June 28, 2016

A Barrister’s Perspective: Advice to Aspiring Barristers


John Robb, Essex Court Chambers

There are many things you can do to build up your profile as a credible and attractive potential pupil and tenant. Most of the worthwhile things take time. Since time can be in short supply when you are a student, I think it is worth taking an extra year (whether of study or of work) to invest in yourself before applying if you feel that you want to do that. Equally, there is no single way of getting a pupillage, and you should play to your strengths and do what works for you.There is a lot written elsewhere on this subject, but here is an attempt at a short personal list of tips for a student wishing to become a barrister, or thinking about that route:


  1. You’ve already found the Inner Temple website, so well done. Look too at the Bar Council website http://www.barcouncil.org.uk/careers/, and at Chambers Student http://www.chambersstudent.co.uk/the-bar/a-career-at-the-bar. It is also worth, in due course, looking at the Bar Standards Board website: the BSB publishes in particular a “Pupillage Handbook” which sets out detailed rules and standards applicable to pupillage, and also a “Professional Statement for Barristers” which ‘describes the knowledge, skills and attributes that all barristers should have on ‘day one’ of practice’.


  1. Get hold of some books. I recommend in particular ‘Bewigged and Bewildered’ by Adam Kramer, and ‘The Path to Pupillage’ by Georgina Wolfe and Alexander Robson. Bewigged and Bewildered does a good job of explaining how life varies between different practice areas at the Bar.


  1. Work solidly and sensibly towards your degree. This is a complex subject, but in general barristers’ chambers do care about your degree results, and the biggest single favour you can give yourself is to try to get a strong degree. (I don’t personally have a view on what that means, other than to say that it certainly doesn’t mean that it has to come from Oxford or Cambridge.)


  1. Read cases. Actually read them from start to finish, including dissenting and concurring judgments (and even, in the ICLR, the arguments of counsel). You might choose recent topical or controversial cases, or cases from a particular practice area that you probably haven’t had a chance to study, or foundational cases from your degree that you didn’t have a chance to read properly first time around. Reading cases will get you thinking like a barrister, will give you a deeper understanding of the law, and will make a big difference at interview when you’re able to cite a recent case in support of an answer to a legal question. (If you have not yet studied law, then I suggest using very short textbooks together with ‘text, cases and materials’ books that incorporate case extracts with commentary, to give you a sense of what a particular law subject is about and what it’s like to study it. I also recommend ‘What About Law?’ by Catherine Barnard, Janet O’Sullivan and Graham Virgo.)


  1. Subscribe to BBC Radio 4 podcasts of the programme ‘Law in Action’, for discussion about topical legal issues. Read the Law sections of The Guardian (available free online) and (if you have access to it) The Times. There are lots of law blogs that I’m not current enough to have read, but, pillaging from Adam Kramer’s list, you may wish to try:
    • http://timesonline.typepad.com/baby_barista/
    • http://pupilblog.blogspot.com/
    • http://pupillageandhowtogetit.blogspot.com/
    • http://lawminx.blogspot.com/
    • http://lawyer-2 be.blogspot.com/
    • http://legalbeagleuk.blogspot.com/
    • http://blog.barcouncil.org.uk/
    • http://thelawwestofealingbroadway.blogspot.com/


  1. Go to Court to see (i) a criminal trial, (ii) a civil trial or other hearing, and (iii) an appeal hearing in the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court. Most court hearings are open to the public, which means you are allowed to sit at the back of the court and listen to what is going on. (You can even watch the Supreme Court on live webcast.) Court hearings tend to start at 10.30am, so it is best to arrive at court at around 9.45-10.00am to find out what cases are taking place. It is worth dressing smartly, and you should make sure your mobile phone is switched off and not bring food into the court. If you are visiting the Central Criminal Court (the “Old Bailey”), you are not allowed to bring a bag. If you ask, the Court staff may be able to advise you what would be a good case to watch. You might find it spellbinding, or you might find it dull because you don’t know what is going on and everyone in the courtroom is working off papers that you don’t have. If it’s the latter, don’t be (unduly) put off, as it is a completely different and much more exciting experience when you are fighting the case yourself. (If the court hearing is an appeal, you may be able to find the lower court’s judgment online, which will mean you know exactly what is going on.)


  1. Get involved with your university Law Society, if you have one. If not, find out what is going on near you, and see if there are public lectures and events you can attend on law-related issues. The Inns of Court and the Circuits are a good place to start. There are masses of lectures available online.


  1. Join one of the Inns of Court. Do it sooner rather than later: you have nothing to lose, other than the application fee which is not substantial in the grand scheme of things. Working with students and prospective barristers is one of the core work areas of the Inns of Court, so you are fully entitled to join an Inn and benefit from the Inns’ advice and resources. The staff of the outreach and education departments are friendly and are there to help you.


  1. Participate in a mooting competition (typically for university and BPTC students), and/or in the Bar Mock Trial Competition (school students). These take              time, and you should set appropriate time aside for them to be able to give of your best; but the rewards are immense. You really get to feel for yourself how        law works, and to prove to yourself that you can do it. They are at least helpful and possibly essential for a successful pupillage application.


  1. Browse the websites of individual barristers’ chambers. Because every set and barrister has a web profile, there’s an enormous amount of information available. Some of them have blogs, briefings and other resources. It’ll give you a feel for the different types of practice area out there. It may also give you a sense that every barrister is insuperably wonderful; if so, that is at least to some extent a testament to the power of good advertising, and should not discourage you. It is worth looking also at the websites of the Specialist Bar Associations which act as forums for barristers practising in particular practice areas (e.g. the Criminal Bar Association, Commercial Bar Association, or Family Law Bar Association). There is a list of Specialist Bar Associations on the Bar Council’s website, http://www.barcouncil.org.uk/about-the-bar/what-is-the-bar/specialist-bar-associations/.


  1. Apply for mini-pupillages. See e.g. Chambers Student for more information about these and about some of the sets of chambers offering mini-pupillages. The Bar Council maintains a (non-exhaustive) list of barristers’ chambers offering mini-pupillages. You need to keep track of the various deadlines and eligibility criteria (which tend to vary from set to set). Some sets may offer open days in addition to mini-pupillages. There are judgment calls to make about how many you try to do, when, and whether you try to experience all different types of practice or focus your attention on a single practice area. There’s no single answer; what I did was to do about 4 mini-pupillages in 2-3 practice areas before the start of pupillage applications, and then (in effect) 2 or 3 more mini-pupillages as part of the application process. I don’t think it is necessary to do any more than this, and I’m sure it would have been ok to do fewer.


  1. Look for voluntary opportunities. See whether you are eligible to volunteer with the Free Representation Unit (“FRU”), or able to assist at a Law Centre, Legal Advice Centre, Citizen’s Advice Bureau or refugee advice and support centre. Once again, if you are going to get something meaningful from this, you will have to commit some fairly significant time towards it. (There is no point trying to do something tokenistic: it will be spotted at interview.)


  1. Think about how you read and how you speak. It’s hard to overestimate how important language and the written word are to legal practice. Lord Denning said: “To succeed in the profession of the law, you must seek to cultivate command of language. Words are the lawyer’s tools of trade… As a pianist practises the piano, so the lawyer should practice the use of words, both in writing and by word of mouth.” Simply by reading good quality prose (whether literary or non-literary), you will be helping to form your mind. Try to get used to thinking about how people are using words, and how they are constructing arguments; and try to use accurate, clear and simple language yourself in everyday speech. Note that this is not advice that you should use long and pompous words: in fact, completely the opposite!


Here are a few more books that I particularly recommend, on various aspects of the law and practice as a barrister.

  • The Rule of Law, by Tom Bingham (Lord Bingham, former Senior Law Lord)
  • Advocacy Skills, by Michael Hyam (a former senior judge at the Old Bailey)
  • Mooting and Advocacy Skills, by David Pope and Dan Hill
  • Effective Written Advocacy: a guide for practitioners, by Andrew Goodman
  • Advocacy, ed. Robert McPeake (the City Law School advocacy manual for the BPTC, published by OUP)
  • A Practical Approach to Civil Procedure, by Stuart Sime (again a BPTC text, but a helpful way in if you want to find out about the procedural nuts and bolts that go to make up civil law litigation)


Finally, a disclaimer. Everything written above is based on what I now think I ought to have done, rather than on what I necessarily did before starting out as a barrister. You mustn’t be put off by any of this: it is no more than a personal perspective and hopefully a source of ideas for you to pick and choose from as you wish. Very best of luck.