Starting your 1st six: Talk less, smile more

This is one of two posts on starting your first six. The other is aimed at pupil supervisors and can be found here:

As I walked through the door of chambers on the first day of my first six it suddenly dawned on me: this was going to be a long interview for the job I *really* wanted. I had met most of chambers the Friday before at a drinks reception for the four of us. Everyone had been friendly and welcoming but most importantly, I hadn’t offended anyone or spilt champagne over myself. Still, it was stepping over the threshold into chambers and opening a heavy black Temple door into reception when the enormity of pupillage hit me. I was giving chambers 12-18 months to dislike me when it usually takes people a mere fraction of that time.

I am acutely aware that this blog is supposed to help you as you start your first six and the paragraph above has likely not. I promise it will get better. But I thought I would take a moment to remind you that not one person has started pupillage without self-doubt. That doubt will evaporate and quickly transform into a desire to learn, improve and thrive as you head towards your second six.

Pupillage is a strange thing. Pupils spend the four to five years prior to it generally being among the most confident, articulate and forthright people in the room and yet on day one, for six months, their job is to observe.

Its akin to training a concert pianist* in the following way:

  1. Learn the mechanics of a piano
  2. Play the piano in a controlled environment that looks like but isn’t a concert hall in front of people who look like but aren’t conductors and the audience
  4. Here’s your piano. Go and play it. I’ll be elsewhere playing my piano. Good day. I SAID GOOD DAY.

(*I know I’ve borrowed the analogy from someone but I forget who. If it’s you, please let me know. The attempted humour is, as always, all mine).

With that in mind, here are some tips on being a first six pupil.

1. Talk less, smile more

Turns out Aaron Burr was right. I’m not suggesting you give up speaking altogether but despite my flippant point above re concert pianists, your first six is an unparalleled opportunity to observe, osmose from and be enthralled by some of the best advocates in the land. You can only do that if you are listening. Really listening. And while you might not always smile (I have a passable ‘Resting Ish face’ for such occasions), take in as much as you can.

Active listening not the same as ‘not talking’. If you really listen, watch and use your unique vantage point well, you’ll take in far more. The words used and those omitted. Body language and non-verbal communication. The courtesy shown by lawyers to each other, clients and the court. As the weeks go on you’ll see nuances to each of that you had previously missed.

My blue books in my first six contained both notes taken for my pupil supervisor (more on that later) but as much on what I saw and heard members of the Bar do and say. Remember, every day is a learning experience. How much you get out of it really is down to you.

2. Great expectations

From personal experience, those who did pupillage at the same time as me and speaking to my former students when in pupillage, the greatest tension in the pupil/supervisor relationship appears to be a mismatch in expectations leading to disappointment for one or both. Talk to your supervisor early on and find out what they like and dislike in terms of the following:

2a. Notes

Some supervisors like a verbatim note of their conferences and court appearances. Others take their own notes and are perfectly happy for you to note whatever you like. Ask. If your supervisors wants a copy of your notes, find out if they’d like them emailed/uploaded each day and make sure you do.

2b. When to talk

Most if not all supervisors will expect you to be quiet in conferences and when they are speaking to others generally unless they say otherwise by, for example, directly inviting your view. It’s far too easy to forget this and say something you should not.

On the contrary, you should speak to your supervisor regularly about what you’ve observed. Asking questions is to be encouraged, but at the right time, Though you might quickly work out when is best, see if they would prefer to set aside some time each day to discuss what you have observed or whether immediately after. In any event, make a note of anything you want to ask about to clarify, amplify or contradict what you saw or heard.

2c. What, when and who is it for?

I recall the first piece of work that I handed in late. It was for the Head of Chambers. I had taken “Do it when you can” to mean just that. What they clearly meant was “Do it by this Thursday”. From that point on, I decided that every time I was asked to complete a task, I’d ensure I understood precisely what I was being asked to do (What?), the deadlined for doing so (When?) and who the intended audience would be (Who is it for?) The first two may seem obvious. The final one important as you progress through your first six and your supervisor might want to use much of what you have produced for their final version of a document. If everyone is on the same page from the start then there can be little misunderstanding.

Though I’m no longer at the Bar, these three questions are ones I ask when I’m asked to do something in my current job and are part of my instructions when I ask others to do something.

2d. Timings in chambers

It would appear that most chambers now expect pupils to go home at some point. This is a good thing. Find out when your supervisor expects you to be in chambers both in terms of arrival time and where you can do your work. In London some chambers are perfectly happy for pupils to work in the Inns libraries or elsewhere. Others expect pupils to be in their room or within chambers. Departure times are worth discussing too. Granted there might be occasions where you need to stay late for conferences or events but agreeing when you can leave each day allows you to have some sort of social life. Though that life might involve silently watching Netflix and taking gin, intravenously.

3. Be nice

Be nice to everyone. People may not remember you being nice to everyone but they will remember if you are not and like cooking mackerel or opening a durian, the smell will linger for days. (If my 2nd form English teacher Mr Houston is reading this, yes, I remember your dislike of the word ‘nice’ and the instruction to never use it for there was always a better word, but there isn’t here so there we are).

4. Practical matters

4a. Clothes

Some chambers still insist that shirts are always white and you must wear a suit every day. Others embrace smart-casual save for when in court. No matter what other members of chambers wear, find out how pupils are expected to dress and do so accordingly. As a tenant, I once popped into chambers on my way to Birmingham for an eight week trial in a pair of trainers and received a complaint by email as I sat on a train to New Street that I had turned up to chambers ‘Looking like I was off to a skate-park’. No, I don’t recall what colour socks I was wearing.

4b. Admin

There are two types of people. Those who are good at admin, able it seems to find whatever they need in seconds and those who hang on, I’ve got a note here somewhere, let me just open this box, no hang on the next one, it’s in here somewhere. Really it’s always in the last place you look. Can you hold on to this stack of 200 train tickets please while I just open this cupboard…

Get into good habits be it filing notes, creating a system for expenses or keeping evidence for your pupillage checklist. By the time you start your second six, if that involves going to court, it will be too late.

4c. Accountant

It’s a matter for you whether you choose to instruct an accountant or not. While some people have had enough of experts, I have not. The accounting and tax planning advice I received from Silver Levene was invaluable and well worth the modest fee charged each year. Many offer your first year of accounts for free. If you do choose to use an accountant or want to find out more, do it in your first six when you are likely to have a little more time and so will they to help you plan for 31st January and July each year.

5. Focus on you

I’m afraid it’s all too easy for pupillage to become all encompassing to the detriment of everything else in your life. Sure, it is a long interview and the goal of tenancy is within your grasp but find the time to spend with friends, particularly those not at the Bar who might remind you what normality looks like. Relax from time to time and do something you enjoy away from the law. I quite like cooking, but I keep that very much to myself.

6. There are people who know more and are always willing to help. Seek them out.

Don’t suffer in silence. Ask your supervisor if you need help or someone else in chambers, or sometimes someone else you trust away from chambers depending on what the issue might be.

On that note, remembering that there are always those who know more than you, might I commend this article from my better but not elder (at least I don’t think), the always brilliant, Secret Barrister who wrote a gritty letter to their younger pupil-self.

I am not the Secret Barrister. From reading this blog that much should be clear but I’ll leave the almost last word to a good friend of mine.

I wondered if you were the Secret Barrister, Ish, but then I read some of their stuff and it was witty, interesting and accurate so my notion was quickly disabused.

A ‘friend’ of mine. One of the more charming ones.

Good luck and enjoy your pupillage.

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