Darwinism is alive and well in the London legal scene: only the fittest trainees survive in the ever-more competitive legal market, and a wide range of experience is the most valuable commodity to help a young lawyer survive.One of the best weapons to have on a CV is a stint as a judicial assistant at the Court of Appeal - working directly with members of the court, having a ringside view of the action, and gaining a valuable insight into the murky workings of the judicial process.The judicial assistant scheme was set up by Lord Justice Otton in 1997, loosely based on the US system of legal clerks, with the aim of reducing the backlog of litigant-in-person cases at the Court of Appeal.
And as last month's annual review of the Court of Appeal's civil division showed, the pressure on the court is intense, as the number of applications for permission to appeal 'continues to soar'.The review said: 'Quite apart from the help that members of the scheme give to members of the court, participation in the scheme is now widely recognised as a very valuable part of the development as lawyers of young barristers and solicitors.'In the US, being clerk to a Supreme Court justice in particular is a near guarantee of a successful legal career and the idea has tickled the fancy of more than one legal thriller writer.
Books in the last couple of years such as The Tenth Justice by Brad Meltzer and David Baldacci's The Simple Truth (in which a clerk is murdered) have been best-sellers.The real English pilot scheme began with six trainee solicitors and pupil barristers appointed on a part-time basis every court term.
Each was assigned to a Lord or Lady Justice with whom they worked closely during their appointment, carrying out research on legal points coming before the court, pre-reading and summarising legal papers, and extracting as clear and concise a picture as possible from the mass of papers presented to the judge.The assistant's time is split between carrying out research for the judge - for example into relevant past cases - and producing 'bench memoranda', simplifications of notes produced by litigants in person bringing cases to appeal.Even with the job offering only a basic wage - £66 per day - and many of the more mundane tasks arguably more suitable for a 'Girl Friday', the scheme has flourished since its birth: the number of assistants has doubled to 12 every term, with the option of working full-time, and competition for the places is fierce.
So, for already over-worked and over-stressed bright young things, what is the appeal?'It doesn't do any harm to say on your CV that you worked at the Court of Appeal for a term,' says Trevor Barnes, who is an associate in the dispute resolution department of US firm Debevoise & Plimpton's London office, an ex-judicial assistant and a former chairman of the Association of Judicial Assistants.'But that really wasn't the main reason that I did it - it was an incredible experience seeing justice administered up close, and one that you can't get from sitting in an office and working from your desk all day.'Seeing justice up close seems to be the main selling point of the scheme.
Assistants are encouraged to sit in on court sessions as much as possible, and also to see behind-the-scenes discussions.'Watching experienced advocates ply their trade day after day is incredibly useful,' says Michael Taylor, a barrister at Littmans Chambers, who did a stint as an assistant and is now chairman of the Association of Judicial Assistants.
'As I was completing my pupillage during my stint as an assistant, it was very interesting to see what made a good barrister good, and what made the bad bad.'Assistants also pick up invaluable insider tips about the day-to-day processes of justice - for example, Mr Taylor learnt the vital importance of presenting documents to the court in good time.
'Skeleton arguments are sometimes presented to the judge late, and when they are I realised that often they aren't read before the trial begins.
Advocates don't always appreciate the importance of small - apparently obvious - things like that.'For the solicitor, the experience is if anything even more of an eye-opener.
Chris Barlow, an assistant solicitor in Simmons & Simmons' litigation department, spent two months last summer as a full-time assistant, an experience he describes as 'very valuable'.'As a solicitor, you don't really get to see behind the scenes of court much,' he explains.
'It was quite a buzz seeing the process in action.
When you don't see the court regularly at close quarters, you view it all through a haze, but doing this job means that much of the mystery of court has fallen away.'Being an assistant may mean that the mystery and glamour of court falls away, but the benefits gained in return far outweigh this.
'I have no doubt that the experience has made me a much better lawyer,' says Mr Barnes.
'You learn enormous amounts about areas that you normally wouldn't touch, and because you see close-up how judges come to their decisions, it makes you think how you yourself would present that case.'This attitude helps explain why the assistants' firms are so willing to let their treasured children out of their clutches for a few months.
'Yes, the firm loses out financially for that time,' says Mr Barnes, 'but they get back a much more experienced lawyer, who is far more useful to their clients.'Mr Barlow agrees: 'Simmons & Simmons were super keen for me to do it, because they knew that it would help me in my training - it would teach me how to present papers, how to research properly, just give me a wider spread of knowledge of the law.'Harry Anderson, head of litigation at Herbert Smith, agrees that it is an 'incredibly useful' experience for young lawyers.
However, he has found that balancing their various commitments can sometimes prove a difficult act for many assistants.
'They're being pulled in two different directions,' he says.
'Particularly for part-timers, when they have to spend two days in court and three in the office, it can be very hard to keep a healthy balance.'Mr Taylor agrees with this assessment: he was a part-time assistant while also building up his practice at chambers as a p upil.
'It's not an easy balancing act - clerks have to be flexible and not give me too many cases, and likewise the court has to appreciate that you have other commitments.' However, he admits that, luckily for him, 'it's fun being busy'.Fun is a word often associated with the scheme - assistants work hard, but unsurprisingly for people of similar age and with similar interests, they also play hard.
'There's a real sense of camaraderie,' says Mr Barlow.
'When you're sitting in a couple of rooms, all trawling through reams of paper, you discuss problems and have a laugh.'Hence the establishment of the Association of Judicial Assistants - 'on one level a dining club,' says Trevor Barnes, 'a way to keep in touch with each other after the scheme ends'.
However, with Lord Woolf as its president, it is a step above most old-school associations: its annual dinner last year was attended by many of the judiciary's leading lights - proof, if any were needed, that the scheme has support from the highest levels.Master Roger Venne, head of the Civil Appeals Office at the Court of Appeal, maintains that judicial assistants have become an 'essential feature of the work of the court'.
He says the scheme has been 'enormously successful', and that much of this success has hinged on the quality of the successful applicants.
He says: 'We have had some very able young assistants making a valuable contribution to the court - they have to be able to assist the court in dealing with some very difficult cases, so intellectual ability and relevant experience is obviously vital.'Once they are through the vigorous selection procedure, a lot of work lies ahead for the successful candidates, but there is no doubt that they learn an enormous amount through the scheme, and frequently leave it with a different attitude to the judicial process.'It makes you appreciate the judiciary,' says Mr Barnes, adding: 'You see that judges are in fact hard-working, balanced and reasonable people, who respond to a good argument - you suddenly realise that under the wig is a real person.' Of the lessons learnt, not least, seems to be respect for your elders.