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The supervisors' views

Colm Nugent

I became a Pupil Supervisor in 2003, after completing my mini “teacher-training” course and receiving a frighteningly large number of pieces of paper suggesting how I discharge my duties.
I was called in 1992 but memories of my own pupillage are still fresh. I tried to recall from that experience what I found useful and what I found particularly irritating. I knew before undertaking my Pupil Supervisor training that Hardwicke took its treatment of pupils and pupillage generally, very seriously. Pupils are most certainly not simply there to make the tea, do lots of photocopying and work late into the night on their Pupil Supervisors’ briefs that are getting a bit past their sell-by date. There is hard work, but the emphasis is on providing real training.

Personally, I avoid the use of the word “pupil” when introducing pupils to a client, because not everybody understands this word in a legal context and I suspect it sounds rather archaic to those not familiar with the bar. Clients are more comfortable with the self-explanatory “trainee barrister”. So it was pleasing to know that we at Hardwicke, spurred on by our Pupillage Committee, were willing to break with old notions and bring a modern realism to what pupillage means.

  • As a Pupil Supervisor, I have found that the following are truisms: Make a pupil feel that they are part of your practice, rather than simply an appendage to it.
  • A pupil appreciates being introduced to the client and having their role explained. So does the client.
  • A pupil doesn't know how to do the job - that is why they are a pupil. It's not big or clever to tear their work to shreds.
  • If you can't explain to a pupil why you've taken a certain course in the case you're preparing, it's probably not a good idea to take that course at all.
  • There is a fine and indistinct line between a pupil shrinking into the background, and being annoyingly unobtrusive. It is up to the Pupil Supervisor to help the pupil tread that line.
  • Client/people skills and a large measure of common sense will more than make up for lack of pure legal knowledge in a pupil. But pure legal knowledge is rarely ever a substitute for client/people skills and common sense.
  • Pupils have a life outside chambers as well. Respect their private time and space and avoid carelessly mentioning at 6pm that they are needed until 10pm to help prepare a brief for the next day. That's because supervisors have an explicit or implicit power relationship over a pupil, no matter how structured or informal the relationship. It is important to recognise that relationship exists and not to exploit it, even unthinkingly.
  • If given time to read, absorb and understand the case, a pupil can usually make observations which the barrister may not immediately consider. They bring a different perspective to a case and I have found that the pupil's input is overwhelmingly helpful. Pupils, like anyone taking a position in any organisation, appreciate guidance as to what to do, what not to do, and an element of planning and direction as to the immediate days ahead. Supervisors usually benefit from the self-same forethought.
  • Explaining to a pupil why you are doing "x" rather than "y" in any given case also makes you analyse your own way of preparing cases and trials - a little self-analysis never hurt anyone!

Overall, the experience is a most rewarding one. It takes time and effort to undertake the role properly, and because 360-degree feedback is encouraged, I get to know how I am performing as a Pupil Supervisor, in the same way that I can hopefully give useful feedback to our pupils.

Brie Stevens-Hoare QC

All through my 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th six month pupillages I always swore when I "got there" I would remember what the experience of pupillage was like and make sure I helped others trying to walk the same path. Some 16 years or so on I have to accept that, try as I might, I can't really remember exactly how it all felt. Anyway, things have changed quite a bit since then. However, maybe it will reassure you to know that many of us try to remember! It may also help if you bear in mind we have chosen you and are investing time, effort and money in you so we really do want you to succeed.

So I will take this opportunity to give you few ideas and helpful hints about what to expect and what to look for at this stage. It is inevitable that you will approach pupillage with a certain amount of apprehension. This is likely to grow as you ponder just what you have let yourself in for. Even if you have previously experienced a number of mini-pupillages, it is likely you will have questions, ranging from the minutiae to the fundamental, racing around your head. For example, what do I wear, what do I call everyone, where will I sit, what exactly will they expect me to know, what does "do this set of papers" mean and what exactly is my status in this organisation called chambers?

The answers to most of these questions will depend to some extent on the set of chambers where you undertake your pupillage.

However, here are some general pointers:

  • What to wear?

    You should always look like the smart professional that is, no doubt, already inside you just waiting to come out. Even if some others around you seem to take a more relaxed approach to their dress, be very cautious before you follow their lead. The members of chambers who do not take that approach may be unimpressed if you dress down.

  • What do I call everyone?

    That really will depend on the culture in your chambers. In some places like Hardwicke everyone is on a first name (or even nickname) basis. Other sets still adopt a more formal style. So approach with caution, listen and observe and do not be afraid to ask your Pupil Supervisor.

  • Where do I sit?

    Some sets have a room for all pupils to work in; in other sets you will sit in the same room as your Pupil Supervisor. At Hardwicke we feel it is important for you to sit in with your Pupil Supervisors as much as possible so that you are learning about all aspects of their professional life, including listening into telephone calls with solicitors and opponents.

  • What will they expect me to know?

    Not everything - at least not in the first week! You will be expected to understand general legal principles and to know rather more about the areas of law in which you profess a particular interest. Most importantly, you will be expected to know how to start identifying the right questions to ask yourself and how to go about researching the answers. Having some grasp of procedure, the practical realities of life and a sense of tactical considerations that may arise will boost you into the "very promising" category.

  • What does “do this set of papers” mean?

    The simple answer is: do whatever you think you would do if you were the barrister to whom the instructions have been sent. The rest depends on the culture of the chambers you are in. In some sets, like Hardwicke, barristers discuss cases and help each other work things through, and you are expected to join in that process. When you are working on something you can ask your pupil supervisor and other barristers who do the relevant type of work. Equally, when barristers at Hardwicke are discussing a case, you should feel free to join in with your thoughts. However, in some chambers pupils are still expected do their  work on their own, and to wait until they are asked for their views on any other issue under discussion, so approach with caution until you have a feel for the culture around you. As always, if in doubt, ask your Pupil Supervisor what is acceptable.

  • What exactly is my status?

    Hopefully, whichever chambers you choose, no one will treat you as chief tea-maker and photocopier. However, in some chambers you may find yourself being very much the "pupil" in an almost Victorian sense. The good news is that more and more chambers treat pupils as the intelligent, capable, professionally-qualified people they are. In some sets you will be treated as a proper part of the organisation and in a friendly set of chambers like Hardwicke you will be readily absorbed into the associated social life. However, bear in mind the reality of your situation: you are a pupil hoping to so impress those around you so that they decide to offer you tenancy. That reality inevitably makes a difference to your approach to life in chambers, but don't allow it to spoil the experience for you.


Inevitably the type of set you choose for your pupillage will be a very significant factor in determining the quality of the learning and life experience you have during the year. However, your own approach and attitude will be just as significant. Always remember that you are an intelligent, qualified professional who is there to learn, and that the set of chambers to which you are going, has chosen you, probably over hundreds of other applicants. Be sensitive to the culture of the set and, if in doubt, ask your Pupil Supervisor or members of the Pupillage Committee for guidance.