How to become a barrister seventies style…
BY The White Rabbit
They did indeed do things differently then. To say I became a barrister by accident overstates things but the haphazard did figure prominently. My degree is in economics – a subject as to which I know nothing and care less if it is possible to care less than nothing – as is evidenced by my financial arrangements or conspicuous lack of them. After graduating, I got by variously as a builder’s labourer, a play leader in an adventure playground (!) and, via a year’s tedium at the British Standards Institute before becoming the first person in the history of that body to be sacked, as a schoolteacher. In those days anyone possessed of a degree and sufficiently desperate for a job could walk into London’s County Hall and leave having a ‘temporary’ placement in a London school. Thus sacked by the British Standards Institute, I repaired to County Hall.
I ended up at Stockwell Manor in south London, shortly after the conviction of a number of pupils of that educational emporium for a murder planned in the school playground. I was sent to the H Block (yes, it really was called that), supposedly a place for the education of the slower learner and pal the less able child but also used as a dumping ground for bright black pupils who kicked over the traces. I resolved that if I didn’t like it then I was outta there as soon as possible; I was not going to be a career teacher and also decided that if I did like it, I would stay for a maximum of two years.
I loved it. But at the beginning of the second year, I reminded myself of the promise – no more than two years. I considered the possibility of doing the bar exams (they were reputedly easier than solicitors exams). Problem: there were all sorts of fees and there was no grant (younger readers will excuse the ‘g’ word) for what was then the Bar Part I course. I had two year’s teacher’s superannuation, which could then be cashed in and with signing on in the holidays (I’m pretty sure you can’t do that anymore as a student) and working my way through a list of educational charities I could probably get by for a year except for one problem. There were fees for everything: fees to join an Inn, fees for the course, blah, and blah. I decided to apply the Diceman principle. For the uninitiated, the Diceman is a novel by Luke Rhinehart. The idea of the novel is that there is a guy who takes every decision in his life, from the most trivial to the most momentous, by the throw of the dice.
In the particular case, the dice were a Duke of Edinburgh scholarship. If I got one the fees would be paid and doing the Bar Part I became a runner. There was nothing indicating that applicants had to hold the Duke of Edinburgh in good opinion. So it was resolved. I would apply for the scholarship and if I got it, I would do the Bar Part I.
And if I didn’t get the scholarship? Oh yes, I had a plan B. I would cash in my superannuation and head off to the States and become a Deadhead, following the Grateful Dead – a popular beat combo – from concert to concert until the money ran out or something otherwise happened. I wonder from time to time how my life would have been if I hadn’t got the scholarship and implemented plan B instead.
As you will have guessed, I got the scholarship. I duly completed the Bar Part I’s. It is embarrassing to record that I did rather well in the bar exams. ILEA of blessed memory gave me a grant and paid my fees to do the Bar Finals (yes, younger readers, that sort of thing actually happened).
In Bar Finals year, the question of pupillage reared its ugly head. They did things (very) differently as regards pupillage then too. I wrote to the late, great John Platts-Mills QC. ‘Tell me O wise one’ I didn’t quite write. ‘I am sure there are no pupillage opportunities in your set for one as insignificant as I, but could you advise me as to how to get pupillage?’ Bless him, he took the hint.
‘It is very kind of you to offer to do pupillage in my chambers’ wrote the great man. I paused to ponder my kindness in so doing and read on. I’d better use initials for now on. I was to present myself to S, who was in charge of pupillages. ‘Just do a first six with us’ he advised. ‘It’s most unlikely we will offer you a tenancy and you are better placed to find a tenancy wherever if you do your second six somewhere else’. This was good advice.
I was sent to see W.
‘Are you political?’ he asked. The chambers were well-known for – well – politics.
My answer was too embarrassingly pompous to record even after all these years. I was young and excitable. Suffice it to say that it was not well received by W who I suspected of coming from a different part of the woods – the one that saw soviet tanks as an entirely reasonable instrument of foreign policy. John Platts-Mills, who was otherwise delightful, also had a weakness for soviet tanks. I was sent down the corridor to see D.
‘Are you political?’ he asked.
‘Yes’ I said somewhat wearily.
‘Well I’m not’ he replied.
‘Oh good’ I thought. I agreed to start pupillage with D.
There remained the problem of the second six pupillage. This was resolved in a dodgy – and now closed – pub in Brixton called the Railway. I met a friend there called L who worked for Lambeth Law Centre.
‘Have you got a second six yet?’ she asked me.
‘No, not yet’.
‘Come and meet the chambers we instruct’ she said. A big part of the Lambeth Law Centre’s work then was defending local youths prosecuted under the ‘sus’ laws. In the corner were J and N, both still friends. They were attired in badges saying ‘STAMP OUT SUS’ and appeared somewhat the worse for wear, drink plainly having been taken. I had a second six pupillage arranged before they sobered up.
So that is how it was done back in the day. Frankly, pupillage is like prison, hospitals and airports, all anyone wants to do is get it over with and move on. What happened in pupillage? I remember various odd things: an elderly German lady bringing a harassment action against her landlord. ‘And zen he threatened me with violins’ she announced. She meant violence. The late Auberon Waugh glared me at in the canteen at the Bailey. I hadn’t done anything. I think he just glared on principle. I felt honoured in some bizarre way. I earned £10 per issue libel reading the Labour Party Young Socialists’ paper. All I can remember about that was that it was buttock clenchingly dull and that the only time I advised then that something might be defamatory they said ‘so what?’ and published it anyway. Still, the tenners came in handily. I was able to take on my own cases in my second six. I went down to the Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court to defend in ‘sus’ cases. Largely unsuccessfully, it must be said. The Brixton riots followed and the ‘sus’ laws were repealed not very long afterwards.
Footnote: the portrait of John Platts-Mills is by his wife Janet, who was an artist of some note. The walls in his room in chambers were covered with paintings by her. There was also one other painting that was in stark contrast with the rest. It was the kind of painting a child would do: a hill as green bump below a blue sky, a house with four windows and an elongated rectangle as a door, a red roof and a puff of smoke from a chimney. Seemingly taking up all of the bottom right quarter of the painting was the artist’s signature…