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An unsentimental education in the law of pupil and pupil-master

legal matters

The new crop of pupils have started in chambers. These days, chambers court the top law students, offering them generous scholarships and guaranteed earnings, assuring them of the variety of quality work they will experience and, ultimately, despite the competition for tenancies, how we can give their careers at the bar the best start. The result is that we are bombarded by cvs which show all the signs of the keyboard having jammed on the letter 'a' and which suggest that the only occupations for gap-year students are saving the Sumatran tiger from extinction or carrying on Mother Teresa's good works. Things were different in my day, when a pupil enjoyed a position only slightly more elevated than that of the Temple cat. I recently unearthed a piece written in the early months of pupillage, a long time ago. It goes someway to illustrating the point:

I am a pupil. What articled clerks are to solicitors, pupils are to barristers. Most people have a boss. I have a pupil-master. The greatest help I can be to him is to pretend that I am not there. Although my desk is in his room, I say nothing in the morning. I don't tell him how I was chased into the gutter by a Rolls Royce. He drives a Rolls, I pedal a bike.

He is not interested in the price of inner tubes, or the price of anything for that matter, save perhaps of antique dining-room tables at several thousand pounds. He earns a fortune. I do not. Until recently, the archaic nature of pupillage required that I pay him 100 guineas for the privilege of working with him. Now he lets me do it for nothing - literally. From the pile of pink ribbon-bound documents heaped on his desk I take my pick. The case of the mouldy strawberries looks interesting. While reading details of delayed aircraft-flying from deepest strawberry growing sub-continents, studying airway bills and examining photos of several hundred thousand strawberries gone off, the phone rings. A client wants to change one of my pupil-master's drafts. This does not go down well. Wherever he goes, I go. He striding purposefully, I trotting behind carrying the books.

Working in the shadow of such greatness is not easy. On the way over to court I comment, 'So, Mr Person did not rate your pleading then?' Disbelief seizes him. Too late I realise the mistake. 'No, no, I mean - obviously Mr Person did not appreciate the subtlety of your finer points.' But the damage is done and we complete the journey in silence. When the judge rises from a particularly tedious trial on the documents, and turns his consideration away from whether borough dustmen should or should not be paid the same as those employed by the district council, I rush to my sponsor for help.

This kindly guardian-type figure advises me: 'Don't upstage your pupil- master when the clients (or anyone else) are around. Distribute some well-timed flattery, but always keep quiet and busy and always carry a load of 10 pence pieces.'

'He doesn't take the tube,' I anticipate. 'He drives a Rolls.'

'Then he'll need them for the meter.' We return to chambers after court, the question of the parity of the borough dustmen's pay still quite unresolved.

I return to my desk and the mouldy strawberries and settle down to draft a defence to the claim. The more intricate details of the Warsaw Convention defeat me, but I'm proud of the result. In his turn, my pupil-master takes up the case. He picks up the phone to speak to the solicitors, Messrs Slower, Still and Sleeping. In a derisory tone he asks just how he is supposed to draft a defence on the facts. Is he, he inquires rhetorically, a magician. Bricks, he concludes, cannot be made without straw. He hangs up. My heart sinks. Unceremoniously my draft is returned. The unspoken question of how I managed to produce it given the glaring defects in the available information hangs heavy in the air.

But my luck is not completely out: 'Do you have any 10 pence pieces on you?' he asks.

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