I concede that I embark on this post with a degree of trepidation. I pretend to no great expertise on how one converts a pupillage into a tenancy. It has happened to me twice: at the end of my pupillage in London, when I suspect the motive was the future payment of clerks’ fees and in my current Chambers, where I was essentially told ‘no one refuses to share a building with you, so you’ll do’.

Nevertheless, I have received a large number of requests for some help, so I have tried to think round the subject a bit. I still recommend Henry Cecil’s book ‘Brief to Counsel’, which has the merit of explaining clearly what the job demands. It is out of date, but still immensely useful.What follows is my own view.

First, be in the right place. The search for a tenancy begins at pupillage. How many pupils is your set taking, and for how many places? Does your set generally take a new tenant every year? Are they recruiting publicly for junior tenants (this sounds like bad news but is probably good news)? In truth, if you have taken a pupillage in a set in which pupils are going to be ‘released’, then your chances are diminished. Are you going to be able to make a living? What sort of work is available to junior tenants? How much will it cost you to do that work in terms of Chamber’s fees, travel and accommodation (It is not unknown for publicly funded work to cost barristers money)? A number of sets talk about their ability to ‘place’ pupils elsewhere if the decision is not to take that pupil. Find out where, how, when and how successful such placements have previously been. All of this is something you need to find out about at interview. The provincial bar tend to offer pupillages, ‘with a view’. Check the website – do they mean it?

Because pupillage is so difficult to get it is easy to take the view that everything must be put aside in order to take that first step. There is something in that view and it is certainly understandable. But still, I urge you to think further ahead.  If you want to do the job, then presumably you want to find a place which starts you off by recognising your talent and rewarding it with a tenancy and a living.

On the assumption that what stands between you and a tenancy is a year in which you will be continually assessed, it seems to me that the following areas are important:

  • Your ability and how it is demonstrated.
  • Your relationship with your supervisor.
  • Your relationship with other members of Chambers.
  • Your relationship with the clerks.
  • Your relationship with solicitors.

Within those relationships there is bound to be conflict. Your supervisor might want you to work on that massive set of commercial papers (particularly if you are any good and what you do is likely to be helpful). Your clerk may want you in Boggend County Court (coram: HH Judge Viciousbully QC) in order to keep Useless & Co happy. Useless & Co are the only firm who will regularly instruct Oldcodger who, for the first time in 10 years is double booked. Meanwhile, Thrusting & Co (aka, your mate Nigel’s Dad) would like to give you a whirl in Toobloodyfarformetogomyself Mags. It’s only a first up but the punter’s a regular client. He started off doing phone boxes and moved on to public order. This is his first assault and, if he likes you, there’s a reasonable chance that by the time he murders someone you’ll be senior enough to get the junior brief.

You will notice that, within this scenario, there is not a word about you. That is because you are unimportant. Of course, everyone wants to give you the opportunity to develop professionally – that’s what a pupillage is all about. However, you will best develop professionally if guided by them. Your supervisor believes that a failure to address the large commercial set of papers will leave a devastating gap in your education and cause problems later on. Your clerk believes that you need to understand that barristers must assist one another and that Useless and Co might come to instruct you regularly (after all, Oldcodger can’t go on for ever and he is 75). Nigel’s Dad is offering you a golden opportunity and shutting Nigel up (does he fancy you or something?). And everyone has a point.

If you have any sense you are torn. Firstly, you don’t want to offend anyone. This is sensible. They have a say in your future. Secondly, if you have to offend someone then you need it to be the least important person, and you have no idea who that is. Thirdly, even if everyone was telling you it is your choice, you have no idea how to make it. In any event, your clerk will almost certainly not be telling you that it is your choice. Your supervisor will be arguing with the clerk on your behalf (and also, of course, for their own benefit) and you will be wondering whether anyone is going to give you the chance to take the one which pays best.
This is wrong. You should be asking to do the one that you think is best for what you are going to do in the next 10 years. Unless your circumstances are unusual you do not need the money. You have an award which allows you to live – not in comfort or luxury, but to live. Take a long view. Your dedication to professional development and advancement is the only way to impress anyone. At least that way you have an objective standard at which to aim. Otherwise you look venal and short-termist.

This means in turn that you need to develop a view about what is best for you. I will try and deal with that in a future post, as I will try and deal with the other matters I have identified as important. I do not promise that they will be the next one or two posts, but I will try and cover the subject, lengthy though it is.