Postcard from… London

The legal intern in London is something of a myth. Unlike in America, where every summer hordes of over-eager law student interns swarm law offices ready to research and, Britain appears to have no tradition of semi-indentured legal labour.

As a result, I appear to be one of the only legal interns in London. At the very least, I am 99 per cent certain that I am the only American legal intern working at a barristers chambers in London.

I work at Doughty Street Chambers, which is home to 88 barristers (17 QCs), 17 associate tenants, 27 staff members, 5 pupils, and 1 American intern – me. Unsurprisingly, I can get a bit lost here. British barristers, used to doing their own research and writing or already armed with professional assistants to do it for them, tend to be confused by me. But after I explain that yes, really, I would like to help out and no, sorry, I do not yet fully understand the British legal system but yes, absolutely I have experience in legal research and writing, I can generally secure some type of legal work.

My day in London starts with my crazy commute. I’ve actually come to enjoy the London tradition of getting all dressed up in a distinguished suit and then participating in a speed-walking race to the nearest tube station. The prevailing rules of the race seem to be: if you think you can cross traffic without being hit, cross; if you think you can cross traffic and someone else will be hit before you, cross; if you think you can cross but will probably get hit when doing so, cross, but do so in a running/skipping fashion; speed walk to the tube, pick up your free, quality reading material for the ride, and leap into whatever train car has 4-6 inches available between another passenger and the door. Whoever reaches the office first evidently wins. 

After my adrenaline-filled morning, I generally arrive at Doughty Street at around 9am – already well into most barristers’ work days. Doughty Street barristers work harder than anyone I’ve ever met. I am continually impressed by their ability to be brilliant on little to no sleep. This statement especially applies to my officemates-the pupils.

For the Americans out there, pupils are essentially barristers-in-training who have just finished their training course. At Doughty Street I sit with their five pupils-who are easily some of the most amazing people I have ever met. They never fail to impress me with their intelligence, kindness, charm, poise, humour, and work ethic. The pupils manage to balance their court appearances and research work with my general tutelage. They’ve explained to me the English legal system (complete with hand-drawn flowcharts), the difference between solicitors and barristers (which, let’s face it, I still can’t really pinpoint), exactly what they think might be wrong with America, the nuances of cricket (how the score can really be 800-500 and it still ends in a draw), the reasonableness of drinking hot tea when it’s 35 degrees Celsius, the reasonableness of a general addiction to tea, exactly what I should be writing in this article, the all-important role of the clerk in English law, why certain bundles are always tied with pink ribbon (we’re all still unsure about that one) and – most important for an American working in London – exactly when they get to wear their wigs and gowns (in serious cases) and can I try them on (no).

I spend every day in the office with the pupils. The office always smells like tea and sounds like rain, if not from outside then from the rain-like noise made by six people furiously typing away at whatever they happen to be working on at the moment. In the office I generally work on research and writing that I would never get a chance to do in the States-assisting with extradition cases or international criminal defence, for example.

Out of the office I often participate in incredible opportunities that Doughty Street has set me up with, attending a hearing at the Old Bailey and getting to speak with judges, attending a judicial review hearing in a major case, lunching at Gray’s Inn, or participating in international law seminars at Doughty Street.

At the end of my working day I’ll inevitably feel guilty for leaving as the pupils and the barristers are likely still working. But I somehow manage to drag myself out of the office and into London-my new favourite city. Half price theatre events, music in the parks, sporting events to watch and an endless amount of pubs to watch them in, the great nightlife, the fact that I can walk almost anywhere and when it begins to rain I can be at a tube station in 10 minutes – I love it all.

All of this, plus the amazing work I get to do every day and the incredible people I get to be around bring me to the solid conclusion that, even if I am the only American legal intern in London working at a barristers chambers, there is nowhere but London I would choose to be such an anomaly.

Jennifer Jones is an intern with Doughty Street Chambers in London