A paean to pupils and pupillage

Guest post by Max Hardy, a barrister at 9 Bedford Row

Hardy: A good pupil can halve your workload

To outsiders, it may seem that it’s our horsehair wigs and Victorian starched collars that are the most unusual thing about the barristers’ profession. As a member of that profession, I would actually suggest it’s our training.

Securing a pupillage can sometimes seem to law graduates as unattainable as the Holy Grail.

It’s a peculiar term and for a pupil barrister their job description can seem strangely redolent of childhood. Yet more so for those undertaking work experience with a barrister, who are referred to as mini-pupils.

Those instructing pupil barristers were known, until very recently, as pupil masters or pupil mistresses. Now, prosaically and colourlessly, they are known as pupil supervisors. It’s a term for which I feel little affection because you master an art or a skill but you supervise a process or a production line.

Periodically it is suggested that trainee barristers should be called, well, trainee barristers. That, of course, is a term that would be familiar to anyone in or out of the profession. It does not, however, do justice to quite what an education it is to be a pupil barrister. And what a mighty privilege and burden it is to have a pupil.

Most barristers, of course, are self-employed and belong to chambers. When we are not in court, we work when, how and where we like. If we do our best case prep up a valley without wifi in Cumbria in the middle of the night, that is where and how we will prepare a case.

Preparing cases is a very personal exercise and barristers have to work out what works best for them. But they also need someone to show them how to do it. That is where pupil supervisors come in.

In taking on a pupil, a supervisor is giving their pupil the most intimate access to their professional life and working practices. If you are an intensely private person or don’t enjoy having your working habits scrutinised, then pupil supervision is not for you.

It was not that many decades ago that pupils paid their masters or mistresses for the not-insubstantial work involved in showing a complete beginner the ropes. Quite rightly, that practice, representing as substantial a barrier to the profession as purchasing commissions in the army once did, has fallen into desuetude.

Pupils are now paid – in fancy commercial chambers, substantial six figure sums, in criminal sets rather more modest amounts.

Supervisors, on the other hand, get absolutely nothing for training the next generation of barristers. And there you were thinking all lawyers are venal and grasping, for shame.

In fairness, that isn’t actually true at all because a good pupil can make all the difference between a practice bursting apart at the seams and a well-oiled machine of prompt advice and immaculate preparation. I always say a good pupil can halve your workload, although I have heard that a less good one can double it.

It has never, ever felt like work to me. If you care about the profession and you think what it does is important, then having a hand in shaping its future custodians feels an almost sacred obligation.

Having a pupil certainly keeps you on your toes because your every written and oral interaction has an audience and a witness. And not merely a passive spectator but someone who is looking at your professional conduct as a template for their own.

I had a number of pupil masters all of whom taught me valuable lessons about life at the Bar but the first necessarily always leaves the biggest imprint. I was fortunate that mine was Edward Henry KC who by my estimation is one of the most powerful advocates I’ve encountered in my 20 years at the Bar.

Since parting ways, he has led me on a number of occasions, most notably in the appeal of Andrew Malkinson. The teacher/pupil dynamic has become one of colleague and collaborator.

If I have had half the effect on any one of my pupils that Edward had on my sense of what a barrister should be and stands for, I will count myself a very fortunate person.

This is an edited version of a blog that Max Hardy first published on LinkedIn after handing his pupil over to their next supervisor.

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