The importance of Mini Pupillages (Part 1)

In some of my previous posts, I’ve written about the importance of law students becoming involved in mooting, practicing advocacy etc. I also emphasized in those posts, that beyond public speaking and advocacy practice, it is essential for a student/young lawyer to gain first-hand experience of court proceedings. In the early stages of one’s legal career this will be in the form of mini-pupillages, marshalling and court visits (I will cover the latter two in future posts).

Rather than generically listing the advantages of mini-pupillages, I will recount some of my personal experiences of shadowing Barristers in two very different sets of Chambers and hopefully that will convey a more interesting image of what happens during a mini-pupillage.  This post will concern my very first mini-pupillage at a relatively small set of Chambers and in the next few days I will share my experience at a much larger set.  (On the off-chance that this might cause some sort of legal headache, I’m going to avoid mentioning the names of those Chambers)

My first mini-pupillage

During my first year of University, I was involved in a number of extra-curricular activities, from writing articles for the Warwick Law Society magazine Obiter Dicta to hitch-hiking from Coventry to Prague for a Link Community Development (LCD) fundraiser to campaigning for Warwick Student Action for Refugees (STAR). However, embarrassingly, during that time I had neglected to do any mini-pupillages. I became acutely aware of this over the summer as I noticed many of my friends and classmates becoming involved in vacation schemes at solicitor’s firms in London. I felt that I was quickly being left behind in the professional front and so, when my second year started, I resolved to obtain a mini-pupillage as quickly as possible.

But where to start? Many aspiring Barristers-to-be know of at least one other Barrister, through family or friends, that give them an introductory taste of the profession. In the UK at least, I had no such connections. A Google search of Barristers Chambers only yielded the top most sets and browsing through the profiles of their members was the most disheartening experience: impeccable academic credentials consisting of Oxford Firsts, Harvard LLMs and prestigious Inn scholarships as well as noted publications and numerous foreign languages to boot! Feeling thoroughly under-qualified, I resigned myself to the fact that I would never get a work placement. I felt that any e-mail or application I sent their way would be immediately binned.

I spoke to my parents, melodramatically whining about my inability to become a lawyer but they continued to spur me on. With their encouragement, I began e-mailing covering letters to a few Chambers and to my great surprise, one of them e-mailed me back almost instantly:

“When would you like to start?”, the Head Clerk asked curtly.

Taken aback by the speed of their response and contemplating the possibility that the e-mail was sent to me by mistake, I tentatively dialed the number provided. Again, to my surprise, I was asked which dates I would be available to undertake my mini-pupillage. I fixed a date and before I knew it, the Clerk had hung up.

A few weeks later, I was in London. It was the day before my mini-pupillage and I nervously called the Chambers again. I was told that I should directly make my way to Enfield Magistrate’s Court in the outskirts of the city. 9.30am sharp. Having spent the night on the floor of a friend who lived in Central London, I left for the Court a little after 8am, believing that I would arrive at the courthouse nice and early.

It was 9.28am, when I arrived panting and wheezing at the entrance of the courthouse, having lost my way since leaving the tube station. I found that the Barrister that I was supposed to be shadowing had already entered the courtroom his plea before hearing had been allocated to. As is usual in such circumstances, I tried to enter the room as quickly and quietly as possible but in the process alerted everyone that I was doing so. I will never forget the words that my mini-pupil master greeted me with:

“Why would anyone want to be a Barrister?”

Taken aback my his gloomy question, I kept my mouth shut and adopted a sheepish expression. Ignoring my silence, he proceeded to introduce himself and the briefs that he was handling on that day. I spent the next two days with him, from 9.30 am to four in the afternoon, watching him prosecute a TWOC (taking without consent) and a case which turned on whether two police officers were the victim of an assault or whether they were the perpetrators of assault themselves. The only case that I saw him defend was one involving an alleged marijuana dealer, who he ‘got of’ on the basis that the police had contaminated the evidence. I was abuzz with questions after his display of legal technical and procedural prowess but rather than go into detail about this, he merely commented that “when acting for the defence in the magistrate’s, knowledge of technical and procedural rules is often more useful than knowledge of the law”. For the lunch breaks and recesses that followed, he preferred to complain about his pay, the quality of his briefs, his indigestion and the poorly-cooked Chinese pork ribs that he had the night previously.

He won all of his cases during those two days yet he viewed all of these triumphs with glum equanimity; always stressing upon how he had fallen into an unhappy cycle, where he continuously receiving low-paying criminal briefs. It was a real eye-opener for someone who had grown up hearing stories about the fabulous wealth of Nehru and Jinnah to see a Barrister having salted peanuts and energy drinks for lunch.

My supervisor had no briefs on the third day of my mini-pupillage and so I was allocated another Barrister to shadow. She specialized in family law as well as criminal law and her first appearance was at a court even further away, in a place that is not even considered to be part of London proper: Feltham Magistrate’s Court. Over the course of the day, from the back of what looked like a large seminar room, I observed a domestic violence case. A suitably angry defendant was brought in and a suitably large screen was placed in front of the witness’ stand to protect the vulnerable witness. Tears were shed and witness voices were raised. The style of advocacy was completely different from that of the first magistrate’s court and it was a bit unnerving to see the judges sitting only a few arm lengths away; eye-to-eye with counsel.

My new mini-pupil master was younger than my previous one and was still enjoying the adrenaline rush of a freshly obtained tenancy. Over a lunch at Greggs she told me about the financial struggle she had to go through to put herself through University and Bar School and how she came out all the more resilient for it. Her determination and ambition was evident in the gusto with which she approached her work and the relish with which she conducted her cross-examinations.

I was a novice law student then (and still am now to a large extent!) and was still learning how to put two and two together. I’m sure a lot of the arguments used by the Barristers I shadowed went over my head but I still learned a lot from their manner in court, their interests and attitude, their comments about the legal profession and possibly even a bit from their discussion about briefs!

Broadly speaking, looking back now, I find my agonizing over obtaining my first mini-pupillage to be immature and slightly ridiculous. While getting a mini-pupillage in some Chambers is extremely competitive, in most cases, Chambers willingly take on mini-pupils who are academically sound (i.e. show prospect of a 2.1 from a decent University/VC from a BPTC provider) and are eager to learn about the areas of law they specialize in. There is no comparison at all with the fierce competition for pupillages, as my second year self needlessly feared.  So, anyone who is still wondering whether they should put in the effort to apply for a few mini-pupillages, stop dithering and apply!

(To be contd.)

Enfield Magistrates Court (Source: Wikipedia)



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