For many of you, it is that time: people starting at Bar School, unaware of whether they’re coming or going, excited and/or terrified of those impending Qualifying Sessions (or Term Dinners) at their Inn.
Also, for many of you contemplating studying for the Bar who aren’t currently a member of one of the four Inns of Court, this information will certainly come in handy!
First things first. You have a choice of four Inns: Middle Temple, Inner Temple, Lincoln’s Inn or Gray’s Inn.
These are societies that will be responsible for your care both during law school and beyond, well into your legal careers, so it is important that you pick one that is right for you. All four Inns have the same function and perform the same roles, so which one you choose is a matter for you, but it is worth noting that you can join one from the second year of University, and must be a member of an Inn by the April before commencing the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).
What do they do?
During your BPTC you will probably visit your Inn mainly for Qualifying Sessions, which they host throughout the academic year. You must have done 12 of these before you can be ‘called to the Bar’ on completion of the BPTC. Some events may count as more than one session (more on that later).
It is tricky to provide an all encompassing guide, as some events will be different across the four Inns. For example, residential weekends or certain dinners will vary, however, I will do my best to provide an introduction.
Dining can be a surreal experience. You get to wear a gown (without the wig) and sit down to eat in a huge hall (did someone say Hogwarts?). There’s often a three-course meal, there’s port, there’s a toast to the Queen, there’s dancing (well it depends). But to a novice diner, that sounds pretty daunting right?
1. Stay calm
If you cannot get through a dinner, how are you going to cope when you have three difficult magistrates glaring at you because your client has not turned up at court in your second six months of pupillage?
The point to these dinners is primarily for students to ‘network’ with senior barristers and even judges. They are there for you, and not to imbue you with a sense of dread. If you do them right, they can be immensely good fun, you may find yourself talking to a celebrity or two!
2. Stay sober
If you spend lots of time at university on the blag for drinks, the temptation to go mad when there’s unlimited booze on offer can be strong. DON”T DO IT! Without attempting to scare you, many a student has fallen foul of getting too tanked up on booze and making themselves memorable for the wrong reasons.
3. Do strike up a conversation
Remember that practitioners and senior members of the Inn (Benchers) are there because they wantto be there. They enjoy meeting students and talking to them. They are real people and do have a life outside of the law. I once got talking a barrister about Adele, Ed Sheeran and the Brit awards… That conversation led to a tea date in chambers and an afternoon in court shadowing, but that’s a story for another time!
If you have a legal question do ask, but normal dinner chit chat is far more appreciated than the student who deliberately asks complex legal questions to show off. Be cautious as you never know where a conversation may lead. That leads onto the next one….
4. Be polite
There is a difference between dinner party conversations in real life, and the deliberately controversial ones you see people throw around in an episode of Come Dine With Me. So going back to point 3, neutral conversation is a good way to stay safe!
Qualifying sessions are intended to be fun, and there will be a different range of options available depending on your preference each term, including events like music nights or lectures. These can be of benefit in different ways, not least because you find yourself talking to some characters – I once got speaking to a barrister who was one of the many counsel present at the Leveson inquiry. Plenty of other friends also had anecdotes about meeting Boris Johnson, who was being made an Honourary Bencher at Middle Temple.
The Inns are intended as a support centre for students and staff, and are therefore more than happy help (no matter how silly the enquiry may be!). Do not be afraid to ask.
Get in early; a good tip for anyone really, especially if you’re intending to have a career at the Bar. Organisation is key; do get in and have your 12 sessions done. Do not leave it until the last minute, or you may run out of time, and this could then delay your call to the Bar.
Like most things, the more you put in, the more you will get out. So if you take up things like mooting or debating, you will get many chances to hone your advocacy skills and have access to some rather influential people. For example, this year from timekeeping a moot, I was privileged enough to spend some time with Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty (last seen carrying the Olympic torch at the opening ceremony), one of the only occasions I will admit to being star struck.
As I said above, if you are able to dedicate time (on top of being a baby barrister at law school, social animal and well rounded individual) do get involved and volunteer at your Inn. It may involve playing witness on a practitioner or pupil course, or it may involve giving up a Saturday as a guinea pig on a training programme, but you will pick some invaluable advocacy tips which could make all the difference when you’re in that all important assessment at the end of the year. Plus, whichever genius said that ‘practice makes perfect’ definitely knew what they were talking about!