Training and progression

How pupillage prepares you for life as a barrister

21 Jun 2023, 15:41

Pupil barrister Sabrina Nanchahal and mentor Emma Jones explain how their time at One Essex Court has debunked stereotypes and prepared them for life in practice, as well as offering advice for prospective pupils.

A picture of Emma Jones and Sabrina Nanchahal, barristers at One Essex Court

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One Essex Court

The commercial Bar is an intimidating mountain to climb for a new graduate. A career as a commercial barrister requires razor-sharp intellect, resilience, analytical and problem-solving skills, a detailed knowledge of the law and communication with incredibly high-profile clients. Pupillage serves as the base camp for the mountain, and there is no better place to learn about its value than one of the country’s leading commercial litigation sets, One Essex Court.

We spoke to Sabrina Nanchahal, who has just completed pupillage and accepted tenancy at the prestigious Chambers, and Emma Jones, one of its leading juniors, who was Sabrina’s mentor and is currently a pupil supervisor, to find out how the most important formative stage in your Bar career can prepare you for the rigours of commercial practice.

Is pupillage at the Bar high stress?

Pupillage is often dubbed ‘a year-long job interview’, where barristers in training are scrutinised by their supervisors and assessed for tenancy based on the tasks at hand. The most pressure, suggests Sabrina, is not coming from your supervisors:

‘Most of the pressure you feel is what you put on yourself,’ she explains. ‘At One Essex Court, you have three pupil supervisors throughout the year and you do some work for other members of Chambers as well. There are no “formal” assessments and you're not in competition with your co-pupils. It sets a very good base to see pupillage as a learning experience rather than being stuck in the mindset of “how do I make it to the next stage?”. Sitting with three pupil supervisors means that you see how different people approach tasks and you realise there is not only one right way of doing things. The pupil supervisors write a report at the end of your three months with them and you have regular review meetings. The whole process towards the tenancy decision is very transparent – you will have an idea of whether you’re on track or not. It all feeds into the idea that you’re there to learn and they’re there to help you learn.’

What is the work/life balance like during pupillage?

Any legal career carries a stereotype of long hours, perhaps a stereotype born from assorted television dramas depicting the lives of trainee solicitors. At the Bar, where the majority of practitioners are self-employed, the culture is somewhat different. And there is no culture of ‘face time’, as Emma explains:

‘If you do not have work to do, you should not be in the office,’ she says. ‘I have always tried to make sure that my pupils have a manageable workload and are able to go home at a reasonable time. It is something that we guard quite preciously for our pupils. There will be periods in practice when it is very busy, but there will also be periods of downtime. It’s important for well-being to make the most of those quieter periods. It’s also important to mention that we have a very sound clerking system. If you were to get to the point where you felt like you had a bit too much on, then the clerks would be there to help you manage that.’

The protective feeling towards junior members of the Bar is felt by pupils too:

‘We are quite protected – from the beginning we’re given our expected working hours, which are typically between 9.30 am and 6.30 pm. I remember on one occasion during my first seat, I was still in Chambers at 7.30 pm and my supervisor asked me why I was still there,’ says Sabrina. ‘Obviously, in the run up to a hearing or important deadlines it does get busier; at One Essex Court you’re always on live work, even during pupillage, which is great because you’re working in tandem with your supervisor but it does mean there are busier periods. At the same time, there is no expectation to work long hours when it’s not as busy.’

Mentoring during pupillage

Pupils at One Essex Court are able to support each other with regular socials and sessions as a group without more senior members of chambers, but there are also opportunities to seek advice, both personal and professional, should the need arise. One of the more notable schemes in place is the set’s mentoring scheme. This scheme pairs a pupil with a junior member of Chambers who is not their pupil supervisor. The system is there to support well-being as much as the regular hours and protective pupil supervisors. Emma was not Sabrina’s pupil supervisor, which allowed her to be Sabrina’s mentor.

‘The idea is that you can speak to them in confidence about anything’, explains Sabrina. ‘You can obviously speak to your pupil supervisors too, but if anything were to come up that you did not want to raise with your supervisor, whether it was seeking some advice or you felt it might be a stupid question, it’s good to have a mentor as a sounding board.’

A formal mentoring scheme sounds like the sort of thing undertaken by large businesses, associating a trainee or junior with an individual among a sea of thousands of ever-changing faces. Within Chambers, it is the opportunity to build something that could last considerably longer into your career.

‘We were concerned that pupils wouldn’t feel comfortable reaching out to other people in Chambers for guidance. Formalising a mentoring scheme opened up a sort of safe space without the pupils having to do anything other than use it,’ explains Emma. ‘Once pupillage is over there might be a perception that that is the end of the mentoring scheme. It might be the end of the formal mentoring scheme, but that’s when the informal mentoring kicks in and the relationships that have been built during pupillage still hold. There’s very much an open-door policy where you can pop in and see a former pupil supervisor or mentor and have a chat with them or run any points past them.'

‘There is also a very strong women’s network in Chambers. We come together for events with the women in Chambers, for a Christmas lunch for example, or we involve our instructing solicitors and we’ll do something fun like cocktail making or chocolate tasting, which is another form of a support network. We also make sure that all of our female pupils sit with at least one female pupil supervisor,’ adds Emma.

Applying professional ethics during pupillage

One Essex Court stresses that its pupillage prepares pupils for life in practice, but has a particular emphasis on professional ethics. The subject is a notoriously difficult part of the Bar course and its associated exams, but when it comes to applying it in practice, there is a wealth of knowledge to draw upon in the form of other members of Chambers.

‘I think the main challenge of studying professional ethics on the Bar course is learning the rules and considering their application in abstract. On the other hand, the factual scenarios they ask you to consider span all areas of law and so may not obviously appear relevant to the area or areas of law you intend to be practising in,’ says Sabrina. Pupillage changes all of that.

‘I think perhaps the most obvious example I can think of during pupillage was the first case I was instructed on in my second six. I was asked to draft particulars of claim alleging fraud. There are very particular requirements to plead fraud; you have to have clear instructions to allege fraud and have reasonably credible material that establishes an arguable case of fraud. The first thing I did was to look up those requirements again and then I went through the case papers, but on a really practical note, I also discussed it with my pupil supervisor. I think this sets you up for your future independent practice – if you’ve identified an issue, your next port of call will most likely be other members of Chambers, who have more experience in dealing with such issues.’

Any sound legal system depends on high ethical standards and integrity among its practitioners. It is perhaps why One Essex Court has such a highly-regarded reputation for its often-sensitive commercial work.

‘One of the problems is spotting these issues – sometimes they hit you in the face, and other times they’re more subtle so you wouldn’t necessarily know about them unless you read the rules back to front,’ explains Emma. ‘We encourage pupils to explore and spot issues during pupillage as a key skill. You can always draw on your support network to see if it’s right or if it sounds any alarm bells.’

How does pupillage prepare you for life as a barrister?

Apart from professional ethics, the supportive network in Chambers is there to help you make the adjustment from university life to working life surrounded by some of the brightest professionals in their field. It all starts with learning by example.

‘It’s important for pupils to learn and get comfortable with the day-to-day logistics of how it all works in practice, from legal debates with leaders to strategy discussions with instructing solicitors. Sometimes there might be a solution that’s not in the law that you might want to discuss with your client or your client might want to discuss with you, and it’s good to be aware of that too,’ explains Emma.

‘Knowing what’s really important also matters – to be aware that sometimes you don’t need to put absolutely everything into, say, your skeleton argument. You can focus on the main points and find the more persuasive argument to make – you don’t need to give a judge the full history of contract law. This comes with confidence and that’s what we work on building during pupillage – confidence in your work and confidence in your relationships with solicitors and leaders.’

Moving from university to practice is not only a physical and practical adjustment. After years of legal academic study, both in higher education and as part of the Bar course, it takes time to adjust your mindset as well.

‘I think the first thing is moving away from looking at law from an academic point of view to a more practical way. Just as Emma was saying, that could be focusing on the most important points rather than giving every potential argument equal weight,’ adds Sabrina.

‘Some of that comes with knowing who your audience is and adjusting accordingly. You might need to run down every point when writing a research note for your supervisor but for the client the most important conclusion will be right at the top, because that’s probably all they’re going to be interested in. Adapting to the different audiences was the steepest learning curve.'

‘The other thing that is more gradual throughout pupillage is seeing that there is not only one way of doing things. You go through a phase of copying each of your supervisors for a bit, but you end up adapting different approaches from different people. Seeing that things can be done differently but equally effectively, instils a lot of confidence in developing your own approach.’

What should future pupils do?

We asked Emma and Sabrina to give their advice to someone who may have just accepted a pupillage or be undertaking one in future.

‘Pupillage is an amazing opportunity. You get to meet lots of interesting people and see lots of interesting things. It will be challenging at times, but I think you just have to throw yourself into it,’ says Emma. ‘Take one task at a time and don’t think ahead too much or it can be a bit overwhelming. If you take one day or one task at a time, and make sure that you do the best that you can, everything else will fall into place.’

‘If you’re considering One Essex Court, I would advise you to come and speak to us, join one of our mentoring schemes or come to careers fairs that we attend. Don’t be put off by profiles on websites – we approach everyone as an individual on their own merits,’ she adds.

Sabrina echoes Emma’s sentiments on pupillage as a learning experience. There will be nerves and there will be work, but that shouldn’t detract from what should be an incredible year.

‘Remember that your supervisors and members of Chambers want to see you progress. They’re not looking for you to get everything perfect first time,’ says Sabrina. ‘That would defeat the point of pupillage. It’s a learning experience, but also try as much as you can to enjoy it. What makes a Chambers are the individual people, as they are the people you’ll see day in and day out. If you’re considering it, please do come and talk to us; it’s the best way to get an idea of what it’s really like.’

Biography – Sabrina Nanchahal

Sabrina Nanchahal recently completed pupillage at One Essex Court.

What drew you to the Bar and One Essex Court?

'I had not thought about going to the Bar at all until I had undertaken quite a bit of work experience with solicitors and saw the intersection of the work with barristers. I realised they had a lot of direct involvement and responsibility in running a case from a very early stage and that really appealed to me. One Essex Court does the whole gamut of commercial work so you have a great variety – you can be in a small claims hearing in the County Court on one day and working in a team of barristers on a multi-million pound matter the next. It was actually meeting people from One Essex Court, though, that sealed the deal for me. Everyone was so lovely and very encouraging.'

Biography – Emma Jones

Emma Jones is a leading junior in commercial litigation at One Essex Court.

What drew you to the Bar and One Essex Court?

'I didn’t know from a very early age that I wanted to be a barrister. I did a mini-pupillage at university and that’s how I started to learn more about the Bar. I was fascinated by what I saw so I signed up for the law conversion course and undertook more mini-pupillages, which just reinforced my initial feeling that the Bar was the right place for me. I met some barristers from One Essex Court at an event in my final year of university. I had a very positive experience: everyone seemed friendly, and to enjoy the work that they do. That played out when I interviewed at One Essex Court; it just felt like the sort of place where I would do very well.'

One Essex Court

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