The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: barrister

“Never plead guilty!”

John Mortimer, author of the deeply loved Rumpole of the Bailey, has died today at the age of 85. It’s an event that can’t really be missed on a law student’s blog because it was a very good legal drama and it’s a shame to see Mortimer bow out along with Leo McKern, the face of Rumpole.

Mortimer, as well as a prolific author, was also a practicing family and later criminal barrister. He experienced the two very different fields and later remarked:

“Matrimonial clients hate each other so much and use their children to hurt each other in beastly ways. Murderers have usually killed the one person in the world that was bugging them and they’re usually quite peaceful and agreeable.”

This is a wise word for anyone who’s looking at fields to enter from law school.

Although his health was failing in his later years it did not stop Mortimer from writing and he was in the process of dictating (his eyesight became too poor to continue writing in longhand himself) a book when he died, he only had “three or four chapters written”. This is a great loss of a talented barrister and a talented comedy writer, of which there can never be too many, whose works are probably some of the earliest popular entertainment which concentrated on humanising the legal process and providing a very necessary accessible insight into the profession.

Mortimer was also a strong advocate of free speech and civil liberties while at the same time, to quote his autobiography, he was “the best playwright ever to have defended a murderer at the Central Criminal Court.”  His like is always needed in the profession.

Mooting

I’ve just had my first round of the law’s school’s internal law moot competition for this year.

What is mooting?

Mooting is a style of student debating – it was originally used in Inns of Court to train pupil barristers and advocates. The name comes from the moot problem which the competitors argue over– a problem which doesn’t matter but we discuss it anyway for the practice.

It’s good because it lets real trainee advocates and barristers practice their presentation and preparation skills without the risk of actually consigning a real person to years in jail. It’s all the stages of a regular court appearance, the finding and locating cases, constructing a legal argument to support your client and then presenting it in front of an arbiter while another person argues exactly the same point on the opposite side.

Why do I moot

I personally joined up in first year because it sounded very cool, in a geeky law student way. I didn’t sign up to law school for the essay assignments after all –I’m not concerned about the money I can earn from being a fully qualified lawyer yet, since that’s in the future and I’m still learning but I do, and have always, loved public speaking. When you combine that with my long lasting interest in law and my interest in how it works it’s completely natural and inevitable that I’d join my mooting society.

Having actually done it, last year my one and only question was on a topic that forced me to read ahead an entire semester and I suddenly discovered that not only was this really interesting it was also extremely helpful to my own.

This year it was a look over a topic I’d studied from the very start of my studies – criminal –and it was fascinating to go back and, instead of roughly scanning it within the limits of the accredited course from the Law Society and learning those cases and principles that were potentially going to turn up in the exam but not one paragraph further because I was working on other subjects at the same time. The moot problem gave me an incentive to go back and really read my textbook with more care than I previously did.

I very quickly discovered that you only study the rough edges of the course when you sit in your hour long lectures in your first, painful months of student life and that coming back and looking at the textbooks – reading them in a very focused, time conscious way is a great way to pick up an entirely different understanding of the law which will stick with you.

Why should you moot

Mooting is a much a game as it is a performance art. It’s a pubic speaking opportunity played by people who hope to become professionals – therefore there’s huge potential for the quality of your competition to be utterly astonishing. The level at the beginner stage is safe enough to step up into and since the scoring is more to do with the style of your presentation and ability to keep some rules in your head than any understanding of the law involved. Occasionally, with a sympathetic judge, a good understanding of the principles involved will carry you through but nevertheless – you aim to win on style while your opponents should be happy with the consolation prize of winning on the law.

There’s more money in it than high school debating as well, just as law firms like to show largess to student competitions you can see sponsored contests where the competitors walk away with both money and a nod in the job market. Speaking as someone who once won a handful of Argos vouchers for a national inter-school competition I’ll never get over the prizes of law competitions.

What it’s good for

Mooting should not always be seen as an educational experience – even though it’s a particularly good one and you’ll never, ever forget the points you’ve forcibly scored into your brain – because it’s also extremely good fun. It’s innately social – you’re working with another law student at close quarters for a long time and you make good friendships through it.

You work astonishingly hard when you’re preparing a moot. I’m not the most dedicated worker the world has ever seen yet as soon as I’m introduced to the social sanction of letting my well prepared partner down in the moot court it’s hard to separate me from my books.

It boosts your presentation skills, while most obviously it’s a crash course at presenting orally for up to 15-20 minutes at a time you also have to prepare a bundle for yourself and the judge and the presentation of these is another issue which is worth looking into. The bundle needs artfully juggled as you tell the judge where your next quote is coming from and this is a useful preparation skill in itself. Too often I find myself only reading the basic principle from a textbook or journal article and not looking to the primary source to give my argument support, it’s a terrible academic technique and it’ll never succeed in mooting, so you stop it very quickly.

It boosts your presentation skills – this bears repeating. You talk, present, on a technical point of law for a double figures of minutes (at least 10 minutes) periods of time. This is an eternity to spend on your feet and it teaches you skills, including simply the stamina to keep going, which you can’t pick up talking in other ways. If you want to become an advocate or a barrister, this is something you need to look at improving and training. The small sized group and competitive nature means that there is little problem standing up and talking, so it’s good for people who suffer from performance nerves. Genuinely, in the years I have been mooting there is no one present who is looking for you to mess up. Both of the teams are too focused on their own points, the clerk is more concerned about court behaviour and timing and the judge has a fairly hard interactive role to perform to cheer for any individual’s mistakes.

If you attend a university with a good society it’s altogether a fantastic social experience and I think, although this blog stays out of details, that my own society is lead by a number of very talented and very nice people who look after new members in particular extremely well. If you attend law school in Glasgow you have a one in three chance of getting to experience this.
Remember, the societies attached to your law school are even more important than the lectures. You can catch up on nearly all the material covered in lectures on your own time from books but you’ve only got the short time you’ve got in university to attend the clubs and societies. Don’t miss out on the extra bits, they’re often very useful and they can be fantastically good fun.

Blog Recommendation – Baby Barista

There are many different blogs in the world with very different takes on their many different subjects – as law blogs go Baby Barista manages to be one of the scariest to read.

Baby Barista is the fictionalised account of a trainee barrister as he goes through his pupilage at Chambers down in Oxford. I originally started reading it because it is written by a real world barrister and I hoped it might show me some of the things that training involves, at least in England, and what common problems do advocates and barristers suffer. As I read on, however, I found myself utterly terrified at the attitude of many of the characters of BabyBarista.

I have often said that anyone who manages to become a lawyer in today’s climate is razor sharp, hardened, determined and you can be assured has never failed a test in their life, and in one sense this is extremely good – even if you have a young lawyer that young lawyer will have worked staggeringly hard to get to a point to be able to represent you, but it also raises the concern that the young lawyer has almost literally fought off hordes of his peers to be able to represent you.

The English Chambers system for barristers means that the number of positions for barristers is practically nearly as fixed as that of the judges they appear before. Chambers are literally the offices in which barristers work and are often truly ancient. (In Scotland the system is a lot more open and instead of a stone Chambers building an advocate receives the use of a pigeon hole in the upper court in Edinburgh which means that they are much more flexible as far as numbers go.) Places often open up only on retirement of a current member and competition is terrifyingly fierce for tenancy in the most renowned Chambers.

Needless to say, BabyBarista is competing for tenancy in the one of the most renowned Chambers – one so elite they refuse to have names like “Shawn” on the members list outside and there are 4 or 5 candidates willing to spend years competing for the single tenancy spot at the end of the process. The author even points out that in every other field an interview of hours or at most days is considered perfectly able to select the right candidate for any number of roles. Only barristers (and advocates) have this process of years of fighting just to be selected for the job. Any similarity to Sir Alan Sugar’s “The Apprentice” is not wholly undeserved.

As BabyBarista himself says, if the system was set up to encourage cooperation he’d cooperate better than anyone but the system’s set up for a fight, so they’ll get one. So, rather than justice and wisdom we see a group of stunningly specialised professionals fighting with each other and any weapon is acceptable (even to the point of hiring a “girlfriend tester” to blackmail one of the other candidates). It might be dramatised for entertainment purposes – and it works, the blog is nothing short of enthralling from my perspective – but it makes altogether too much sense.

In contrast, there are the stories given by OldRuin, the “grandpupilmaster” of BabyBarista who appears periodically to give a snippet of wisdom and humanity. His stories are wonderful, touching and disturbingly come across as idyllic, he stands out from the rest of the crowd by simply being the decent, ethical professional most of us wanted to be at university but he seems to be a distinct minority in these Chambers.

As an aside, the character of TheBusker really interests me – this is a barrister who does the job as an art not a science and seems to benefit enormously from it, from the point of stress alone, and it may just be how positively he’s described but that’s who I want to be, the artful, eloquent, ruffled but just about still acceptable professional.

I think that would be fantastic.

BabyBarista is found at:
http://timesonline.typepad.com/baby_barista/