For those not in the know, pupillage is the final stage of training to become a barrister.  You take pupillage once you have completed the Bar Practice Course.  This is known as being ‘called to the Bar’.  It is a 12-month period split into two parts, you become a ‘first six’ pupil barrister then a ‘second six’ pupil barrister.

The ‘first six’ is a period where you shadow other barristers.  During the second six you begin to practise (run your own cases) under supervision.

I am just over a month into my first six of a mixed family and crime pupillage.  My pupillage is split into three different four-month segments. The first and third are family focused whilst the second is crime focused.  I have a supervisor, Sarah Taite who I shadow for most of the time, but she also arranges for me to see other barristers in action.

For the last month, I have had the privilege of being a fly on the wall during all of Sarah’s client conferences, advocates’ meetings and hearings in Public Law (Care Proceedings). Not only is she an admirable advocate but she also has first-rate client handling skills which are essential in family law. I

 have observed her talk an angry client down from threatened child abduction, prepare a distressed parent for the fact their child will not be reunited with them before Christmas, and lead a young parent to focus on building themselves up rather than allowing domestic violence to dictate their future.

Whilst you can witness many civil and criminal hearings in open court prior to starting pupillage, you can not see family hearings, nor are you privy to the discussions and negotiations that go on prior to hearings.

The ‘first six’ as a pupil barrister allows you to watch these first-hand.  Sarah Taite has been an excellent role model as to how to be professional yet friendly.  Whilst there are no ‘friends’ in court, negotiations prior to hearings need not be needlessly aggressive and I have witnessed positive advocates’ meetings where all are trying their best to work together so that the court receives the information that it needs to be able to make an informed decision on only the issues that are necessary to be heard.

One incredibly important thing that I have learned is that even when the case of a parent seems so dreadfully hopeless, Sarah provides the parent with their ‘last-stand’ in court.  She is their last voice, their last hope that they may be reunited with their children. They have their voices heard so justice can be seen to be done.

Even when Sarah is unable to reunite them, the parents can be sure that they did what they could in court – providing them with some relief, some sense of extenuation in the difficult circumstances. I can only aspire to be as good as Sarah one day.

Now whilst I appreciate the more cynical of you may feel this piece has become an ode to Sarah.  This is not the case!  It is simply an appreciation of a positive experience within pupillage but there are also negatives.

One such negative is the ‘shadowing’ aspect of the first six.

I have found it particularly difficult as mature student with a career where I was used to leading, to sit back, watch and not interact with clients. It is very useful but undoubtedly difficult.

Another negative aspect is imposter syndrome.

As a pupil, you are surrounded by experts in their fields and you quickly learn that despite years of study, you still haven’t even scratched the surface of what you need to learn. This is where ‘shadowing’ now becomes a positive – I don’t need to know it all just yet!  I have time to take it in, take notes, go away and read up. I can write down key phrases used by other barristers.  I can formulate cross-examination questions and submissions and have them checked by my supervisor without the need to embarrass myself in court in front of clients.

Every barrister I have met on the South Coast has been understanding of my position – polite in greeting me, no condescending questions have been posed and many have offered help if I ever should need it, some have shared stories of their own pupillage journeys. It seems empathetic appreciation of the pupillage process and early years of tenancy builds a real sense of camaraderie amongst those in the Bar.

I am in court three to four times a week on average observing my supervisor and others. These courts can be anywhere along the South Coast. One day I may be in Brighton, another Hastings. It is via my travels that I have come to appreciate the work of the clerks at chambers.

Not only do our clerks keep the diaries of barristers full, but they also balance their distribution geographically and coordinate the accompanying paperwork for each case. I have been grateful for the digital access that they have organised for me, as well as the events they have included me in- both networking-wise and case-wise.

For each case that I observe, I write an attendance note (the hearing account for the instructing solicitor). For some cases, I undertake case analysis or research specific issues prior to the hearing.

I have also written cross-examination questions and submissions, which I then compare to those actually put by my supervisor in court. I have also drafted orders post-hearing. It is through the feedback from my supervisor on these tasks that I learn the most. Each task allows me to understand what I will need to do when I begin to practise- and boy, I cannot wait to practise!

However, I must learn to walk before I can run.  I have another five months before I can put my developing skills to the test. Until that time, I am thoroughly enjoying learning all that I can from the barristers at Westgate, and everyone else that I see in action.

Nicola Sully is a ‘first six’ barrister pupil at Westgate Chambers and we would like to thank her for taking the time to give us such honest insight into her pupillage.

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