AFTER AN AGREEABLY long summer vacation – too long, by several weeks, for my father’s liking – I began the search for pupillage.

            In common with all aspiring barristers, I had to undertake this glorified, year-long apprenticeship under the eye, watchful or otherwise, of a practising pupil master, whom I would follow round like a faithful lapdog. He, in turn, would show me the ropes and smooth my passage to fame and fortune. I had no right of audience – to speak in court – for the first six months, so this was a time of eating idle bread, much to my father’s displeasure. But, in my second six months, I could stand on my feet as a real grown up barrister, or so I hoped, and if all went well, a tenancy – a permanent seat in Chambers – beckoned, and with it the big time.

As I boasted no legal background or connections, I had to start from scratch.

Gray’s Inn, forward thinking as ever, had appointed a Master of Students, whose task it was to place newly-qualified members with suitable pupil masters. The Bencher who had drawn the short straw had had a distinguished career at the Chancery Bar, poring over the complexities of corporate insolvency, intellectual property and Trusts, and was now seeing out his twilight years on the High Court Bench, so he was right at the cutting edge of youth culture.

I made an appointment to see him.

‘And have you chosen your field of specialisation?’ he asked with no visible sign of enthusiasm, as he peered through his half-moon spectacles at my application form.

‘Yes, Master, I’d like to specialise in crime.’

‘Good God,’ he said, recoiling as though at the sight of something unpleasant. ‘Whatever for?’

‘I rather fancy the cut and thrust of advocacy,’ I replied brightly. ‘Defending the innocent, the down-trodden, the oppressed, holding high the sword of…’

‘Yes, yes, quite so,’ he interrupted, rather testily, ‘although, in my experience, they’re all as guilty as sin. I’ll do what I can, but frankly I don’t know any criminal barristers, so let patience be your watchword. They also serve who only stand and, er, wait. If it was good enough for Milton, it’s good enough for you.’

Not an auspicious start.

My name was duly entered on the Register; after what seemed like an eternity, I received a letter inviting me to meet one Ronald Berger in his Chambers in the Temple, promptly at nine in the forenoon, with a view to a possible pupillage.

I arrived with ten minutes to spare, found Hare Court after a number of false starts, and marched purposefully up the stairs to the clerks’ room.

Hare Court, unlike many parts of the Temple, had been spared the worst excesses of the Blitz and remained as a lasting testament to late Georgian/early Victorian architecture. Stone floors and stairs, off-white tiles and cast iron balustrades were as they had been when Hare Court opened for business all those years ago. It all looked and smelled like a converted public lavatory.

There were three clerks serving the best interests of twenty barristers, seated in a cold and cheerless room at desks which mirrored their seniority and importance. After establishing my credentials, I wedged himself between two antediluvian filing cabinets to await my prospective pupil master’s pleasure.

At a quarter past nine, the senior clerk interrupted his call to his bookmaker and glanced towards me. ‘Mr Berger will see you now,’ he sniffed. ‘Jason will show you to his room.’

Jason was a 16-year-old youth with tea-stained hands who had his foot on the first rung of the ladder, and whilst waiting for the call to come on up he had to content himself with the role of Chambers gopher. Every chambers had one: they were like mascots, though some were luckier than others. I followed him along a gloomy corridor to a back room, which Berger shared with two others.

Seated behind a tiny desk was a grey-haired man of advancing years and diminutive stature with pink, well-scrubbed features and a large pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. Judging from the substantial deposits, dandruff was a major problem, but one which, with commendable fortitude, he had chosen to ignore. He was dressed in pinstripe trousers, worn permanently at half-mast, a black waistcoat and jacket, and cut a somewhat Dickensian figure, with overtones of Uriah Heap.

I had to admit that my first impressions of Berger and his Chambers fell far short of what I’d imagined, and the pervading air of seediness was a serious depressant. But then, as this was the first criminal barrister I’d ever met, perhaps they were all like that.

‘Thank you, Jason,’ said Berger in a high-pitched voice, as the youth retired. ‘You must be Potts.’ Sharp as a sausage. ‘And you’re looking for a pupillage in crime?’

My first inclination was to deny any such ambition and return, cap-in-hand, to the Master of Students for an in-depth reappraisal, but that would have been defeatist, and pupil masters, good, bad or indifferent, were hard to come by.

‘Yes, indeed,’ I replied, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster in the circumstances.