A Year in Pupillage

To find out more about what life is like as a pupil in Keating Chambers, see Tom OwenPaul Bury's and Sarah Williams profile of their year in pupillage below:

A year in pupillage

Profile: Tom Owen

Year of Graduation: 2010, University of Cambridge, Downing College

Degree subject: Law

Current position and practice areas: Tenant practising commercial, construction, engineering, professional negligence and I.T.

(Pupillage 2011/2012)

Friends, colleagues and clients still often ask me: “how was pupillage?”  My pupillage at Keating was rewarding, challenging and well-structured.  It was invaluable preparation for independent and self-employed practice at the Bar.

Pupillage at Keating usually involves sitting with 4 pupil supervisors for roughly 3 months each over the course of the year. The tenancy decision (a vote of all Members of Chambers) is usually taken after completion of the third supervisor rotation.

September to December 2011

During my first seat, the majority of my work was for my pupil supervisor and involved drafting: 

  1. statements of case in litigation, adjudication and arbitration proceedings.
  2. pre-action protocol letters and contractual notices;
  3. Written advices; and
  4. research notes.

The first three months were a steep learning curve.  I did a mix of “live” work, on which my supervisor was then currently instructed, and also work on “dead papers”, with which my supervisor was previously involved.  The work was varied and interesting.  It concerned mainly contractual, tortious and statutory claims relating to construction and infrastructure projects.  

I also assisted in drafting a publication on public procurement law.  I attended cons (consultations) with my supervisor’s clients.  Occasionally, where the case required it, I travelled with my supervisor within the UK to undertake site visits.  I was genuinely involved and immersed in his work.  That was the case for all of my supervisors and proved indispensable in my formation and education as a pupil.

After each piece of work my supervisor sat down with me to discuss it and to provide formal feedback.  He also gave me written comments and notes.  It was not as daunting as it sounds!  The process was very much constructive and helpful, with a view to improving future pieces of work.

During my first seat, I also went to court with my supervisor and with other junior barristers in Chambers, including attending: 

  1. a case management conference in the High Court (St Dunstan’s House, shortly before the move of the London TCC to the Rolls Building).
  2. an application for summary judgment of an adjudicator’s decision in the High Court (in the Rolls Building); and
  3. an appeal hearing in the Court of Appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice.

In November 2011 I attended the Middle Temple advocacy course.  This ran for 2 weeks and comprised lectures, court visits, advocacy exercises (criminal and civil) before practising barristers and a drafting assessment (a skeleton argument).  The course was demanding but rewarding and I was glad to have completed it early on in my pupillage before my second six months where I would be on my feet in court, not as an exercise but for real!  The advocacy course also gave me the chance to meet and socialise with many other pupils from different sets of chambers, many of whom I am still in touch with.  

Towards the end of my first seat, before Christmas 2011, my co-pupil and I had our first advocacy exercise.  This was an application for summary judgment before a senior Silk in Chambers acting as the judge.  The exercise was based on a real set of papers and required preparation of a skeleton argument and presentation of oral submissions.  We received feedback immediately after the application.  Again, the process was very much designed to improve our skills, to be formative and to get the best out of us, rather than simply being an assessment.

Holiday allowance is 20 days during pupillage and I was encouraged to take it in full.  I took just under 2 weeks at Christmas 2011, which gave me a real chance to unwind and prepare for the following term.

January to April 2012

The nature of the work with my second supervisor was similar to that in my first seat.  My personal workload was noticeably greater though, as my supervisor encouraged me to do more and more work for other Members of Chambers.  This was an important aspect of pupillage for me, not least because I was introduced to work from varying levels of call but also because of the breadth of commercial work available within Chambers.

My co-pupil and I had our second advocacy exercise towards the end of our second seat.  This was a hearing before an adjudicator, again before a senior Silk in Chambers.

I also undertook a week’s marshalling in the TCC with a High Court Judge, in which I observed cross-examination of factual and expert witnesses during a trial. 

The pupillage committee monitors the pupils’ progress in Chambers closely during the year.  I had a review with them in my second seat, during which we discussed my progress and what I could expect from the second half of my pupillage.  As with all formal feedback along the way, the pupillage committee was constructive, forward-thinking and proactive in determining what aspects I could work on for the future.

April to July 2012

During my third seat, the majority of my work was for other Members of Chambers.  I also started to receive instructions in my own name, to draft statements of case and to attend small claims track hearings and other applications.  This was a time of great excitement and pride for me – to be instructed in my own right.  It was also a very challenging time, trying to maintain high standards not only in all aspects of my work within Chambers prior to the tenancy decision, but also in building my reputation with professional clients outside of Chambers.  The Clerks and my pupil supervisor managed this balance very well, getting the best out of me.

My co-pupil and I undertook the final advocacy exercise, an application in the High Court, shortly before the tenancy decision.  We also had two assessed, formal written exercises, a pleading and an advice.

The tenancy decision period was a strange time, largely because I was trying to second-guess my interactions with Members of Chambers.  The pressure and expectation was all self-induced, rather than being Chambers’.  My pupil supervisors were so supportive.  They genuinely wanted me to do well and to succeed.  

July to September 2012

After the tenancy decision I started with my fourth supervisor.  By this time, I had started to build up a steady stream of work in my own right and focused on that during my last three months of pupillage.  I found that there was still much to learn from my supervisor, who very much involved me in her paperwork, cons and hearings.  I completed some of the outstanding items on my pupillage checklist and before I knew it, was in my own room, a tenant of Keating Chambers.

On reflection

Pupillage is ultimately a time on which I reflect with great fondness.  My workload was well-managed by my pupil supervisors and the breadth and depth of work covered was encouraging and reassuring.  By the end of it I felt ready for practice and that’s what I was looking to achieve.  A great year, but one which I am glad to have completed!


Profile: Paul Bury

Year of Graduation 2004 University of Oxford

Degree Subject: Law

Current Position and Area of Practice: Tenant Practising Construction, Engineering, Energy and Procurement.

(Pupillage 2010/2011)

Anyone looking to become a commercial barrister with some interest in understanding how buildings, infrastructure and energy projects are designed, engineered and built should consider applying to Keating Chambers.

The first thing to say is that no specialist construction knowledge is required.  I did not study engineering, architecture or even work on a building site previously (although I did once assist in constructing a flat-pack shed).  When I was looking for a set of Chambers to apply to, I looked for those which had a strong reputation in the traditional areas of contract and tort law.  Based on my studies of cases such as Murphy v Brentwood, Linden Gardens v Lenesta and Ruxley v Forsyth, I was aware that construction disputes could throw up interesting legal issues and factual disputes. 

Pupillage at Keating – as with any set of Chambers – was a daunting prospect.  However, within a short time of starting the trepidation was more than mitigated by the supportive attitude of pupil supervisors, the friendly atmosphere in Chambers, in particular amongst the more junior members who recall what going through pupillage could be like, and the camaraderie with fellow pupils. 

In my first three months I shadowed my pupil supervisor at conferences and court appearances, and spent time in Chambers contributing research and drafting to assist my pupil supervisor with these cases.  The work varied from a highly legalistic dispute in the High Court over the interpretation of an indemnity to drafting claims in an adjudication between domestic home owners and their builders.  In between assisting with these cases, I spent as much time as possible practising my drafting skills and learning from my pupil supervisor’s feedback.  This was the time to ask the questions that seemed silly, and make the mistakes that everyone makes during pupillage, and I am grateful that I was allowed the time to find my feet in that way.

After Christmas – and overcoming the hurdle of the first review  – all the pupils in my year started taking on work from other Members of Chambers.  This is the most important way to get yourself noticed.  As every Member of Chambers has a vote at the final decision in July, it was important to do work for as many as possible.  This work could vary from a discrete piece of legal research to a lengthy advice or pleading, which would then be discussed (or picked apart) at a feedback session.

In parallel to this work we would be given regular advocacy and written exercises. These usually took the form of an application or oral submissions in respect of a discrete issue that would be heard by a silk in Chambers. While we all understood that these exercises were used to assess us and required quite a lot of work, they were also great opportunities to get advocacy advice from a barrister who regularly acted as an arbitrator, adjudicator or judge.

After six months we also started receiving our own instructions and getting on our feet in Court.  Our very approachable team of clerks were able to get us small claims trials so that we could build our advocacy experience.  In my second six I was probably in court once a fortnight and was also able to do advisory and pleading work and start to develop a relationship with instructing solicitors. 

The tenancy decision was made in July, towards the end of our third seat.  Pupils make a formal application to Chambers and their application is considered on the basis of reports gathered from their pupil supervisors and the Members of Chambers for whom they have worked.  In my year of four pupils, two of us were offered tenancy (both of us accepted) and of the other two, one quickly found a third six at a good set of chambers, and the other chose to join a leading city law firm as in-house Counsel. 

Following the decision, I was immediately thrust into a complex and extremely interesting international arbitration case for a magic-circle firm over a project in Moscow and the work has continued apace ever since.  I have now been a tenant for over a year. My practice has been a mix of being led on large arbitrations or trials on the one hand, and writing advices, drafting pleadings, and advising in conference on my own cases on the other.  I have had the opportunity of working on an international arbitration case in Hong Kong for over two months.  I have also conducted two lengthy multi-track trials in the County Courts and have appeared frequently in smaller disputes.  At times it can be very intense: everyone in Keating Chambers works hard, and weekends can be interrupted, but we are well rewarded for it.  Most importantly though, Keating Chambers is a friendly place to train and to practise, with a flow of interesting clients and work.  I have greatly enjoyed my first year of practice here.  I can even say I enjoyed the year of pupillage.

[written 2012]


Profile : Sarah Williams

Year of Graduation 2004 Cambridge University

Degree Subject: Natural Sciences

Current Position and Area of Practice: Tenant Practising Construction, Engineering, Energy and Technology

(Pupillage 2008/2009)

To quote the learned scriptwriters of The Simpsons “Nothing you say can upset us, we're the MTV generation. We feel neither highs nor lows.” For anyone growing up in the 90s and 00s, there might be a certain amount of identity with that statement. What better way to test it, then, than through an assessment process derived from a generation long gone?

Yes, you have done your bar exams, received your pupillage offer and relaxed safe in the knowledge that you have the next few years sorted. You go off travelling to South America and all seems well. However, the time comes when you walk through the front door of chambers and are escorted to your supervisor’s room. Some feel nervous, others challenged, but none yet disappointed – at least, that’s what we hear from those that survived. Compared to other types of assessment that you’ll be familiar with, the pupillage process benefits from firm foundations in reality. From the beginning, you are immersed in the established practice of a barrister who will also usually be someone looking forward to your help with the workload.

The nature of the supervision programme means that the person to whom you are allocated may be only a handful of years ahead of you – giving an insight into the sorts of work you might be doing yourself within the decade. Or alternatively, you could be sitting with a senior junior whose practice may be dominated by one or two large scale, high value cases. Some individuals have developed niche practices within chambers, exposing you to the specifics of procurement law, international arbitration, party walls or insolvency. Whomever you sit with, the diversity of characters and practices in chambers lends itself to a colourful year for Keating pupils.

If you like what you see here, it may be that you want to stick around beyond pupillage. To do so, it won’t come as a surprise to learn that there are a number of assessments to get through. The long term informal assessment is carried out by your supervisors – through work given to you and discussions about your chosen approach. You will also be given work by other members of chambers who wish to form their own view of you. Keating also requires you to do three formal advocacy assessments against fellow pupils plus a written assessment that will be considered alongside the work from your peers. The results from all of these will be considered carefully with your application for tenancy.

However, it is not all assessment. In your second six, your diary begins to fill up and your relationship with the clerks develops. Your own work comes in the form of paperwork or court hearing and must be managed alongside work for members of chambers. However, this is the moment when you get to send out a piece of work with your name on it or perhaps to dabble in a bit of cross examination in a small claim or fast track trial. The second six is probably the most important part of pupillage because it is only here that you get a taste of the responsibility you are asking for as a tenant. It is also arguably the most fun because you finally have the liberty to do the job you have been training for.

One nice surprise I remember from the pupillage at Keating was the sense of welcome that we received – there are great efforts made by the barristers to make you feel part of the group whether at formal events or just in an excursion to the pub. You will be invited to the Christmas party (which is held in January, naturally) and can attend the various relevant law lectures for free. There is also the crown jewel event of the Keating Garden Party previously held in venues such as the Royal Opera House and the Orangery at Kensington Palace.

All in all, I would describe the Keating pupillage as a year of great highs and paranoia-infused lows – whether sitting in a gloom of failure at your laptop over a mediocre piece of feedback, or doing a little celebratory dance in the corridor after a good court hearing (yes, I will admit to that). It turns out, then, that pupillage is anything but MTV.

[written 2011]

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