Pupillage: lessons learned
Guest post by Beheshteh Engineer
It is now a year since I have been on my feet in court as a criminal barrister. As I am not in court at the moment (as a result of the Covid19 crisis), I thought it might be helpful to write about what I have learned. This guest post was a twitter thread that I wrote on 01 April 2020. I hope it will be of use to those soon to be on their feet.
Lesson 1: Trust yourself.
You deserve to be here.
You know enough.
People are rooting for you to succeed.
Lesson 2: Always call someone if you need help.
The real lesson about court is to make the mistake / do the panicking before you get in there. We all make mistakes in court, but a real screw up is generally avoidable. Call someone!
Calling for help is important for another reason: you will make mistakes and you will think they are the end of the world. Often, they are a tiny mistake but you won’t know that until you talk to someone – because you don’t have the experience yet. That’s ok. Call someone!
What do you do when you’re stuck in court and you don’t know the answer to something? Get WhatsApp for your laptop and message someone OR ask the court for a few minutes and get a break. Don’t let the court bully you into starting/continuing if you need time.
Lesson 3: Reputation matters.
“Don’t be a dick” – I’ve heard this rule numerous times. I was always shocked by it. Now I get it. Being a jerk to other people very quickly leads to a negative reputation. A few of my peers have that reputation already, sadly.
There is a big difference between having a bad day and accidentally snapping at someone (and then apologising) and being a jerk to everyone. You can be the best advocate in the world, but if you are a jerk, that reputation will always follow you.
Conversely, when you have developed a reputation as someone who is good to work with, fair & reasonable, that reputation sticks. You will be given the benefit of the doubt and will give the same to others. This makes everyone’s day a little bit easier.
Lesson 4: Think carefully about how you conduct yourself in the court building.
I make a point of writing down everyone’s names in court and doing my best to remember them. I also make a point about saying hi to all the security staff I recognise.
I always thank my opponent at the end of a hearing and I try to make sure I also thank the legal advisor. Sometimes I forget to do this, but it makes such a difference since I’ve noticed most people don’t bother. We are all human, not “madam prosecutor” or “miss defence”.
Lesson 5: Learn where the power lies.
The power usually lies with the court usher or clerk. They have a difficult job to do. Tonnes of people are trying to get their attention before/at 10am to get on. Don’t be one of those people who harasses or annoys them.
Equally, if there is a good reason why you need to get on first/soon (e.g. you have another case/you are not feeling well) tell the court staff and you will often find that they will move mountains to help you. Again, this only works if you’re nice.
Lesson 6: Legal Advisors.
Legal advisors, like us all, are human. Some are brilliant and will informally mentor you. Some get the law wrong. Some like to backseat-prosecute. Always be polite and learn how to manage each person. Make friends with the brilliant ones.
Lesson 7: Solicitors & clerks are hard-working professionals.
Like you, they are not perfect. Some are brilliant and get it right every time. However, sometimes you don’t get all the papers you would expect. Check your papers, ask for what is missing.
At court, if you are stuck or if it’s your first day/week/month, speak to someone in the advocates room and tell them that you are new. You would be surprised just how positive and helpful they will be.
Lesson 8: Advocacy in court bears no resemblance to Bar school or other training you have done.
This is because there is no substitute for the real thing. You will probably suck at first. That’s okay. You will get better, and quickly. You will worry about this a lot.
Judges come in all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. As do magistrates. Be clear about what you’re asking for, why you are asking for it and what power they have to give/deny it. No matter how robustly you are being challenged, hold your ground!
Learn from those around you: there are some amazing solicitors in court. Just because they don’t have QC after their name does not mean that you can’t learn from them.
Lesson 9: Clients are complicated.
We are all apt to judge others in our head. We are also full of our own prejudices and thoughts about how the world should work. Even a few weeks on your feet will disabuse you of that notion.
Some people are innocent and/or have a defence that will lead to a NG verdict. Some people do bad things. Often more out of a moment of madness than ill-intent. Some people are only at court for a spur of the moment decision which they now bitterly regret.
What does you client need from you? Non-judgment, empathy and most importantly, for you to represent them to the best of your ability. That means leaving your prejudices at the door and concentrating on your client and your case.
Lesson 10: Second six is a steep learning curve and it is rather painful at times.
As far as I can tell, the only way to get through it is to just keep going!
Bonus lesson 1: sleeping well and eating well are hugely important activities.
After a few months you should find that you will do better in court by working less into the night and sleeping more.
Bonus Lesson 2: don’t suffer in silence.
Whatever problem you have, personal or legal, talk to someone. We all go through life’s challenges. Don’t go through it alone.
Bonus Lesson 3: pupillage is just the beginning.
You must always keep learning and doing your best to improve your skills. Thankfully, it is this aspect of the job that makes life at the criminal Bar so exciting!
END OF THREAD! (Original link: https://twitter.com/Beheshteh_E/status/1245296569643085825?s=20)
Beheshteh Engineer is a third six pupil at Drystone Chambers. She prosecutes and defends predominantly in the magistrates’ courts and is working to build a Crown Court practice. She is also the co-editor of www.pupillageandhowtogetit.com
You can follow her on twitter @Beheshteh_E