Pupillage Q and A

This month sees the end of a unique first six for our pupil Christian Fox. Christian has spent the entirety of the non-practising part of his pupillage either in lockdown, or under the restrictions imposed as a result of the current Covid-19 pandemic. He has not physically been into our premises at all during that period. He has (more recently) been physically attending court, in no small part assisted by a number of judges in Kent who have allowed access that has made a significant contribution to Christian’s ability to move into second six.

Christian’s supervisor John Nee has had to adapt his strategy and overcome the obstacles of lockdown to ensure enough has been done to sign Christian off to begin conducting cases of his own. For the Becket Chambers website this month, they have asked each other a series of pupillage related questions. They hope it may be of use to pupils, prospective pupils and those supervising this winter. They also hope that in 12 months from now, they will nostalgically look back and how they will laugh…

JN: Your pupillage start date was delayed by a month due to the pandemic. How did you feel about that? Were you worried that it would be withdrawn?
CF: I was due to start on the 1st of April, I always thought April Fool’s Day was a bad choice! I never entertained the idea of pupillage being withdrawn. I have always found you personally, and Becket as a set, to be very straightforward. I think if you were going to withdraw or there was a risk of it, you would probably have said so upfront. I know some people were not as fortunate.

The delay was inevitable as we all tried to figure out the landscape but I was lucky to be coming from another job and my replacement there was also thrown into turmoil, so I was able to pick up some work with my old firm to get me to May. When I started, I think we were both better prepared and I could see you had put a lot of work and thought into getting things going.

JN: Although you have met your pupil supervisor in person prior to pupillage, you have not seen him face to face at all during your first six. How has that felt? Is it anything like you were expecting?

CF: Nothing about this last six months has been like I was expecting. I expected to spend a lot of time with you in court and a lot of time travelling, and working in chambers when not in court. I have done none of those things, but there have been great benefits. It is no secret that neither of us were keen on phone calls. I remember your words to me when we met before lockdown or pupillage started, urging me to send you a text or email rather than call if I needed to pass a message. I remember agreeing that I was not someone who was used to chatting on the phone either. Yet here we are, six months in and I suspect we have averaged 30 mins a day on the phone. To say nothing of text, email, facetime or zoom.

JN: The pandemic changed everything – for obvious reasons. How did you manage what was essentially a virtual first six?

CF: One advantage of coming from a business background is that a lot of the ways of operating that have been normal for years, are the “new normal” for the legal sector. The idea of driving an hour to chambers to pick up papers or sitting outside a courtroom all morning for a half-hour directions hearing seem to us all like bygone times. All those things are now done at our desk.

Conference calls, video meetings, pdf handling software, remote signing and billing – these are all things that have become standard practice very quickly and I have never known any different. That said I have worried that I have not been to all the courts in which Chambers operates but I was reassured by one judge recently who said I would be as proficient at BT MeetMe or CVP as any barrister in the country! I hope to prove him right.

JN: What advice would you have for any pupil in the same position as you during first six?

CF: First, remember that everyone is in the same boat. Telephone hearings and CVP are now normal. There are in-person hearings but not as many. This is likely to be the case at least until spring next year so embrace it, learn how to operate with screens and headphones instead of bundles and blue notebooks. The pandemic has levelled the playing field a bit, there is an opportunity to be as good in front of a judge as someone who has been doing the job for some years in terms of professional image, ability to access information in court and confidence with the medium. I believe the other things, like getting to know court staff and finding the best nearby coffee shop will come in time.

CF: Having been head of pupillage for some time, what prompted you become a supervisor instead and to take on a pupil this year?

JN: I have held a number of positions within chambers since I joined: mentor; member of management committee; head of pupillage; group head; chairman of management committee; and now pupil supervisor.

I have always enjoyed working with new barristers, and I like to think I have a good understanding of the pupillage process.

Becket Chambers had been going through a period of expansion, and I thought I would – formally – do what I have been doing informally for years. Interestingly, the year you were interviewed was the first year since joining Becket that I have not been involved in pupillage interviews! No reflection on the recruitment decisions of my colleagues you understand.

CF: Some mature law students think it is “too late” for them to start a new career. How did you feel about the prospect of supervising a pupil who was in his 50s and what have been the advantages and disadvantages of teaching an old dog new tricks?

JN: I have heard it said that a potential pupil can be “too old” for the job. Nonsense as far as I am concerned. Every person has their own skill set. Some may be stronger at black letter law. Some are better with people. Some may be able to empathise with a client, having been through the same issue. My view is that the strongest candidate should always get the job, regardless of sex, colour, sexuality, age, disability, or anything else.

At Becket Chambers we have a history of recruiting tenants from a broad spectrum. We have second (and third, and fourth!) career members. I myself had a previous life playing rugby which came to a premature end following injury. I consider maturity to be a (potential) advantage. An older pupil can offer an opinion from the real world and be a useful critic. Only when asked of course!

As a barrister, most areas of law necessitate dealing with people. The others necessitate transactional skills, or research ability. Careers outside of the law can help to develop those skills and enable a pupil to have a seamless transition into law. No two people have the exact same skills and experiences. It has been useful for me to have someone who I go to for an honest critique on what I have done. Although I am the senior man in law, you are the senior man in life, so I think we have both gained something from your pupillage thus far.

CF: When lockdown occurred a matter of days before your pupil was due to start, what were your initial feelings about your ability to provide training and supervision in the coming months?

JN: This one did trouble me, I must admit. No one had ever experienced anything like this pandemic, so no one knew what to do about it. As you know, your start date was delayed by a month. That was to let chambers (and me in particular) come up with a plan for how to deal with things. I was at the time chairman of the management committee and had to make some swift decisions.

A huge part of pupillage is sending a pupil to court with other barristers. That was not possible as no barristers were going to court. It meant being creative in training. I put together a number of advocacy exercises, and set you to work making oral video applications before various judges. I called in favours from other barristers and solicitors for this, and I think on reflection it went very well. There is a duty on a chambers (and a supervisor in particular) to provide proper training and supervision. I am satisfied that we have done what is needed in the first six.

CF: Some pupillages have been cancelled, delayed or extended this year. What advice would you give to another supervisor about to embark on supervising a pupil over the winter, given uncertainty about the course of the pandemic?

JN: It all comes down to having a flexible approach and working as a team of two. Things will come out of the diary. Things will change at the last moment. There will be technical problems. There has to be – very quickly – a good working relationship between pupil and supervisor. I would say that encouraging a pupil to speak up is hugely important. With most (if not all – as during your first six Christian) of pupil/ supervisor contact being virtual, there has to be a two-way dialogue. The idea of simply sending a pupil out with a different barrister each day, then speaking once a week, is in my opinion a bad one. I estimate that I spent at least double the number of one to one hours with you in your first six compared to what I had initially planned.

This is an opportunity though. I have had more time to explain to you how the realities of the job work. The electronic briefs; the e-bundles; the video and phone platforms; the attendance notes; and the orders. A supervisor might want to consider doing what I did, and letting a pupil have access to everything. Instead of sending the perfectly collated papers (collated by me), I chose to forward the dozens of emails, scores of attachment folders, and hundreds and thousands of pages. By throwing the pupil in at the deep end, and letting them experience the REAL nature of the world in which we operate, there is a wonderful chance for a pupil to see the “warts and all” realities of life as a barrister. Provided that a supervisor is willing to compare work styles and approaches, I think a pupil can enter a second six with a good understanding of the job.

Also, utilising contacts is key. I hope Christian you have enjoyed and found useful the judges, solicitors, and barristers I have introduced you to.

Now, over to you!

Christian Fox began his second six on 2nd November 2020. He remains under the supervision of his pupil supervisor John Nee and is available for instructions in all our areas of work. To instruct Christian, please email clerks@becket-chambers.co.uk