Reading for the Bar in the Early 1960s

In my blog “A Lifetime in the Law” I mentioned the fact that I came to the English Bar without having first obtained a law degree.   A Canadian judge then asked me:

“Do I understand from that, Henry, that you ‘read law’ in a Barrister’s chambers prior to being admitted?  One of the better professors I had at law school had no degree other than a B.A. He had read law in a lawyer’s office here in Ontario for five years prior to qualifying. I understand that this is still possible in some U.S. states. Does it remain an avenue to qualifying in the U.K.?”

The short answer is that a number of our finest judges came to the Bar without first having obtained a law degree (Scarman (classics), Diplock (chemistry), Bingham (history) Neuberger (chemistry) among others), and it is still not obligatory.   But a year’s pupillage in a barrister’s chambers was in fact only the final part of the three years’ induction into legal practice that was required for non-law graduates.

Following my National Service I had read classics at Balliol College, Oxford: five terms of Greek and Latin literature (once upon a time I could read all the books of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and of Virgil’s Aeneid fluently in the original) and seven terms of a mixture of Greek & Roman ancient history and Greek & modern philosophy.

Then, after a doomed attempt at a Fellowship at All Souls’ College (I think they told me I finished eighth out of over 20 candidates), I started reading for the Bar in the autumn of 1961 at the age of 25.

The Bar exams were organised by the Council of Legal Education, a body set up by the four Inns of Court. They were in two parts. If you did not have a law degree, you had to do the Bar Part 1 exams first. There were five exams (Roman Law; Constitutional Law and English Legal History; contract and tort law; real property law; and criminal law).   The exams took place at about three-month intervals three times a year, and you could take one or more exams at once: I took and passed the first two just before Christmas, the third one just before Easter and the other two in the early summer.   If you failed an exam, you were entitled to take it again any number of times.

Everyone had to take Bar Finals.   Really able (and committed) law graduates might dispense with a summer holiday and sit them at the end of the year in which they graduated, but most would sit them in the early summer, as I did.   Again there were five papers, but on this occasion you had to take them all together.   If you failed one of them, you would be given a conditional pass, and have to take that paper again the next time Bar finals papers were set.   Again, you could make any number of attempts.   From memory the papers included equity; civil procedure: criminal procedure; the law of evidence; and two out of a choice of four special subjects.  I chose Divorce Law and Private International Law.   Possibly there was also an advanced paper on common law topics.

The Inns of Court School of Law provided lectures and classes, usually in one of the Inn’s Halls.  The lectures were overcrowded with students, many of whom had little hope of passing – but that is another story.   Lectures by Robert Megarry QC and C.H.S.Fifoot were particular popular.   The Atkin Building in Gray’s Inn had not yet been built: members of the Inn could play tennis on what was later, following a succession of public inquiries, turned into a building site.   The headquarters of the Council of Legal Education were then at 7 Stone Buildings in Lincoln’s Inn.   Its director was Sir Fred Pritchard, a retired judge of outstanding ability who had had to retire prematurely from the High Court Bench at the age of 52 having suffered a major stroke.

For my part, I followed the example of Tom Bingham, and on his advice I read for the Bar with the help of Gibson & Weldon, a celebrated and very efficient cramming institution, with a base half way up Chancery Lane.   I studied successfully for Bar Part 1 by correspondence course.   For Bar Finals I attended classes in Chancery Lane, where I sat at the back with Heather Steel, the daughter of a county court judge on the Northern Circuit, herself destined to be a very popular High Court judge.

The prevailing philosophy was that the Bar Exams were just a period of your life you had to get through (a bit like National Service in the Army a few years earlier) and that you only really started to learn what legal practice was all about when you joined a set of Chambers for 12 months as a pupil.   For that privilege you had to pay 100 guineas (£105 in decimal coinage) to your pupil-master and 10 guineas (£10.50) to his clerk. The quality of pupillages was very variable. They had no structure, and you simply followed your pupil-master wherever he (or, much more rarely, she) went, read his papers, produced first drafts of pleadings and opinions, watched him in Court, made the coffee and made yourself generally useful in the hope that you might be taken on as a tenant at the end of the year (as I was).   You were also sent off to court yourself on appropriately easy cases.   I think that it was at about the time I was a pupil that the Bar Council introduced the rule that this was only permissible after you had done six months of pupillage.

I started my own pupillage in September 1963 with Peter Webster on the second floor of 2 Crown Office Row (a new mixed residential and office block, erected since the war on the site of major wartime bomb damage).   I still possess the small account book in which I recorded my court appearances and my earnings from April 1964 onwards.   I see that I was in court on my own 12 times before my pupillage ended, very often on careless driving cases in the magistrates’ courts when my client’s insurers were providing him or her with representation under a motor insurance policy.   I usually received two guineas or three guineas for my efforts, with half a crown (£0.125) for my clerk, although I was once paid five guineas (plus seven shillings and sixpence (£0.35) for my clerk) and on one occasion riches galore in the form of seven guineas (plus ten shillings (£0.50)) for my clerk: the grossed up payments were traditional, and not necessarily the subject of any arithmetical calculation).

I also received sums totalling £11- 10-0 from my pupil-master for four pieces of work I had “devilled” for him on which he did not have to do very much himself before sending it out, and £4 from another member of chambers for drafting divorce petition.   And at the very end of my pupillage I received riches beyond the dreams of avarice in the form of a cheque for £65 for holding a watching brief for 3 or 4 days on behalf of Tom Bingham, I think to watch a bank robbery trial at Maidstone Assizes in which his banking client wished to have a lawyer at court to alert them if anything was said in court to their discredit.   (In those days a set of London common law chambers did an immense range of work, although shipping cases and cases involving trust law etc. tended to be sent direct to specialist Commercial or Chancery chambers.).

There were no pupillage awards in those days, but I was lucky enough to have free board and lodging at my parents’ London home and I had been granted a Major Scholarship by the Inner Temple which helped financially during my pupillage year and the first two years of practice.  (Because I could not attend the interviews at the Inn as I was sitting my Oxford Finals at the time, I went for a private one-to-one interview with the Treasurer of the Inn, Lord Monckton of Brenchley, in his very grand office as Chairman of the Midland Bank.  We talked amiably about cricket and politics for 20 minutes, and this episode, coupled with my academic results, persuaded him to recommend the scholarship award.   It was all very gentlemanly in those days…).

Looking back on it all after half a century has passed, I have no regrets that I did not study for an undergraduate law degree (there was a fairly turgid overlay of Roman law and jurisprudence in the 3-year Oxford course in those days), although it would have enabled me to start practising at the Bar, as many of my contemporaries (like Nicholas Philips or Simon Brown) did, two years earlier.   I wished at the time that our arrangements had mirrored those at a university like Harvard, where you started studying law after an undergraduate course in some other topic, but this wasn’t on offer, and I made the most of the best of what was available.   And if I had had a law degree, I wouldn’t have been able to have had the unique experience of acting as a personal gofer for Lord Denning for 12 months, but that, too, is another story.

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