Michael Beloff

Some moaning at the Bar

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My Brief Career: The Trials of a Young Lawyer

Harry Mount

Short Books, pp. 170, £

This is a sad little story of the author’s annus horribilis as a pupil barrister in the late Nineties. Today the Bar bends ever deeper before the winds of modernisation — an all-graduate profession which subordinates even the best and brightest to the continuing rigours of further training and examination, piling acronym upon acronym — for those without a law degree the CPE (Common Professional Education) and for those with any degree the BVC (Bar Vocational Course). But the apprentice year as a tutee of a junior barrister remains in the new millennium the Bar’s mummified memorial to its mediaeval origins.

Harry Mount assures his readership that, while his gruesome chambers’ characters are ‘composite characters and essentially the author’s own inventions’ (but isn’t there a difference between putting together and making up?) ‘everything that takes place is based on real incidents’ (but how broad is the basis?). It is as well that he does so since otherwise he would risk a suspension of belief. The sconcing in Hall for some venial breach of some antique rule of etiquette has, as defence counsel conventionally say, ‘the ring of truth’ (although at College gaudies it is nowadays only the pensioners whose eyes still mist over as they reminisce about this means of fixing some unfortunate with the bill for the port). Barristers are still not supposed to shake hands with each other, although I had always understood the reason to be that they are assumed, in a small profession, to be familiars, not that, as Mr Mount suggests, they would otherwise be thought by clients to be conspiring with each other.

But did the author’s own pupilmaster really never say more than five words to him a day — ‘Morning’ (sometimes), ‘Lunch’ (always), ‘I’m off home’ (ditto)? Could the Beadle in Temple Hall actually have refused to allow him to escape to the loo before coffee was served? Was his fellow pupil seriously pressed into service as a sunshade for a computer screen?

The dust jacket carries an endorsement from John Mortimer, but even in Rumpole’s Equity Court chambers the culture here described would seem archaic. My Brief Career reads more like something by Henry Cecil out of Edgar Allen Poe.

The theory of pupillage is that you learn by example: you observe the trials, you spot the errors. Pupilmasters (or increasingly pupilmistresses) are both mentors and exemplars. But the author learned little and liked less. The Bar is nowadays vastly oversubscribed, and it is not fanciful to see the Bar Council doing a deal with him, and republishing his minimalist memoir as a booklet designed to deter all but the most dedicated from even putting their feet on the bottom rung of the ladder.

There isn’t even a happy ending. Mount, dapper, handsome alumnus of Eton and Oxford, loses out in mano a mano competition for the sole tenancy on offer in his set at the end of the year to Silas (rechristened, apparently, ‘Wart’ by his own pupilmaster), short, nerdish, a product of state school and redbrick university education. It was a contest that he openly expected and secretly, I suspect, hoped to lose. Now one of Fleet Street’s (or more accurately Canary Wharf’s) bright young things, after several false starts (he tried investment banking too but has not spun a yarn of his time among the porkbelly futures at any rate yet), he has found his niche. He is a gifted writer; would he have made a successful barrister? Maybe, for is it not part of an advocate’s art to be able to make something out of very little? That is a talent that the author certainly has.