And the Trumpet waxed exceeding loud (Exodus 19:19 – look it up): the pupil called (I digress only slightly) and Chambers responded with a voice (ditto). And, hopefully, the voice says ‘it’s you’.
It’s that time of year again. Having sweated through University, the BVC, OLPAS, interviews and pupillage there comes the moment when Chambers says either ‘yes please’ or ‘who are you?’ You are in the last 5 of The Apprentice except that there may not be a winner at all and you won’t be starting on a six-figure salary.
How do you do your best to ensure that you become a tenant? There are a number of comments below suggesting that this is of some concern to some of you.
The bad news is that, if you haven’t started by now, you are too late. The quest to move from pupillage to tenancy starts with OLPAS and where you apply. If you are in a provincial set and you have done your work diligently, got on with your pupillage supervisor and those other members of Chambers with whom you have come into contact, been punctual, pleasant to the clerk and polite to the staff, done research willingly and competently and are unlikely to mess up a return then you are probably in. It is as simple as that.
The issue is starkest for those in London sets with more pupils than tenancy vacancies. In such sets, the qualities set out above will only suffice to get you to the starting gate. In addition to the above you will have had to been well spoken of by all, preferably had a recommendation from solicitors and, most unfortunately in my view, have been ‘better’ than your competition.
What does ‘better’ mean in this context? I am afraid I have no idea. One would hope that no selection would be made on perceived academic ability alone. In most areas of law, the ability to get on with the client and persuade the Judge is at least as important as that. The same can be said about whether you are the right type of person. Getting on with professional colleagues is important, but decent sets of Chambers are not nowadays looking for clones. The same difficulty applies to support from the clerks’ room. There may be assessed work within the pupillage which levels the playing field. There may or may not be a quota as to the number of pupils taken on. Ultimately, it seems to me, someone has to recommend you, that person has to overcome any resistance, whether based on your performance or on the competing claim of another pupil, and that person has to have sufficient belief in you and clout in Chambers to carry the day. Does that sound like a lottery?
Here is a list of things you can do:

  • Be punctual. Barristers work hard and most come into Chambers in ‘roll up the shirt sleeves and get started’ mode. Waiting for you will not be high on their agenda or the list of things they want to be patient about.
  • Work hard. You will often be asked to get something done. It needs to be done on time to the absolute best of your ability. That means giving yourself time to pause for thought. Closing the lid of the computer and thinking ‘I’ve finished – now for the pub’ is an error. The pub is probably an ok idea; it’s the ‘I’ve finished’ that causes the problem. You have to learnt to think about what you have said. Give yourself time and try to consider the arguments against it, the assumptions that underlay it (which you should have expressly stated), the law upon which it is based, the evidence which must be adduced to back up the legal submission. That process is often helped by a night’s sleep – which means you need your first draft finished early. And then you need to compare your best effort with your pupillage supervisor’s actual work. If they are the same then either you are a genius, or (and I am afraid this is more likely) your supervisor is stressed, pressured and hasn’t been careful enough. They sign it and they get sued/lose the solicitor – but it will be your fault. You should be ready for your work to get sent out whilst simultaneously praying that it is not.
  • Be personally kind. If the set at which you are requires you to knife the opposition you should leave. Baby Barista in The Times is very funny, but she is not a real pupil. The nature of the job means that practitioners are often stressed, always tired, pressured and have forgotten what free time is. Most try mightily to restrain themselves when the option is to vent (in the sense that Krakatoa erupting might be called venting). Most are also trying hard to do a job for the client, with whose case they frequently have sympathy and whom they frequently like. Pupils are not exempt from this and are frequently battling with the unfamiliar and the sense of inadequacy which losing a lot of cases before you have had a chance to win many can bring. Narking people, sarcastic glances, deliberate unpleasantness and so forth are obviously unhelpful to your cause. But you will actually make a good impression if you are capable of offering some support. Making a cup of coffee, knowing when to shut up, knowing when to offer help, knowing when not to say ‘about my day off’: all these things will establish you as someone who can judge a situation. Being kind is the best way to do it, because the only errors you will make will be those of the not sticking the knife in type.
  • Be professionally sensible and learn. You will do your own cases during pupillage. You will not sleep the night before; you may (as I did) throw up in the cubicle of the Court toilet immediately before your case is called on; you will believe you see a brilliant point which would have eluded the mind of anyone without a planet sized brain such as the one you now see that you possess, only to find it evaporating like a civil liberty out on the streets alone. In fact, it is the client who should be worrying, but they are safe in the knowledge that their solicitor had recommended you as certain to win the case, because the clerk said would be brilliant on the assurance of the pupillage supervisor who said you might be able to find the Court. Ignorance, for clients, is bliss. What you must do is learn. That means asking what you could have done better and what you should have done. Was the Judge a little worked up? Why? Never mind that you tell you client that the Judge is well known for hating all defendants/claimants/respondents/appellants/people with a surname beginning with Z. What could you have done to stop the Judge being a little worked up? Have you taken a lousy point? Have you spent 20 minutes establishing that a duty of care is owed to other road users, with copious quotations from Donaghue v Stevenson? Have you failed to agree with your opponent that the photographs were accurate, thus requiring her to call the photographer, the chemist who developed them and the camera manufacturer (to show that the lens on that particular batch was without flaw)? Have you missed the main point, whilst labouring the one which sounded so good when last night, over the second bottle, you explained to your significant other exactly how you were going to use it to skewer your opponent? We have all been there. But most of us have not wanted to stay.
  • Work, rest and play. In that order.
  • Honestly assess the points you are asked to work on. You may not agree with your pupillage supervisor. Don’t disagree to make an impression and check carefully. But if you believe the answer is different, say so. Research the point and say where the original conclusion falls down. And then offer the right answer. Don’t cringe and don’t make excuses for someone with whom you disagree. And don’t rub it in either.
  • Members of Chambers will generally be only too willing to help you with your work. But they are assisting you – not doing it for you.
  • Solicitors are the mummy bird delivering the worm to your open beak. Treat them accordingly. Don’t keep them waiting. Don’t treat them like idiots, servants, your best mate or the Lord of your Manor. This is a professional relationship. Remember names. If people tell you where they are going on holiday, ask if they had a good time when they get back. Be able to tell the difference between developing a relationship and begging. The aim is to get them to ring Chambers and sing your praises. Contrary to what you may believe, they will not do so if offered money (or it won’t count if they do). Find out what they want from you (often, asking the question works wonderfully well) and then do it. Find out what they don’t want from you (for example a phone call every time you find a new point – however superb) and don’t do it.
  • Work out who carries clout in Chambers. There is always an engine room – usually juniors of between 10 and 15 years call – which brings in a vast amount of work. Meet those people; do things for them; try and get on; try and get to meet their solicitors. There is often a rain-maker – someone who brings in more clients than she can possibly need for herself. Do some work for her if you can. If you have rain-making ability, see if you can demonstrate it. The aim is not to crawl to these people – it is to showcase your talent. If you are any good they will form a favourable judgment without you needing to ask.
  • Be excited and passionate. A pose of world-weary cynicism does not suit you. Show that you do actually care about justice. Show that you enjoy legal research (if you do), or working up a cross-examination (if you do), or plotting the strategy that, 5 letters down the line, will mean the case settles in your client’s favour (if you do). If none of this appeals then you may really be a world-weary cynic. Stop being a barrister and either get medical help or start living.
  • Enjoy yourself. You are your own boss, surviving on your own talents, beholden to no one (alright, not many people), doing the job you love, which has a real value to us all and will make you a comfortable living. You beat out all the other people to get this far. Even if you don’t get tenancy here there are other places. And much better to have really tried than to have always thought ‘if only’.
  • Be honest if asked to assess yourself. Say what you believe you have done well and why. Say what you believe you have not done as well as you could and why. Say what you believe you struggle about and why. If Chambers are any good they know this anyway. This is advocacy – you acknowledge your bad points and hammer home the good. You should never have to say ‘I didn’t try/work hard enough’. You should always be able to identify a remedial strategy. You are selling yourself so do it properly.

I hope that helps. When (if) interviewed do as below, but add in the things that you will – by now – know your interviewers want/need to hear.
Finally – be lucky. We all need it. Hope that – as PG Wodehouse had it- for you, fate is not, unseen in the background, quietly slipping the lead into the boxing glove. No one can make you lucky but you won’t be lucky if you ever underestimate it – or ever rely on it.