Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Mini-Pupillage - Day 2 14/2/2012

Eddie called me a few hours after I got home from Day 1 and told me to meet him at Kingston Crown Court at nine the next morning:

"ABH. Probably racially aggravated. Might be some football involvement as well. And we've got a have-a-go-hero. And Kingston is 2 minutes from my house so I can get up at 8.45. Magic."

After the excitement of a Magistrate's Court Trial, I was worried that the Crown Court would appear positively dull in comparison.

I arrived at the Court at about 8.45, and made my way up to the advocates' robing room. I took a punt on the entry code, hoping it was the same as my last visit in June, and got lucky.

The robing room at Kingston is a marvellous place. So marvellous that when they filmed Silk* there a couple of years ago they showed the corridors from Kingston, the courts from Kingston, the lobby from Kingston, even the CPS room from Kingston - but the robing room from an entirely different court. Looked like Isleworth to me, but you can never be sure.

The highlight of Kingston robing room, the thing that really captures its essence, is probably the coffee. You see, they seem to have blagged a supply of coffee cups from Costa.

"Hooray!" you may think to yourself, "something perfectly palatable". If this is your reaction please go back and read the last paragraph again. CUPS from Costa; not Coffee. They have a coffee machine that makes the American GI slang "Mud" seem overly generous. This coffee could not even be saved by two sugars.You know you've hit the big time when a latte is made with UHT milk.

Anyhow, I seem to have digressed into the tribulations of a middle class existence.

Eddie turned up at about 9.30 muttering something about living too close and not having any bloody change. I took this as my cue to punish him for his tardiness by buying him a coffee, and then making him drink it.

The facts of the day's case were thus:

The defendant was a youngish black man who had been watching football in a local pub. At the final whistle he ventured outside and somehow got into an argument with a much older man of arabic descent. Harsh words were exchanged. At some point the defendant was said to have said something along the lines of "Get out of my face you fucking paki".

At this, a young white guy (definitely works in the city, almost certainly a public school boy, probably turns his collar up when feeling casual) decided to intervene by putting himself between the two men. Matters are complicated by the fact that the white guy and the black guy were both at the pub watching football, and supported opposing teams.

Unsurprisingly, things came to a head: the defendant attacked both men, witnesses say further racial terms were flung around (by the defendant and the arabic guy) and the white guy ended up with a broken nose and a black eye. The arabic guy got a black eye. The defendant went back in to the pub to finish his pint, whereupon HM Constabulary arrested him.

Eddie was prosecuting, and had a few issues to deal with: the CPS said that this was both a football related offence, and wanted him to present the case as such. They also believed it to be racially aggravated. Moreover, the defendant was unrepresented.

Unrepresented defendants can, apparently, be a bit tricky. Their lack of knowledge of the law is matched only by their vigour in trying to defend themselves, and court can become a fairly heated environment. Sadly, with the current public funding/legal aid regime, this will become only a more common occurrence, but that's a discussion for another day.

Eddie's first response was to try to convince the CPS that this was not a football related offence. Football related offences can be dealt with in very different ways, and the public policy considerations can be something of a minefield. Eddie was not, however, shying away from these considerations - instead he was just being realistic. The offence, in his opinion, had nothing at all to do with football - football just happened to be on telly somewhere nearby. The CPS took some convincing but they went with him in the end.

The racially aggravated issue was less contentious. There were a number of witnesses corroborating the events, and Eddie had no qualms in prosecuting in those terms.

The real fun, though, came when Eddie went to introduce himself to the witnesses. It's common for barristers to do this, and indeed they are required by the criminal procedure rules to try to calm nervous witnesses, and assist them with information on procedures, etc.

Half way through the chat, the young white witness (one of the complainants) said: "I'm pretty nervous about facing this guy in court, I heard you can give evidence from behind a screen. Can I do that?"

The other complainant thought this sounded like a fantastic idea, and asked for the same.

So, Eddie now had to make a Special Measures Application. Special Measures can be deployed in certain circumstances, for instance when a witness is in fear of being recognised by a defendant, or a colleage of the defendant in the public gallery. If these witnesses were genuinely in fear then a Special Measures Application was entirely appropriate.

So, before the trial started Eddie had to make an application. Contrary to popular opinion, a prosecutor's job in the English system is not purely to secure conviction. You're also an officer of the court and must assist, generally, in the administration of justice. Eddie spotted something.

As he was self-represented the defendant had the right to cross-examine witnesses on his own behalf. During cross-examination he'd be able to look straight at the witnesses. A screen would be useless.

Eddie wasn't entirely sure of the right approach. On the one hand he had to consider practicalities - the date had been fixed for some time, the witnesses had taken time off work, the defendant needed certainty as to his future.

On the other he needed to consider the quality of the trial - its fairness would be directly impacted by the quality of the evidence, and that quality would be affected by the fears of the witnesses, and thus Special Measures.

Eddie was well aware that in the magistrates's court they have a power to order a court appointed advocate - someone paid for by the court purely to conduct cross-examination. He was unaware of any such power in the crown court.

As it turns out, the judge was equally oblivious. Eddie decided to bite the bullet and explain the situation in full to the bench. After a bit more digging it was established that the defendant was unrepresented because he had a fairly dodgy solicitor who had taken his legal aid certificate, and not bothered to hire any counsel.

What would have been a very tricky legal conundrum turned into a simple revocation of legal aid, and an adjournment. Eddie's worries were for nothing.

In the end we were done by 11.30, Eddie's clerks had nothing for him to do that afternoon, and we all went home. Petrifyingly, under the prosecution fees regime, Eddie got paid almost nothing for the day's work. Such is life at the criminal bar.

*Silk is not an accurate representation of life at the criminal bar. Doesn't stop me absolutely loving it though.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Mini-Pupillage - Day 1 13/2/2012

On Sunday 12 Feb I got an email from the barrister I mentioned in this post, which said: "Still on for tomorrow? Friend of mine has returned a bloody mags prosecution, so I'm stuck with it. Wimbledon, if you fancy it"

Three sentences to kick start a mini-pupillage.

The barrister I was with, who we're going to call "Eddie" is of about 10 years Call (became a barrister 10 years ago), and so hasn't really worked a great deal in the Magistrates' Court ("the mags") for about 5 years. The work in the mags is normally of a less serious nature than the stuff in the Crown Court - at the start of your career you'll spend most of your time there to reflect your experience level, before doing more and more Crown Court work the longer you've been practising (in theory, any way). After 5 years call, or so, a decent barrister would expect to be spending most of their time in the Crown Court - hence Eddie's frustration at being stuck in the mags for a day.

The charge was a fairly boring 'theft of a motor vehicle'. The facts were hilarious.

Two young men were walking along the street with a moped. One of them was holding on to the handlebars and steering it; the other was carrying the rear wheel off the ground because the padlock was still attached. So far, so stupid.

The hilarity occurs because this was during the time of the London riots (last summer) and so there were a fair number of police around. As these two intelligent young men were wheeling their, obviously, stolen property along a VERY main road in London a riot van with 14 officers drove past. The riot van stopped, 12 of the officers piled out of the van in full riot gear, and gave chase.

12 elite police officers chasing 2, fairly stupid, 17 year olds.

The two men dropped the moped, ran off down a side road and were met with a dead end. They jumped over a 6ft fence at the end of the road and disappeared from the view of the pursuing officers.

Officer Rock (not his real name), who from the accounts of the 7 police witnesses is a bit of a hero (6ft6, sprints like an olympian, built like a tank) followed them over the fence about four seconds later and landed on them both.

Yep, on the other side of the wall, our two young offenders found themselves in wasteland, and tied up in a load of brambles. After jumping over the obstacle they found themselves tangled up in thorn bushes.

Officer Rock didn't know they were tied up and used them as a crash mat as he leapt the fence, dislocating the shoulder of one of the delightful little scamps in the process.

They were duly arrested and, utterly bizarrely, protested their innocence. The defence they gave in both the police station and at court was that "it wasn't them, they're just homeless and they live in the wasteland, in the 4 seconds that the police lost sight of the suspects over the wall, the real perpetrators must have made their escape, and they (the defendants) were just easy arrests".

This is, of course, ignoring the fact that neither of them was homeless and they both said in cross-examination that they hadn't seen anyone else come over the wall. In other words "it was someone else, but there wasn't anyone else there".

Eddie, of course, ate them for breakfast. He got them to admit that they had been running from the police; but not because they had been stealing: instead because they had skipped bail on another matter and didn't want to be rearrested. When he asked them: "In that case, why did you run TOWARDS the police?" (the evidence they gave), they just looked embarrassed.

The magistrate convicted in 5 minutes, and so concluded the first day of my mini-pupillage with Eddie.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Qualifying Sessions (and watching your weight)

I have never been a person blessed with an Olympian physique. In fact, at times I am convinced that my most successful role at the Olympics would probably be 'crash mat' for the pole-vaulters.

I mean, I try to keep in shape, run regularly, that sort of thing, but it's definitely one of my more glaring faults.

I am not assisted, however, by the ancient requirement of 'Qualifying Sessions'. Historically, young barristers would train by attending dozens and dozens of dinners with experienced men-at-law and would hope to pick up a few crumbs of knowledge over port and cheese.

And that was it.


As a throwback to that far, far happier time, the Inns of Court still maintain the requirement of Qualifying Sessions:

In order to get Called to the Bar you have to attend 12 of the things. It is, quite literally, a requirement that you attend 12 three-course dinners while training for the Bar, or else you can not become a barrister.

(yes, I know that you can attend lectures an advocacy training and that sort of stuff, but the dinners are the fun bit)

So here I am, fighting against food addiction, low will power and less than advantageous genetics, being told that eating over-sized portions will make me a better barrister.

In the words of a solicitor friend of mine: 'You might be one of those lucky barristers who worry themselves thin'.

Here's hoping, eh?

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Mini-pupillages - an Introduction

Last week I was lucky enough to secure an 'unofficial' mini-pupillage with a barrister I've got to know over the last couple of years.

Before I get into what happened, where and why I thought I should do a bit of an introduction for those that have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about.

I'm sure I'll talk more about the qualification process to get to the Bar at length in the future, but for now it will suffice to say that the last bit is a one year slog called 'Pupillage' - this is where you work with and among other barristers, learning from them, following them around, sharpening your skills ready for practice. If you impress during pupillage you might get 'tenancy' - you're now a big grown up barrister in your own right.

Long before getting to pupillage, while in education, or perhaps while working in a different field trying to decide if the Bar is for you, you might be lucky enough to do a 'mini-pupillage', which (like Ronseal) does exactly what it says on the tin. A shortened period (normally a week) of following barristers round, helping with their case preparation, sitting with them in court, going to the cells to watch discussions with clients... You're never actively involved in the case (you're not a lawyer yet!) so you're very much an observer, but in my experience barristers will try to make you feel involved - discussing the case with you, asking advice (and never following it), asking you to lend them 2 quid to buy a coffee as the CPS still owes them ten grand... that sort of thing.

The brilliance of it is that you develop a real understanding of life at the Bar, its glories and its sorrows, and the pressures placed on its members - literally it helps you decide if the profession is for you.

But that's not all. Moreover, if you have already made that decision, it helps you decide if certain areas of law are for you (I hated a mini that I once secured at a commercial set, but fell in love with the criminal bar on day 1). Once you decide on your area, it also helps you to make contacts and (god I hate this word) 'network'.

You see, one of the highlights of every mini I've been on has been time in the advocates' room (often called the robing room). There, you will find every sort of barrister and advocate, all dotted around the room either doing their best to ignore distractions and mug up on their latest instructions, or else trying to distract others because they're bored and feel like being mischievous.

As a mini-pupil this is an absolute gold mine. If you're a bolshy sort (like me) and find yourself abandoned by your supervisor, you can, quite happily, wander up to some lonely looking advocate, introduce yourself and ask them about their day. The response will be one of five options:

1) they welcome the distraction and are delighted to chat to someone looking to come to the Bar
2) they resent the distraction but feel they have to talk to you out of courtesy
3) they pretend to be deaf and stare intently at their crossword
4) they welcome the distraction because they can't afford to eat (see the point above about the CPS) and hope to trade pupillages for food
5) they're too busy to talk to you, and apologise

ALWAYS avoid type 4.

Luckily for me, I've always seemed to bump into type 1. If I've found someone particularly pleasant I always try to secure contact details, and try to follow up.

Over the last year I kept bumping into the same chap almost everywhere I went. I started asking him about mini-pupillages at his set (sadly they didn't offer them) but he said he'd happily have me tag along during Reading Week for a few days, so last Monday I set off for Wimbledon Magistrates to watch a superstar prosecutor in action.

My next few posts will be a summary of last week, and I hope to capture a little bit of what 'minis' are about.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012


I'm currently filling in an application form for one of the non-OLPAS sets.

OLPAS is the old name for what is now called the 'Pupillage Portal' - the central application system that many Chambers sign up to, to (supposedly) make applications easier to complete and more efficient - but almost everyone I know still calls it OLPAS. You can apply to a maximum of 12 OLPAS sets.

The non-OLPAS sets have their own forms, don't stick to the OLPAS time table and you can apply to as many of them as you like.

So, I'm currently filling in a form and one of the questions lists 12 different qualities a barrister might possess and asks you to list them in order of importance, showing your reasoning.

One of these qualities is discretion.

On Saturday night I went along to the house warming party of one of Ladyfemale's best friends. It was a thoroughly decent affair with lots of interesting people to meet.

I did however bump into a face I already sort of knew - a girl who was also friends with the Phantom. You see, the Phantom went to the same university as me, and also indulged in the delights of musical theatre - he was just a couple of years below me. So, although we didn't know each other we got to know many of the same people, and so were surprised when we ended up in the same class at BPP. Thus, over time I've got to know some of his extended friendship group.

I was talking to the girl (who we will call Clementine) and was discussing the Phantom and his particular reluctance when it came to pursuing another girl called Christine (what other name could I give for the love interest of a musical theatre loving lawyer called the Phantom?!). I explained in depth about how excited I was that he'd finally taken her to dinner a couple of times and that they'd been to the theatre and other nights out.

Clementine hadn't known about these dates, so I took particular relish in the fact that I, for once, was the first to know something (hurrah, hurrah!!).

So the party ebbed and flowed, and we all said our good nights and I went home merry and satisfied.

Fast forward to last night. After our Drafting class (bore) the Phantom mentioned that he'd spoken to Clementine over the weekend and she mentioned our conversation. He went on to say that she was particularly surprised by the conversation given the fact that they (Phantom and Clementine), in fact, got together some time last week. Clementine particularly enjoyed me detailing how I'd been spurring on Phantom to pursue Christine for the last couple of months, and that he finally seemed to be getting some success.

Discretion is, obviously, incredibly important for a career at the Bar, but God knows where I left mine. I'm sure I had some at some point.

Monday, 20 February 2012

So what now, and who's who?

Having now bored you all with a bit of my background, I thought I'd get you all caught up with my current situation.

As I said in the first post, I applied for pupillage last year and was ultimately unsuccessful (a LOT more on that later). I'm now 4 months away from the end of the BPTC at BPP in Holborn, and looking down the barrel of another round of pupillage applications in March.

However, I'm ably supported by an extensive cast of friends and ne'erdowells:

Ladyfemale - my delightful fiance who has a training contract at a top commercial firm. Her earnings will keep me alive while I'm at the criminal bar.
Group 27 at BPP - 11 other rogues including the Phantom, the Oxbridge Shark, the Oxbridge Hippie and West Country Bob.
Dave - an old theatre friend from university who does all he can to ridicule me in order to control my excessive-personality-syndrome
Gay Dave - an even older friend from school days who does all he can to ridicule me in order to control my excessive-personality-syndrome

Others will of course be discovered.

A Mini History Lesson - Part 3

If you've kept up with the complex plot thus far, you'll know that at the end of my second year as a law student I was in trouble. I'd failed my trusts exam and had to take a year out, all because of some faulty wiring in my loft.

The long and short of it was that I was stuck in London and needed to get a job. The job I found, just two days later, turned my life around. Through a bizarre alignment of the stars I found myself as the new Researcher and Speech Writer for an MP. Now, the work was enjoyable and it gave me focus, but the real highlight of the job was the MP's secretary - a brilliant, sensitive battle-axe of a woman who had been working in the Commons for nearly 30 years, 20 of them under this boss. Her advice, cajoling and tellings-off changed my outlook completely and at the end of the year I went back to law school with a renewed vigour.

Although still fairly lazy when it came to my studies, I cut out a lot of the unnecessary distractions (perhaps only doing one play at a time instead of three!) and actually started going to lectures and tutorials. Three years after moving to London I finally had something approaching the right attitude to my studies. I started looking into the Bar again, trying to work out whether or not it was for me, and (if I decided to go for it) whether or not I was doing it for myself, or out of some immature attachment made more than a decade ago to a dying father.

So I called up the clerk who had sorted me out with a mini-pupillage the year before, and asked him if he could sort out another week for me. He went one better and gave me two weeks in Southwark Crown Court following around three different barristers - one of their second-six pupils, a junior and a silk.

It blew my mind.

This career wasn't the dull monotony of statute and reading dozens of pages of judgment, this profession was alive, vibrant and exciting.

This was what I wanted to do, but how on earth would I get there?

Sunday, 19 February 2012

A Mini History Lesson - Part 2

We left off in that part of our story where I was more interested in prancing about on stage than prancing about in a court room.

At the end of my first year at university I looked back at what I'd achieved: made new friends, regularly managed to eat and drink my body weight (significantly increasing said body weight in the process), learned to tap dance (a bit - all forgotten now), starred in three shows, was elected to direct the main show the next academic year and rented my first flat. The fact that I had scraped a 2:2 in my exams didn't even register on the list - the law degree was just the nonsense I had to put up with to stay in London. I was in a top 5 law school and couldn't care less.

The only hint that I was wasting my time came when I bumped into an old friend from school who knew that I was studying law, and mentioned that his dad was a clerk at a barristers' chambers and that he could sort me out a mini-pupillage.

That summer I was just working in a call centre selling air conditioning (it was easy, 2005 was a decent summer and the phone just kept ringing), so thought that I might as well get some legal work experience to stick on my CV to complement my law degree.

I'll be writing a great deal more about mini-pupillages in the future, but for now let me say that the week with a very junior criminal barrister opened my eyes to a world that I didn't even know existed. I hadn't bothered going along to the Bar Society at university, I'd never knowingly spoken to a barrister, I'd never been in a court. The week showed me that the Bar was special, the people who made their career their seemed a different breed; and I wished that I'd spent a little less time drinking and farting about and a little more time learning what mens rea was.

But then I got back to second year and the seemingly even more boring subjects of land, trusts and tax. And within weeks I was back into the usual routine of spending most of my time dicking about and attending about one in every four lectures.

So, second year was largely a waste of time as well.

I missed the first exam round in June because of illness, and spent the summer of 2006 trying to catch up on the reading I should have done during the year while also working back at the air conditioning company (2006 was an even better summer than 2005!!), knowing that my exams would now be in August.

It was during the exams in August that I received my great wake up call. The first three exams (Tax, Tort and Advanced Constitutional) went fine, I was sure I'd achieved sold results and was hopeful that my last minute revision had helped me get a couple of 2:1s in there.

Things aren't always that simple, though.

The morning of my last exam (Trusts) I received the unpleasant news that my family home had burned down to the ground. Idiotically I still sat that exam, my mind all over the place, and failed it. Dismally.

As I hadn't submitted mitigating circumstances and certified myself fit to sit there was nothing the university could do to help. I would have to retake. The worst bit was that the next exam period wasn't until the next June, and I couldn't move onto third year without passing all the exams in second year.

So, I had to take a year out, and I had a lot of growing up to do.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

A Mini History Lesson - Part 1

When I was 10 years old my father died and it was his dying wish that I should become a barrister.

I had absolutely no clue what a barrister was; but being the dutiful son, my ambitions shifted from being a train driver to wearing a wig.

For the best part of a decade, whenever discussing careers and plans with relatives and teachers I would happily decree that my future was at the Bar. Still, even in my later teenage years, all I knew about the profession was that barristers were the lawyers that did the fancy stuff in court, they wore wigs and could grind down witnesses in cross-examination by force of will alone.

In other words, I was a complete idiot.

The idiocy, however, would still have a good 4 or 5 years before it reached a crescendo.

As university applications approached I was given a great deal of advice but I was dead-set on reading Law. The advice I received went something like this: "Do not, do not, do not study law: you will hate it. You will be a wonderful barrister some day, but Academic Law is not for you. Go off and read History, Politics - something you enjoy - if you study Law, you will NOT want to be a lawyer at the end of it". I knew better, though. The teachers who had watched me grow and develop over a decade were obviously all out of touch old fools; and I was on a mission.

So I applied to read Law. Two months before my 19th birthday a family friend helped me pack up all my worldly possessions into his van, and deposited me in Central London.

Within 6 months I had abandoned all ambition of a career at the Bar, and was spending 20 or 30 hours a week drinking, rehearsing and performing with my new theatrically inclined university friends. Law lectures were things I occasionally went to, and I laughed with scorn at all those fools, those silly fools, who still wanted to be barristers.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

And so it begins...

Today I sat down and started the "Pupillage Project" 2012.

I use the word "project" deliberately - for those of us without the fabled prize, achieving pupillage seems to take as much planning as the most complex of military campaigns.

The potential pitfalls are many, and fatal: not doing enough research; doing the wrong kind of research; appearing "too needy"; applying to wholly unsuitable sets... and many more which I'm sure I'll discover along the way.

All of this, by the way, before even considering the application forms and interviews themselves (which can be some of the most harrowing experiences of your life) and (of course) dumb luck.

Last year I failed, and I intend to post on what I think I got wrong. This year I hope to learn from those mistakes.

This blog will be about life as a baby-lawyer - stories from the bar course, from mini-pupillages, from qualifying sessions, from hours of writing applications and (hopefully) from interviews.

I desperately hope to give you a happy ending at the end of it all - wish me luck.