Time at the bar

Gemma Charles meets Harry Mount, who has turned his horrific experiences at the bar into comic writing

Wretchedness, it seems, is the defining characteristic of Harry Mount’s experience of pupillage. During our lunch, references to his time at the bar are rarely made without the word “misery” popping up. But despite his awful time, Mount’s book on his life as a pupil is a hugely amusing account. It is only when you talk to Mount, now deputy comment editor of The Daily Telegraph, that you realise quite how dark those days were and detect more than a hint of bitterness.

“I had an absolutely miserable year, the worst year ever, and it was a waste. When I’m about to die, I’ll look back and say that was a wasted year,” he says matter-of-factly.

In short – and the book is short with 170 pages in large type – My Brief Career: The Trials of a Young Lawyer details Mount’s experiences of the pupillage system at two chambers. To avoid the attentions of the libel ambulance-chasers, the characters are composites of many of the people he met at the bar, but everything that takes place is based on real incidents.

As well as finding the work dull, he suffered at the hands of his first pupilmaster David Frobisher. Mount’s exchanges, or lack of exchanges, with Frobisher are painfully funny and at times just painful. Frobisher, for reasons best known to him, is totally indifferent to Mount and makes no effort to speak to him or to tutor him in becoming a barrister, saying only the bare minimum to Mount when absolutely necessary.

“Complete silence for three months and not a single bit of training,” muses Mount. “It’s absolutely staggering.”

Meanwhile, fellow pupil Silas Thorburn has to endure Alec McArdle, a traditional bully, who on one particularly nasty occasion makes Thorburn stand in front of a window for a whole morning to block the sun from his computer.

As a result of his experiences and those of others, Mount would like to see an overhaul of the pupillage system. “The book is supposed to entertain, but there’s a serious point,” he says. “The system is badly put together. It’s fine to be put with someone who’s nice and good and considerate, but the way it’s done allows for a terrible disaster if you get a bad pupilmaster.”

Mount says there are badly-behaved people in all walks of life and barristers are no worse than anyone else. However, the solitary relationship between pupil and pupilmaster means problems stay within the confines of the room and can go largely unchecked. “You can go and complain to a senior person in chambers, but you’ve got this year and you’re desperately trying to get the job and you think complaining is going to be a suicide note,” he says.

Mount also rails against the “year-long interview” nature of pupillage.
“I can’t see why they don’t make the decision when you apply. It’s a nice luxury for them to see what you’re like, but I think it’s a really cruel thing to put people through.

“By that stage you’ve gone to university, done the conversion in my case, then bar school – that should be enough to go on. If it turns out they’re the wrong person for the job then sack them and employ someone new.”

Mount has advice for aspiring barristers: “No one ever tells you that most of what lawyers do is go through mind-numbingly boring documents checking for spelling mistakes,” he says. “Go and do a mini-pupillage, or several. Ask yourself if you’re really interested in the work, and if you find that you prefer to read a newspaper or read a book than a law report, then maybe reconsider.

“I think there are some people who are cut out for it, but you shouldn’t do it because it’s highly paid or your mother wants you to.”

Mount has little time for various bar conventions. In the book he is obviously unimpressed by rules such as not shaking hands with fellow barristers and not being allowed to read during lunch, while he expresses incredulity that he was banned from visiting the loo during his first dinner. Yet Mount is no stranger to tradition; he attended Westminster School and read ancient and modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford.

“I’m all for old-fashioned things,” he says. “I like people having good manners and I like old-fashioned things, but only if they’re used to make people have a nicer time. If they’re used to humiliate people or make people ill at ease, it clearly defeats the point of them.”

Lunching in Canary Wharf – all brand-spanking new buildings gleaming with the glass and metal that seems a prerequisite for offices these days – must feel a lifetime away from the chambers where Mount had his annus horribilis. Although the Inns of Court are just half an hour on public transport, in terms of working practices and atmosphere, somewhere like The Daily Telegraph is another world. Mount has moved from warren-like chambers where he shared a room with his pupilmaster to the kind of open-plan office structure favoured by editorial teams. He admits that he is not overly keen on being in one big office in this way, but notes with interest the subcultures that have developed on different parts of the newspaper – the trendy fashion writers contrast sharply with his team members, who tend to be suited and booted.

In so many ways, Mount should have been suited to bar life. There is an illuminating part of the book where he is able to quote Latin to one of the barristers, unlike the working-class Thorburn, yet at the end of his pupillage he was unable to secure a tenancy. He says that when it came down to it, he “wasn’t cut out for the job”. Mount had good pupilmasters after Frobisher, but he still felt the job was tedious and squeezed the life out of anything interesting, so his dislike of the work affected his performance.

“There’s a story about Derry Irvine, that when he was young and keen on drink, however drunk he got as a law student, when he got home and got into bed he’d read that day’s law reports. That’s the extreme example of what I wasn’t,” he says.

But he is and always has been an avid reader of newspapers. When he graduated from university, his father, once a big noise on The Times Literary Supplement, secured him a few book reviews and this gave him a taste of journalism.

Since that initial break, he has written reviews and articles for a range of magazines and newspapers of all political hues – from The Guardian to The Spectator – before landing a staff job in 2000 on The Daily Telegraph.

He is clearly loving his new role and a previously unheard-of enthusiasm and relaxed tone creeps into his voice as he describes his typical day, which involves editing the work of the paper’s columnists, such as Boris Johnson and Anne Robinson, and writing the paper’s leader columns.

Contrary to popular belief, journalism is not well paid, but Mount says that the fat salary he could have earned at the bar would be no compensation for his current job satisfaction.

“I don’t wake up at five or six in the morning with my heart thumping with misery. You can’t put a price on that,” he says. “If you’ve got the luxury of doing something enjoyable, that gives you enough to survive on, and when you know what that job is, then you’d be mad not to do it.”

Excerpt from My Brief Career
Using pupils practically

… I copied down a passage from Anna Karenina: “There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot accustom himself, especially if he sees that everyone around him lives in the same way.”
I felt this particularly keenly when I compared notes with Silas.
One lunchtime, he knocked gingerly on my door.
“Come in.”
Silas was pale and tight-lipped. Once he’d seen that David wasn’t in the room, he pulled his chair over towards mine.
“Has David left for lunch?”
“Yes. What’s wrong?”
His face relaxed for a moment.
“Alec has really gone too far. This morning… this morning, he…”
Silas took several deep breaths and tried to speak but couldn’t, without his voice breaking. He raised his eyes to the ceiling.
“I’m sorry,”
“Don’t be sorry. Cry if you want.”
He didn’t say anything for a while. I went and got him a glass of water. By the time I got back, he’d composed himself.
“When I came in this morning, Alec asked me to come over to his desk and help him with something.”
‘What about the exclusion zone?”
“Well, exactly. I thought something quite good must be about to happen if he was prepared to let me come within a yard of him.
“I’d just got inside the exclusion zone, when he said, ‘Stop. Stand there and don’t move.’”
“Oh come on, Silas. I’m sorry to sound harsh, but you can’t get too upset. You’ve known about the exclusion zone for months.”
“Yes, but that wasn’t it this time. He’s never got me to stand on the edge of the zone before. I asked him what he wanted me to do and he just said, ‘Stand there. No, just a little bit to your right. Forward a bit. There. That’s perfect. Now, just move a little to your left every minute or so – parallel to the window frame – whenever I say “left”.’”
“Well, that doesn’t sound too bad. What did he do next?”
“Nothing. Just kept me moving bit by bit. He was making me into a sunshade for his computer screen. For the whole morning, I’ve been a fucking sundial, slowly moving round the room.”
He choked these last words out and, for the first time, cried a little.
“Oh God, Silas. That is terrible,” I said. Whenever I heard his horror stories before, I felt a little relief – the worse they were, the better my chances of tenancy. I hardly felt that at all this time.
“You must complain. You can’t go back in there this afternoon.”
“No, I can’t complain. You know I can’t. Anyway, this afternoon won’t be so bad.”
“Why not?”
“His room is east-facing.”

Harry Mount