In the late 1930s Sviatoslav Richter became the pupil of Heinrich Neuhaus, pianist and renowned teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire. The young Richter played him Chopin. After he had finished, or during a pause between movements, Neuhaus reportedly turned to one of the other pupils in the recital hall and whispered “this man is a genius”. Richter was later described by his master as a pupil he could teach almost nothing, and the genius he had waited for his whole teaching life.
Such things may happen once or twice a century in the world of classical music. I don’t think they happen – ever – at the Criminal Bar. Talent, someone may have; but all the talent in the world does not prepare anyone for what is needed to be a successful barrister. One thing I’ve learned is that experience counts, big time. And one thing we definitely don’t have as pupils is experience.
No pupil barrister is capable of washing away his or her pupil supervisor with a virtuoso display. The rapturous approval we crave may come, but not yet. You may think (some say you should think) you’re the best. You may win often and lose only seldom, such is your innate aptitude. But a senior barrister once explained to me that aptitude in a pupil is potential only. What I’ve learned is that humility is the thing. This is a lesson I have learned gradually over 12 months training as a barrister in London chambers. It took a critical moment in my career to put it all together and see it for what it is.
It was the end of the week and I had been given the “all clear” the night before by the clerks. In the morning, however, just as I was lazing out of bed, the phone rang and I recognised a note of urgency in my senior clerk’s greeting. “Stratford mags’, quick as you can” was the message. A first appearance. He also told me it was a s18 case for a potentially important solicitor. With my tenancy decision coming up in a matter of days my head raced towards the most serious offence I had yet dealt with. I rushed off the shaving soap and got to court, slightly late, with no papers. I won’t go into detail for obvious reasons but by the close of play, chambers was “up” one happy client on bail.
Everyone was happy – except the police.
Will I be able to keep the trial? Will I be allowed to follow my quarry to the glorious acquittal I envisioned? Will my fantasy become a reality?
No. I’m not Sviatoslav Richter. I’m a very junior barrister.
Probably we all go through it. But it’s only a sting until you realise you need to grow up.
Of course you’re not going to take that case. Obviously. The reason is very simple: the sentence your would-be client faces if you lose is far greater than your number of years call. We all dream of winning the big cases, of being brilliant now rather than later. But the simple fact of life is that even Marshall Hall and George Carman lost cases, but they lost ones they were old enough and ugly enough realistically to fight in the first place. They started somewhere, too. They didn’t start by doing s18 trials.
So humility. It gives you the time we need to grow on solid foundations. It gives you the maturity not to overreach your experience and provide representation less good than your client would otherwise have.
I recall that I am currently less than one year in practice, and instantly grow up a lot as a result.