This is the first in a series of posts selected by Jim Carroll, our APG Guest Editor during October 2017, surrounding the theme of
'How To Get On: Advice on how to manage a strategist’s career in a creative business'
Read more posts here
“If you would rise above the throng And seek the crown of fame, You must do more than drift along And merely play the game. Whatever path your feet may tread, Whatever be your quest, The only way to get ahead Is striving for the best.”
As the autumn leaves drift across the well-kept lawns of the Inner Temple, to many a pupil barrister entering the Dickensian sets that are the Inns of Court, the words of Edgar Albert Guest’s poem “Ambition” will yield to a strategy to simply “get on”: To “get on” with staff and members of chambers sufficiently during the 12-month pupillage (barrister’s mandatory training) to be “taken on” or offered a “tenancy”. A tenancy, offered to selected pupil barristers after the successful completion of pupillage, is the right to begin a career as a self-employed barrister in chambers.
For those 9 to 12 months between the start of pupillage and the “tenancy decision”, each pupil barrister will seek to ingratiate himself / herself with the hierarchy of chambers. Those pupil barristers with an ability to “get on” within this atypical environment are best placed to succeed.
What is this ability to “get on”? It is the ability to identify, understand, order and negotiate the informal and spontaneous rules that co-exist within chambers. To “get on” amidst 30 to 80 independent barristers, unburdened by years of unchecked idiosyncrasy and full of firm opinions, is as much about omission as it is about action. The readjusted phrase “keep a medium profile” is apt. A profile that does not overshadow the most junior barristers, is not too low to be viewed as isolated, disinterested and lacking confidence, and not too high to be viewed as cocky, unwilling to learn, overconfident and lacking in humility.
First, any pupil barrister must demonstrate an ability to work under pressure with exaggerated eagerness and cheer when undertaking all legal work irrespective of its interest value. Any mumbling or complaining is frowned on, and a sure way to starting off on the wrong foot.
Second, even with a healthy attitude to work, the pupil barrister’s sterner tests arise at chambers’ events where interaction with clients, members of staff and fellow barristers over alcohol must be carefully navigated. Unguarded moments and insensitive words quickly spread across chambers. Indeed, being observed by barristers skilled at exposing inconsistencies itself requires a measured and calculating temperament.
Third, any savvy pupil barrister will quickly identify the “influencers” in chambers: Individuals whose views count, or those whose views are automatically discarded. They may be barristers and / or members of staff. This observation becomes especially important in chambers containing cliques.
Fourth, a vital resource in attempting to “get on” is the staff: The team that oversees the everyday operations within any chambers, from the clerks to the front desk receptionist. They will often have nicknames for each barrister and have an ability to best distil each barrister’s traits. The clerks are central to chambers’ machinery and effective disseminators of good and bad news. An ability to interact well with this team of non-barristers is often overlooked even though their views can often penetrate opinions.
Lastly, but equally important, is the skill of engaging, whilst maintaining a respectful cordon sanitaire, with those plagued members of chambers. Jumping into “chambers politics” is best avoided.
The decision to offer a tenancy may, in some sets be taken at a meeting of all members of chambers with a show of hands, but is now more commonly the task of the “Pupillage committee” within chambers. In theory, towards the end of the 12-month pupillage that grouping of decision makers convenes to decide which, if any, of the pupil barristers are going to be “taken on”. Depending on the set of chambers - from traditional “suit everyday” sets where pupils may serve tea to more informal “call me Steve” sets - the decision to take on a pupil barrister is in most cases, save obvious howlers committed by the pupil barrister, a reflection of how the pupil barrister “got on” with influential and vociferous members of chambers. Each set has its handful of barristers focused entirely on their practices and disinterested in anything that does not affect their practice. To court this group is to deliver election speeches to prisoners.
Each chambers then applies its own set of opaque criteria in deciding who gets taken on. In some sets that decision shall be taken by way of a show of hands without reason. In other sets headings like “Quality of work”, “fitness for the Bar” - the new, now somewhat downgraded “ability to fit in” etc.- are scored against the names of each candidate. Ultimately, save where the pupil barrister’s legal work is not of a standard, the decision hinges on how the pupil barrister “got on” in the year.
Any pupil barrister taking to one knee during the national anthem before the tenancy decision runs a risk, and only has himself or herself to blame.
My friend Kweku is, as you’d expect from a barrister, hugely intelligent and articulate. But he’s also an arbiter of style, with a ready wit and a radiant presence. I asked Kweku to explain how one approaches ‘getting on’ in the arcane field of the law. Here he proposes that one adopts a ‘medium profile.’ It’s interesting to ask ourselves how similar or different our own world is to this?
- Jim Carroll