Friday, 23 March 2007

Turbulent times

Ever since pupillage, I've only ever really done criminal work. As many people involved in this area know, we criminal hacks currently live in troubled times. Not only is there widespread unrest about fees (things are set to change next month when the long-awaited new fees structure comes into operation), there is also less work around than previously. This is largely due to the CPS having employed a number of in-house advocates (HCAs, which stands for Higher Courts Advocates) who are covering an increasing amount of work. So what's the beagle to do?

Part of me (in fact, most of me) wants to just ride this rough period out and trust that things will improve. Inevitably, the criminal bar will shrink and hopefully people who stick things out now will be OK in the future. I did think about jumping ship and looking for an in-house job, but that was just a moment of madness. So I've hatched a secret plan to tide me over.

I had a discreet chat to some civil colleagues and our two civil clerks and am about to start taking on civil work. At 5 years' call I reckon I'm still just about junior enough to start a new area of practice. I have made it clear that I only want easy cases to begin with and that I still want to keep my criminal practice going. Next week I have a fast track trial, which seems simple enough, though I might well be missing a crucial point or two! It's a contractual dispute over a few grands' worth of unpaid invoices. I've dug out my civil notes from the BVC and borrowed a copy of the Civil Procedure Rules. How hard can it be? Either I'll crash and burn, in which case I'll develop a new respect for my civil colleagues, or I'll add an extra string to my bow which can't be a bad thing. Maybe I'll grow to love commercial disputes, though I'll be surprised if they're as much fun as jury trials. Watch this space...

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The beagle is back

Apologies for such a long absence! I spent the whole of last week prosecuting a trial at a court miles away and never seemed to find time to blog. The trial was all about a big feud between neighbours which culminated in a night of wanton violence. As is usually the case, the winners were prosecuted! We had all sorts of fun during the trial, including jurors making complaints about witnesses following them, the officer in the case mistakenly telling witnesses there was nothing to prevent them sitting in the public gallery before they gave their evidence (thankfully the CPS rep managed to stop them in the nick of time) and, best of all, the Legal Beagle and CPS rep being told by the complainant that they were "just as bad as the pigs". Charming! On the plus side, I had a lovely opponent and the fact that the trial overran by two days prevented me from doing all sorts of other bits of rubbish on Thursday and Friday.

Regular readers (assuming I have any) will know that I was dreading a trip to the Court of Appeal (see Would your lordships give me a moment?). The much-worried-about hearing took place a week and a half ago. Happily, the appeal was allowed, though their lordships did describe the goings on in the court below as "unhappy circumstances" which was mildly embarrassing! All in all, it went far better than expected and I left court wondering why I'd fretted about it quite so much. I do wonder if I'll ever reach a stage in my career where I don't have the sort of nervous panics that are better suited to somebody about to get on their feet for the very first time. I really hope so!

Monday, 5 March 2007

Monday misery...

I have had an entirely pointless morning today. After spending a significant amount of the weekend preparing a trial, I arrived at court bright and early this morning and after a chat to my opponent, a nice woman I hadn't met properly before, I set off to the cells to see if my client had arrived on the prison van. So far as today's case was concerned he's been on bail but he was in custody for other matters at another court. The staff in the cells said he wasn't there and they weren't expecting him. My solicitor then arrived at court bearing the news that, yes, he had been in custody on other matters but he had been granted bail on Friday. Unfortunately for him (and for me) he had been arrested at his home address on Saturday morning and was being taken to a Magistrates court about 60 miles away this morning (when the police arrest people over the weekend and keep them in custody, they need to be produced at the local Magistrates court on Monday morning). So my trial had to be adjourned. When this sort of thing happens in civil cases, the barristers still get paid their brief fee. Not so in crime - I shall get paid the princely sum of £46.50 for my efforts. Aside from my financial gripes and wasted weekend, all the witnesses came to court, the court itself will now be empty today and this sorry mess will cost quite a bit of public money.

It's not all rosy for my civil brethren, though. I got back to Chambers to find a colleague looking very annoyed. He'd been sent the papers last week for a personal injury case due to be heard tomorrow. He'd prepared it fully and had even sent a written advice, only to receive a telephone call from the solicitors this morning asking for the brief back as they'd sent duplicate instructions to somebody in another set of Chambers a month ago but only realised their mistake this morning! This means he's likely to be out of court tomorrow (as I may well be too - my trial was supposed to last 2 days!). Technically, he'd be entitled to bill his solicitors the agreed fee since it's entirely their mistake. I think he ought to do this, not only because he deserves to be paid but also because it might mean the solicitors are more careful next time. Others think that in order to keep the solicitors sweet he should either bill half or nothing at all. I can see their point, but if they have any principles at all, they should have no objection to paying up.

All in all, not a very good start to the week!

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Want a pupillage? Then read this...

Being a junior(ish) criminal barrister, I'm always up for thankless tasks which are both time-consuming and tedious. This is why I am on our Chambers' pupillage committee. The closing date for applications isn't until summer but they are already pouring in. Although we consider them all at the same time, after the closing date, I do flick through them as they arrive before filing them away. As anybody on the legal scene knows, competition for pupillages is fierce and applicants need to stand out. We get loads of great applications and it saddens me that many good candidates will be unlucky as there simply aren't enough places for everybody. We also get a fair few applications which don't make it very far in the selection process. Some of these are just awful and I have a fair amount of sympathy for the people who send them, as they have invested a lot of time and money in a career which, realistically, is unachievable. Others are let down by a few basic errors. As this is the time of year when future barristers (and future McDonald's employees) start sweating over their pupillage applications, I thought I'd try to help by highlighting some of the most common mistakes applicants make and giving some advice on how to improve applications. So here we go with some top tips for pupillage success:

1. Learn when to use "practice" and when to use "practise";

2. Learn how to spell "pupillage" (yes, really);

3. Make sure you know what Chambers are asking for. We ask for a handwritten covering letter but every year about 25% of the letters we get are typed. Some Chambers have their own application forms, in which case they won't want to wade through CVs and letters;

4. Even if your A-level results are rubbish, don't just leave them out on your CV, otherwise we'll just assume they are anyway. If there's a reason for poor exam results then say so (provided it's a good reason, not just that your cat died);

5. Make it clear that your decision to be a barrister is an informed one. Don't just tell us that your mini-pupillages confirmed your decision to practise, say what you learned from them. Show that you have a realistic expectation of what pupillage will be like (you could do a lot worse than read pupilblog, which is a very accurate portrayal);

6. If that all sounds obvious, then you're probably a good candidate anyway. If it all sounds like too much hassle then do a more deserving applicant a favour and drop out now!

Hope that helps! Of course, if you are one of the talented but unlucky ones, you're sure to find a well-paid proper job with security, holiday pay etc. so will eventually have the last laugh!