Watching them watching you

Sally Rink spent a week in a Manchester set assessing and being assessed…Sally Rink did a mini pupillage at 40 King Street, Manchester. It is a Monday morning and as I breeze into chambers I am handed a brief from my clerk. Immediately I detect the technicality on which I can get my client acquitted. I stroll into court, don my wig and gown, and deliver my eloquent and witty submissions. My client is found not guilty and I just make it in time to meet the head of chambers for lunch.

Is this truly the life of a barrister? I visited a set of chambers in Manchester that specialises in planning, chancery and commercial and common law for a mini pupillage to find out.

On the first day I was with a barrister who specialises in contract and we spent the whole time in conference with the instructing solicitor and client discussing expert witness statements. Although I had been given the bundle to read prior to the conference so knew a little of what was happening, the work was more practical than legal and my contribution was, needless to say, minimal. The next day, the same barrister gave me a bundle to read, again a contract case, and asked me to write an opinion.

On Wednesday I was following another barrister and finally I had a trip to court. The case was an RTA: the typical A hit B, or did B hit A? I had read the bundle and after “we” walked away with a contributory negligence 80:20 in our favour, I was able to discuss the successful outcome of the case with her.

The next day I was in court again, this time with another barrister on a case involving a landlord and tenants. Land is supposedly a subject that “comes together” at the end of the course (I am waiting) but I was able to understand the essential details of the case and the defence that we were putting forward. The case started off fairly evenly but as the day progressed things worsened. It was not any fault of the barrister, more the fact that the defendants appeared to have said one thing and done another.

Although I was given little work to do throughout the week, the mini pupillage helped me consolidate what I know about life at the Bar. A few years ago I had the typical preconceived idea that a barrister's job is to go to court but in fact much of their time is spent researching, poring over witness statements and actually building a case. There is also a lot of stress involved as there is huge individual responsibility, not to mention a high expectation on the client's part.

Personally, one of the most important aspects of the mini pupillage was to find out what life was like in this particular set. To use a cliche, I was assessing the chambers as much as they were assessing me and having done a few mini pupillages before, I can appreciate that each chambers is different. This set had a relaxed yet hardworking atmosphere and there was plenty of contact with other barristers, particularly at lunchtime, where conversation ranged from law and current affairs to plain old gossip!

The mini pupillage did not put me off being a barrister; on the contrary, I see the work as a challenge. I see the fact that it is one of the few self-employed professions that is available and, yes, I see the money. With fierce competition for pupillage, it is advisable to have a few mini pupillages on your application form but more importantly it gives the prospective applicant the benefit of being able to assess the relative advantages of each set.