Being ace at advocacy is essential to gaining pupillage at this esteemed crime set.
Prime time crime
Scampering through the doors of 2 Bedford Row, it's hard not to feel just a little bit starstruck (or Barstruck, perhaps). This set is, after all, one of the very top dogs at the Criminal Bar, as evidenced by its premier Chambers UK rankings for crime, criminal fraud and financial crime. Among the names on the door are a pack of formidable silks – many of whom are pretty youthful to boot – under the leadership of William Clegg QC, a man who, as one of our interviewees put it, “is probably the most famous barrister at the Bar.” As such, it's no surprise that chambers takes some massive, headline-grabbing cases. Of late, Clegg has defended Mark Hanna, the former head of security at News International, against charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice with Rebekah Brooks in the wake of the phone hacking scandal. He's also acted for drink and drug-addicted aristocrat Lord Edward Somerset, who stood trial for assaulting his wife over a period of 22 years.
While the set is “prominent on the defence side,” senior clerk John Grimmer highlights that “we're very well covered” when it comes to prosecution too, with barristers such as Brian Altman QC taking up positions like senior Treasury counsel at the Old Bailey and prosecuting high-profile cases such as the Birmingham terror plot. Although crime and fraud work are “the bread and butter of the set and always will be,” Grimmer notes that “we have a number of practitioners who are very well known for professional discipline work, particularly in healthcare. Richard Matthews QC is the market leader for health and safety cases and Jim Sturman is the leading QC for sports law and frequently works for Premiership clubs.”
The big decision: concision is key
After admiring the reception area's bountiful fruit bowls and chocolate stash, we ascended in a tiny retro lift to an expansive room adorned with pastel renditions of courtroom scenes. Here we got the lowdown on recruitment from head of pupillage Stephen Vullo QC. So, what does the set look for? “Advocacy – that’s it.” Hang on – surely there must be more to it than that? Vullo elaborates: “When we interview people we work on the assumption that they’re well qualified or they wouldn’t have got through the paper rounds. They will have done work experience, shown a dedication to the Bar, potentially even chambers itself, and saved koalas and pandas on their gap years. When they walk into the room it’s about whether they can deliver. People don’t believe us, but there is nothing else!” The message is clear: if you’re more at home behind a desk than on your feet then this isn’t the place for you. Vullo continues: “We take a mixed bag of people. We've had mature students in their 40s or 50s. This year we have four young women. We get people from privileged backgrounds and non-privileged backgrounds. It doesn't make any difference to us. It's about advocacy.” A baby junior confirmed this: “There's certainly no mould. The reality is that on the first day of your second six you're in court on your own, you go down to the cells to speak to a crack addict – they don't care which university you went to. They want you to be normal, to appreciate their position, to know the facts and the law.”
The set receives in the region of 700 to 800 applications through the Pupillage Gateway. Approximately 80 are invited to the first-round interview, which involves a short, non-legal advocacy exercise followed by a few questions based on the application form. For the former, “a question is posed such as ‘we should legalise drugs – give the two best reasons why.’ They have 15 minutes to prepare and 90 seconds to deliver. By and large it’s usually enough to see how somebody deals with that.” The challenge doesn’t end there – a new set of instructions can be issued just before the preparation time elapses. “We want to see whether somebody can adapt, follow instructions under pressure and be concise. About 30% of people go over the time limit.” Around 20 to 30 make it through to the longer second-round interviews. Again there’s an advocacy exercise, though this time it’s “legally based and more technical. They’ll be on their feet for about three minutes.” Both pupils we spoke to recalled preparing a plea in mitigation for this part of the interview, followed by discussion of legal and ethical points. Vullo adds: “If we’re interested in them then we’ll ask difficult questions and grind down into more detail.”
During the first six, a pupil is matched up to one supervisor. “This is the non-practising part of pupillage,” an interviewee explained, “so what you do is very dependent on your supervisor – the work you see is what they do.” It's a very “close relationship,” notes Vullo, although the supervisor will also “ensure the pupil does work for a good cross-section of chambers, so the tenancy committee have enough to work on” when it comes to decision time. For the second half of the year, pupils switch to another supervisor, and again they'll take on work for other barristers; however, by this time they'll be straight on their feet. “Your relationship with your second supervisor is a bit different to the first. You'll be out at court every day, so although that supervisor still gives you work to do and you can go to them for advice, it's obviously more distant than with the first supervisor who you follow round all the time.” Pupils start to take on their own cases at the Magistrates' Court, a lot of which comes through legal aid. “I've done a whole spectrum of things – trials, first appearances, sentences. There are lots of assault cases, plus harassment, petty theft and driving offences.”
Interviewees talked of handling “smaller stuff in the Crown Court like breaches of sentence as well as covering the cases of more senior members if they're away.” Of course, pupils won't take on rape and murder cases in their own right but they can get involved with these matters via their supervisor or other members. "We'll go through papers, write case summaries, help with defence statements and do bits of admin work. An e-mail might come through to all the pupils, asking for help with a skeleton argument, an advice or a point of research, and so one of us will take that on.” Pupils tend to see more defence work, although they do work on the prosecution side too. For the latter, “you have to be booked with the CPS for a day, whereas with the defence work a solicitor will phone up and ask for someone to cover a trial the next day.” A baby junior told us: “You're tasked with dealing with things at the last minute. It's about mastering the brief in a short period of time and getting the client to be confident in you.” Preparing for cases at such short notice means that evening work is essential. “Often the clerks will call you and send the papers through at about 5.30pm. I'll work here until about 8.30pm, leave and finish prepping at home. This week I've worked until about 11.30pm or midnight.” Interviewees warned: “I don't think anyone should have any illusions about the hours. It's a huge amount of work.” At least some of a pupil's weekend is dedicated to work, but of a Friday night they can be found at chambers' regular watering hole The Old Nick. The hours might be gruelling, but the atmosphere at chambers is “really comfortable.” A pupil reflected: “It's bizarre sometimes to see that these incredible advocates known for being brilliant are grounded, normal human beings.”
Don't wig out
Throughout the year pupils receive “fast lane” advocacy training from Stephen Vullo. “He doesn't mince his words,” laughed sources. “He's not mean though. He's a perfectionist, like a craftsman.” A baby junior added: “We're taught: be yourself. Then you'll be more persuasive.” The training culminates in a mock trial at Blackfriars Crown Court in which Bill Clegg acts as the judge with the tenancy committee as jury. Future pupils are invited to play the role of witnesses. “It is pretty terrifying and it's purposefully difficult,” admitted a baby junior. “They put lots of points of law in there to see if you pick up on them.” However Vullo notes that “it isn't the be-all and end-all – some people mess up slightly and still get taken on.”
Deciding on a pupil's fate, the tenancy committee takes into account the pupillage committee's recommendation and the opinions of other members. “Nobody's got too much say,” assures Vullo. From this year, pupils will complete a third six at chambers under a third supervisor and then apply for tenancy. “They'll have experience on their feet for twelve months and everyone will know them well enough,” explains Vullo. “So there isn't a downside to this system.” A pupil concurred: “An extra six months of experience will be a huge asset.”
Afternoon tea doesn't happen here. “Everyone's out at court!” exclaimed interviewees. “But there is a supply of tea, coffee and biscuits at all times.”
2 Bedford Row
2 Bedford Row,
- No of Silks 18
- No of Juniors 51
- No of Pupils 4
- Graduate recruitment contact Stephen Vullo QC (020) 7440 8888
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (p.a.) 4 x 12 months
- Tenancies offered according to ability
Type of work undertaken
Pupil profile Chambers recruits candidates from all backgrounds who display the highest intellectual ability, excellent advocacy skills, sound judgement and a real commitment to criminal law and its related fields. Candidates will also be well-rounded individuals who are able to communicate effectively with a wide variety of people.