Pupillage during a Pandemic

January 8, 2021

By Ben Berkson

First-six criminal pupil, Ben Berkson, provides a first-hand account of his pupillage experience so far during the Covid-19 era. 

Furlough, lockdown, tier systems. 2020 really was a crazy year for everyone. Personally speaking, most of the year was shrouded in uncertainty. I was placed on furlough leave in March by my previous employers and I did not start pupillage until September.

Simmering away in the back of my mind throughout this six-month purgatory was my pupillage start date. A September start was not the original plan. However, Exchange reacted sharply to the pandemic. They were careful to ensure that pupillage was not compromised by the first national lockdown. As the criminal pupil it was even more imperative for me to be at the coal face of the criminal justice system, rather than behind a screen in my flat. When I was informed in March by chambers that pupillage was going to be postponed my initial reaction was disappointment. Looking back – in hindsight – I do not think the rounded pupillage experience would have been possible if it commenced in April. For instance, criminal practitioners were either working from home or appearing at urgent hearings via link until June.

Things have gradually transitioned back to normality and, from my perspective, pupillage has not been affected substantially by the pandemic. I have only worked from home once (touch wood). I step foot into chambers nearly every working day and as a result I have got to know a significant portion of our Liverpool based practitioners. Whether shadowing my supervisor Martine Snowdon, or other members of Exchange’s criminal team, you will find me in Liverpool Crown Court Monday – Friday. There have been some trivial differences. For instance, everyone has to wear facemasks in the communal court areas. On a couple of occasions, I have been barred from some courtrooms due to capacity issues brought about by the need for social distancing. Forced periods of self-isolation, whether from a juror, witness, advocate or defendant have caused the courts no end of difficulty from a case management perspective, but they are coping well regardless.

A word being used more and more at present is ‘isolation’. Unfortunately, in the current zeitgeist of Covid, many people, whether isolated from family, friends or colleagues, are struggling. For me, pupillage has in no way been an isolating experience. I cannot take all the credit for that despite being a natural busy body. I have to credit my supervisor. I give thanks to my fellow pupils who have been such positive influences. Nothing makes someone feel part of the herd more than a Christmas party. Whilst it could not take place in classic Exchange fashion this year, I would like to give a shout out to John Jones QC for his Zoom quiz which brought the criminal team together (I could not mention this without reference to Harriet Lavin’s excellent winning performance). Last, but not least, I would like to thank all the clerks and support staff at Exchange for making me feel right at home.

For those who think that the pandemic might slow down the pace of pupillage, I can confidently say that I have had the broadest and most interesting set of experiences and I am only three months in. I was instructed on a noting brief in a watershed case on the admissibility of ‘Encrochat’ evidence which is going to have a ripple effect on our criminal justice system for years. I have learned so much from observing jury trials and interim hearings in front of nearly every judge in Liverpool Crown Court. The pandemic has undoubtedly caused me to have a very localised pupillage. Thus far I am yet to sample the delicacies of the other northern court centres (places I am bound to be a frequent flyer to in my second-six). I did spend a few days in the Lowry Theatre’s Nightingale Court, however, which is something to tick off the legal bucket list.

To conclude, the thought of pupillage in the months leading up to September did worry me. However, those worries have been alleviated and I feel very privileged. To give a couple of examples, a large motivation for me in this profession was the camaraderie of both the criminal bar and the Northern Circuit. These are two areas which I expected to diminish significantly due to Covid-19. Liverpool Crown Court’s robing room is a bustling hum of noise and gossip (with the occasional discussion about law). Furthermore, I have already attended several Northern Circuit events (virtual of course). A couple have been helpful educational webinars hosted by our very own David Temkin QC. However, there have also been social events called mess. I was sceptical about how a dinner party- style event could be translated into Zoom, but these ‘dinners’ have been brilliant. I have met people from all sections of the bar, from the higher echelons of the judiciary to young upstarts like myself. Conversation never runs dry and the camaraderie is just as demonstrable as I remember from the halcyon days before this wretched virus.

As we embark on the next lockdown, I am confident that the criminal bar will adapt to the increasing challenges of the virus to ensure that justice is properly administered. Further, I do not expect Covid-19 to curtail my pupillage or my career as a criminal practitioner.

Our pupillage application window is currently open. For more information on how to apply, please click here.