparing yourself to anyone else. This may be easier said than done but remember sometimes you will be on top and sometimes someone else will. Equally there will be skills you naturally possess or pick up quicker than others and vice versa. Trading tips and insights will benefit all of you.
What you lack you can learn, just hold your nerve and don’t let yourself be put off by others who appear more confident or successful. They probably feel the same way about you.
Aim for good relationships at the Bar
You should always aim to have good relationships with everyone you meet at the Bar. Even in an adversarial system you can disagree courteously or at least make it up quickly afterwards. Your tenancy application may not be successful or you may decide to move chambers one day and it will be far more beneficial to have people who can vouch for you rather than people who will encourage chambers not to take you because they encountered you when you were ill-tempered and rude three years ago.
Know what you are working towards
The tenancy committee will consider your tenancy application at the conclusion of your pupillage. Your chances of success will increase markedly if you can prove you have met each of chambers’ tenancy criteria.
Ask for the criteria at the beginning of your pupillage and work through them steadily. Collect evidence of how you have met each one to ensure your final application is as strong as possible.
Work towards confidence
Give yourself confidence by working towards success: sign up to legal updates, ask questions, watch other people’s advocacy, learn how others administer their practices and prepare cases, prepare your cases with care and attention, get to know your solicitors and work out how to serve them better than anyone else.
If your courage still fails you, go above your courage. Sometimes pretending to be more confident than you feel at that moment pushes you to perform better than you imagine. Surviving that experience gives you the confidence to approach the next challenge.
Make a note of your successes
Save emails where people compliment you and your work. It will be helpful for your supervisor to have some references when they prepare their report for your tenancy decision. It’s also helpful for you to refer to this folder on days when you’re feeling discouraged.
You will fail but don’t dwell on it
Every single barrister you had every met or admired has made a gigantic fool of themselves in court. Every single one.
At the beginning of your career, you will make a fool of yourself regularly because bar school will only prepare you for a tenth of what you actually need to know and the first six months of your pupillage will only provide you with the another tenth. That means you’re going to have to learn most of it on the job.
When you’re going through this process, remind yourself the Bar is a steep learning curve and every day you’re improving. This will not be a linear process and some days you will be the best barrister in the world and other days you will stink.
Much of one's success at the Bar is down to judgment, which is based on experience. As someone with limited experience your judgment is still developing, and you will learn more with every case you do. Your preparation will also get faster and more streamlined.
Start to see your failures as a learning opportunity and try not to repeat mistakes. Things can and will go awry, but dust yourself off and work out how to do it better next time.
Consider your finances
Some of you may have secured commercial pupillages, in which case you should be well accommodated. Other pupils, particularly those starting criminal pupillages, may have some anxiety about making ends meet during pupillage.
Many chambers will offer a regular income during the first six months followed by guaranteed earnings during the second six months, when you are just getting started on your feet. The early days of pupillage may be a shock, as you may be paying significant travel costs to get to court before anxiously waiting for your expenses to be reimbursed at the end of the month and for your cases to pay out.
Start thinking about your finances early on and find yourself an accountant familiar with the Bar. There are peculiarities of the profession e.g. aged debt, court expenses, and it is helpful to have an accountant experienced in this area who can advise you. Speak to other members of your chambers and see which firms they would recommend. Many accountants also offer to do the first pupillage year for free.
Keep a daily schedule of your travel and court expenses. This will make it easier for you to fill out your tax return at the end of the year. If you do it as you go along it will be less onerous and you’re more likely to claim back everything you’re owed.
Become familiar with your billing and fees clerk and learn from them the best way to bill cases. Getting some experience in this area will make sure your efforts are maximised as far as possible.
If your aged debt starts mounting and you need a pay-out don’t be shy: speak to your fees clerk about this. You may be a pupil, but everyone needs money to survive.
If you still find yourself struggling, then most of the Inns have a pupil hardship fund and the Bar Benevolent Association may also be able to assist. These application processes are confidential.
Look after yourself
During pupillage there is likely to be an expectation that you say yes to everything, you will be exposed to situations that are novel and taxing, and your position in chambers will be uncertain.
During this time, it’s important to protect your physical and mental health. If you find yourself struggling (as everyone does at some point) speak to someone in chambers and schedule some time out to recharge.
All chambers should provide some holiday allowance – take it. No one will consider you a hero if you don’t, but it may affect your performance and tenancy prospects if you are too burnt out to do a good job.
You will spend the rest of your career trying to establish a balance between agreeing to enough work to develop your practice, make a living and earn the clerks’ appreciation; and refusing enough cases to complete work to a reasonable standard, sleep and clean your bathroom.
Although wellbeing is frequently neglected at the Bar, it’s important to the longevity of your career that you find a way to manage your workload and self-care.
The Bar Council have put together a Wellbeing Portal with resources specifically for barristers with some advice on this point.
It's no accident you've made it this far. This is your time, you've earnt it and you deserve to be here.