How to Survive Pupillage by Rachel Bale, Her Bar Founder

Everyday life as a barrister
October 2022

I am now a month into tenancy and despite working harder than ever, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the crazy rollercoaster ride that is Pupillage. I was fortunate enough to receive pupillage with an excellent chambers, feeling very supported both in terms of professional training but also in terms of wellbeing. I know others are not so lucky.

However, despite this unwavering support, the concept of Pupillage in it’s entirety is daunting, stressful and ultimately one of the most challenging years of a Barrister’s career. It’s a year long interview, where you need to present a confident persona at all times, despite often feeling entirely out of your depth. There can be financial struggles, issues with illness, changes in location and plenty of opportunities to crash and burn publicly as you attempt that new advocacy style of questioning. Yet the stakes are high, succeed at Pupillage and you have a job for life (barring any serious misconduct offences) and a golden ticket to the collegiate world of the Bar as a Junior.

This article provides my own personal 10 tips for surviving pupillage, based purely on my own experience over the last 12 months. If you find them contradictory, well this is just an accurate representation of pupillage. Sometimes you will need to act one way, and at other times act completely differently – it all comes down to good judgment, depending on the given contextual situation.

1.       Shiny shoes.

It pays to feel good. For me, a nice fresh suit, painted nails and shiny shoes makes me feel prepared and polished but find whatever works for you. This does not mean you have to bankrupt yourself buying the most expensive kit, but take some pride in your appearance. First impressions are made in 5 seconds and looking smart exudes an air of confidence.

2.       Write it all down.

I keep everything electronically and thus saved a running diary and a ‘Cheat Sheet’ document on my laptop, which included of all the annoying FAQS that I couldn’t seem to retain in my head e.g. part 36 consequences or fixed costs regimes. Pupillage happens so quick and you can pick up 1000 different tips in one hearing, so in whatever way works for you, write everything down. You will be thankful for this later.

3.       Be a sponge…

Following from above, your goal as a Pupil is to soak up everything in terms of knowledge. Ask questions(at appropriate times), speak to barristers in the robing room: how do they prepare a case, what is their best tip for cross-examination? Ask and soak upas much as you can, just like a sponge. And when you receive an answer, remember it and write it down – no question is a stupid one, unless it is asked multiple times.

4.       But also be a sieve.

My own caveat to the above, is when it comes to Feedback. This is a critical component of pupillage and you need to be receiving it, frequently and in a constructive way. Accept feedback gracefully and understand what the marker is saying – but you do not need to take in every single bit of it to heart. The beauty of this profession is that there are many different styles and ways of running a case or advising a client. The law is the law but the way it is presented comes down to subjective style. You may not entirely agree with your marker in the way that they would structure their advice, for example -– that is your own style, and it is OK to retain it. Sieving out what advice to keep and to decline, is a matter of judgment.

5.       Be prepared to not feel OK.

I think it is really important for future pupils to prepare themselves for the fact that at times, they will not feel OK in Pupillage. It is a very difficult year, with pressured deadlines and high standards. There will be bad days where you get it wrong. There will be days where you just don’t know the answer. I had an added challenge of moving cities, which was more difficult that anticipated, feeling the loss of my friends living close by and my social life becoming a lot more restricted. It can also feel ungrateful or disappointing when you have worked so hard to achieve pupillage, only to have a low period where you are not enjoying it.

The only thing to say, it is entirely normal to not feel OK all the time. Speak to your co-pupils, your mentor(all chambers should be providing this), your parents, a good friend… It will pass and the year will end – and trust me it will be worth it.

6.       Focus on finances.

This will vary depending on your Pupillage award and personal circumstances. However, I personally wish I had saved more before beginning pupillage in order to better weather the difficulties in cashflow and aged debt in early years of practice. The one plus side of working so much during the year, is there is less opportunity to spend frivolously, but my advice would be to keep an eye on your finances, create a budget and live frugally. There will only be more outgoings when becoming a tenant, with chambers contribution and tax bills, so getting into a good rhythm from Pupillage will be useful.

To note…Her Bar will be publishing a more in-depth article in managing finances in 2023.  

7.       Find a way to ‘flick the switch’.

I suffered from anxiety and lack of sleep during pupillage and found it difficult to ‘switch off’ from work. There were times (and honestly still are times) where I work late into the evening, preparing for a case the next day, only to wake up in the middle of the night replaying my arguments. This has an extreme toll on your health and will only lead to burnout.

It is very important to prioritise your physical and mental health during Pupillage. Vitamins, good sleep routine, eating healthy meals all help, but also make sure you find an activity, a hobby, or way to switch your brain off work and into a calm relaxed state. Alcohol does not count – but Nytol can be helpful! (Please use responsibly).

8.       Make sure you observe very junior cases.

One of my key successes during Pupillage was asking to observe junior cases just before I got on my feet. Observing these have been invaluable in understanding the key principles of personal injury cases, summary judgment procedures, possession hearing formats etc… It means when you look in your diary and see your first case, you won’t feel as intimidated as you’ve already seen this type of case and have some understanding of what the judge will be looking for.

Also a great way to view different styles of advocacy to pick and choose what works for you.

9.       Combat loneliness.

A topic not often discussed, but definitely apparent as a self-employed practitioner. Being a barrister can be lonely. You can prepare your cases for hours alone, travel long distances alone, write advices alone and at times you will need to make the effort to communicate with colleagues. I made sure to be in Chambers as often as possible, would ask colleagues and clerks to coffee for a chat if I had a few paperwork days in a row and called up co-pupils when feeling particularly solitary. Post-Covid, less people are in Chambers and robing rooms on average so do make the effort to go to networking events and reach out to colleagues to combat loneliness.

10.   Be a pleasant human.

The biggest and most important thing of all, in life but also Pupillage. Be a pleasant human and try not to be a d***. This does not mean smiling all the time and saying yes to everything –the role is adversarial in nature and you will have to defend your client’s position. But there is no need to be rude, sharp or underhand with opponents. The Bar is extremely small, and we are all terrible gossips. If you get a reputation for being a pain, it will follow you. Further, it is also just a much more pleasurable and rewarding career when you get on with your colleagues, sharing ideas and helping them each other along.

On this note, to the lovely criminal barrister, Andrew, who randomly bought me coffee last week in Oxford County Court – you made my day and thank you for being a pleasant human!

These tips are not guaranteed to get you tenancy, but I hope they provide some guidance as you navigate the difficult waters of Pupillage. Despite the difficulties, it is also a wonderful experience where you can blossom in confidence as an advocate and build relationships that will last your entire career. Good luck to you all!

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