Killian Flood BL: Five pieces of advice for devils
The new legal year is fast approaching and that means a new cohort of devils will begin their careers at the Bar.
While acknowledging that everyone will have slightly different experiences in their first year, I have put together some advice for new practitioners based on my own experience of devilling in a civil practice.
Watch and learn
Although it is important for devils to develop their skills in drafting, research and practice management, the focus for most new practitioners will be on in-court advocacy. I remember being terrified when I first appeared in court as a fresh-faced devil (which is a sensation that has only slightly dulled in the proceeding years). I regularly stumbled over my words and felt hopelessly unprepared to deal with issues that went beyond the four corners of the papers.
I had many opportunities to learn from my master’s court style during the first few months because I was basically his shadow. However, I found that I got as much (or more) benefit from watching other practitioners. I learned a huge deal in my first term by simply sitting in various court lists on a daily basis. There was no pressure of a court appearance, and I could really concentrate on how others approached speaking in court.
So, my advice is to spend some of your free time simply observing other barristers in court, particularly in the lists in which you might expect to appear. In addition to focusing on good advocacy from more learned colleagues, you will also have the opportunity to see others make mistakes which you can later avoid. There is no substitute for making applications yourself, but the next best thing is to observe what works and what does not.
Keep regular work hours
As a devil, I quickly learned that there was no such thing as a regular working day in your first year. Some days will be filled with hearings, settlements and consultations. Other days you may find yourself mostly behind your desk assisting with drafting or research. Equally, there will be fallow periods where there is simply less work for you to do and most of your day is taken up with a coffee break that transitions into a three-hour lunch.
The natural ebb and flow of the job means that devils can find themselves spending irregular hours in the library, staying late some days and leaving early on others. My advice would be to try and keep regular working hours as best that you can.
First, it will help you settle into the job more easily to have some consistency and structure in your working week. Second, I found that just “being there” opened up a lot more opportunities to learn from my master and make professional and social connections with colleagues. You would be surprised how much you can pick up from just talking with other barristers about the job.
It is probably the case that young practitioners are more likely to overwork than anything else and so having well-defined working hours is crucial to long-term sustainability. While it is true that the job will sometimes require you to have late nights and go the extra yard, you need to give yourself the space to have a life outside of the Bar as well.
At one stage or another, all new barristers will have had starry-eyed dreams where they quickly rise to prominence as one of the best lawyers in the business. The reality is somewhat harsher: it takes quite a bit of time to gain the requisite experience and reputation to build a sustainable practice.
On your best days, you feel like a real, bona fide advocate with a silver tongue and a quick wit. On your worst, you may feel like an utter imposter, as I did. The key is to be patient with yourself and recognise your situation. You are a barrister at the very beginning of your career with little courtroom experience.
Do not despair if you have a tough outing in court. Everyone, even the most assured lawyer, can have a bad day. Nasty as they may be, you will learn from these appearances and be better the next time. You can also lean on your contemporaries for support, as they will be running the gauntlet with you.
Equally, try not to become too elated if you have a series of “wins”. Overconfidence will not serve you well in a profession that requires dispassionate assessment and sooner or later, you will be brought back to earth with a thud.
Instead, simply focus on improving every week. Hard work and diligence are highly valued traits, and you will be rewarded down the line.
The recent uptake of remote technology in court has, among other things, altered the devil experience. Gone are the days of sprinting between five different courts on a Monday as you desperately try to appear in each of your master’s motions before the end of second call.
Instead, devils appearing in civil matters can expect to sit in front of their computer screen moving the same applications, flitting between various court lists at the press of a button. As such, it almost goes without saying that you should familiarise yourself with Pexip and Pexip Infinity (the remote platforms used by the courts) in advance of your first applications.
It is still a regular occurrence to see practitioners having technical issues as they appear in remote lists and these problems should be avoided at all costs. Not only do such difficulties slow down the entire list, but your own advocacy will undoubtedly suffer as you are distracted by whether the judge can see and hear you properly.
I would also highly recommend learning about basic computer specifications and investing if necessary. Generally, remote hearings have several parties appearing in court, which means that your computer must be able to handle downloading video and audio from multiple participants. This can put cheaper, less powerful computers under too much strain to function properly.
In my experience, your device should have a minimum of 8GB of RAM to cope with online court, particularly as you may also need to have document applications running on your computer as well. Remote hearings are here to stay, so it is a worthwhile investment for your career.
Read, read, read
Finally, I would recommend reading as many new decisions as possible. As the case reporter for Irish Legal News, one of the more common complaints which I hear from practitioners is that there is simply not enough time to keep up with all the judgments that are produced by the courts. In the last 12 months, there have been 1,125 judgments delivered by the Superior Courts, which is an absurd number for any one person to consider.
And yet, this is precisely what I do. Every day during term, I open the judgments section of the Courts Service website and I browse the newly released decisions. I certainly don’t read every single case front to back, but I always check to see what legal issues are raised in these decisions.
As a result of this habit (or, some might say, affliction), I have substantially broadened my knowledge in all areas of law. It’s an easy way for me to stay updated on recent developments in case law and is particularly valuable when it comes to procedural changes in litigation.
Of course, there is no guarantee that a particular issue or application will be the subject of a written judgment on a given day. However, over time, you are certain to encounter cases which are relevant to you and which will expand your understanding of a particular area of law. It’s also important to remember that current judges are writing these decisions, so you may get some insight into their decision-making process.
As a devil, there is a disparity in competence between you and more experienced practitioners in many aspects of the profession. Happily, legal knowledge is not necessarily one of these aspects. Instead, it is a great leveller where a cat can look at a king. Therefore, it’s important to stay updated on case law by reading as much as you can.
Ultimately, the most important piece of advice is to appreciate the devilling experience. The Bar is a welcoming environment where you will meet like-mind individuals and have tremendous fun. You will be challenged and rewarded in equal measure.
Remember: there’s no mistake that cannot be fixed, so relax and enjoy the ride!