As prospective barristers, we are well accustomed to the health warning attached to pursuing a career at the Bar. With over 3,000 applicants for only ~400 pupillages annually, the competition is fierce and inevitable rejection cruel.
Last year, I was able to secure pupillage at my preferred chambers. This article is my attempt to distil what I learned through the process. I hope in time it will help others obtain that elusive pupillage, too.
The application stage
Before applications open
Use this precious time to do your research before the application window opens. You will not have time for research once the window has opened.
Get your hands on a copy of the Training Contract and Pupillage Handbook. Know what you are looking for in chambers and find those sets that meet your requirements. It is better to submit fewer, better quality applications than go for a low quality, scattergun approach.
I created an Excel spreadsheet containing the vital information about my chosen chambers: location, practice areas, award, deadlines, number of pupillages/tenancies in recent years and more general notes about each. I also prioritised them.
Some chambers accept applications through the Pupillage Gateway, others on their own application forms. Vacancies via Gateway are advertised before the application window opens; use this time to look at your chosen chambers’ questions and begin formulating your answers. Some chambers ask particularly challenging questions which require extensive research; be careful to leave sufficient time for this.
The application process is arduous. You will start with a wind of enthusiasm behind you, reach your peak about half-way through and then probably become quite disillusioned towards the end. Apply for your ‘big fish’ early – but not as your first set.
Do not bury your amazing achievements. Instead, make them stand out immediately. Narrowing hundreds of applications to just ten or twenty is a difficult job; you have to make an impact quickly.
Use bullet points and short sentences. Give enough information to whet chambers’ appetites, but not so much that your application becomes a sea of words (see my previous point).
This is a sound piece of advice and one I had to work on. Whatever experience you have, demonstrate how it is useful for a career at the Bar.
If you feel your experience has little to do with the Bar, distil the key skills you have learned. Demonstrate your client care, initiative, business experience, effective communication, teamwork, independence and your ability to work through an ethical dilemma. The ingredients are all there, but you have to make the connection.
Master the recurring questions
Most chambers ask at least one of the generic questions: Why the Bar? Why would you make a good barrister? What practice areas are you interested in and why?
It is worth spending time refining your answers to these questions, otherwise you risk replicating a weak answer across multiple applications. Remember: be succinct, hard hitting and spin it!
Practice / practise
This is basic but essential. Both words are highly likely to feature in your application, but double check that you have the correct usage. Unsure? Read this article.
Ask one or two contacts to review your application. Friends who recently secured pupillage will have great insight. The Inns of Court also run pupillage application sessions which are extremely helpful.
Research pupillage application criteria
All chambers have a list of pupillage application criteria against which applications are assessed. However, only some chambers publish their criteria. If published, this information is invaluable and should be kept in mind at every stage of the pupillage application process.
Spelling and grammar
I will say no more than this: spelling and grammar mistakes are to the pupillage committee what red rags are to a bull. A careless error may undo all the hard work you have put into the rest of your application.
Re-read your application
Review your application and consider what questions may arise as a result. There will be many. Do not script answers, but think about how you would answer the questions and consider how you could improve your response.
Conduct detailed research
Research chambers’ practice areas and significant cases. Read the profiles of junior tenants. Trawl through their recent news articles to find out what they consider to be the hot topics of the day. Research those topics. Equip yourself.
Revise the law
Most chambers will present you with a legal problem upon arrival at first (and second) interview. It is imperative you revise the key legal tests in chambers’ practice areas beforehand.
Re-visit your mini-pupillage notes
This is critical if you completed a mini at the interviewing set. You will undoubtedly be asked who and what you observed, and being unable to answer is not going to impress the panel.
Ethical questions invariably crop up. To survive a pupillage interview you will need to know the Core Duties. If you have not yet started the BPTC, chambers may give you some leeway but you will still be expected to know the basics.
Read all about it
Keep abreast of legal and political current affairs. I found the Inner Temple and Law Gazette daily newsletters particularly helpful. There are area-specific resources, too, such as the UK Human Rights Blog and the A2J News Roundup.
Sign up for the Inns’ mentoring schemes and interview practice sessions
Make use of the incredible support offered by the Inns and their members. I was able to organise a one-to-one practice session with a barrister alongside further group interview practice sessions at my Inn. Such opportunities are in demand so book early.
Make use of your law school’s practice sessions – even if you haven’t started the BPTC
As a current student you will certainly have access to a team of people at your law school dedicated to helping you obtain pupillage. However, their time will be limited and split many students, so make every minute count.
As a prospective BPTC student, get in touch with your preferred provider and ask whether you can use their services. The worst outcome is a refusal, but in practice they are likely to be happy to help.
The interview panel are not looking for the finished product, but they are assessing whether you are a safe investment for chambers. Present yourself as professional, polite and assured.
Engage with the whole panel
There will be two or more barristers on your interview panel and, depending on the seating arrangement, you may find it difficult to engage with them all. Make a conscious effort to address and make eye contact with the whole panel, regardless of who is asking questions. This will prevent any panel member becoming irritated by your lack of engagement, and demonstrates your confidence in an otherwise intimidating situation.
Assess whether the set is right for you
Beggars can’t be choosers, right?
Wrong. Your pupillage year will determine your immediate future at the Bar, so you need to find the right chambers for you. I interviewed at one set and decided I would decline a second interview if it was offered to me. Do not settle for a set that gives you a bad feeling at interview.
Enjoy the experience
This is undoubtedly my most treasured piece of advice.
You have been selected for interview because – on paper – you are good enough. The panel want to meet you, to engage you, to test your potential. They want to see if, one day in the future, you could be one of them. They want to see how you think and what makes you tick. They do not want to catch you out; you are not on trial and it is not the end of the world if you are unsuccessful.
Treat the interview as an engaging conversation with a group of people who want to test your potential. Use the opportunity to show them what you can do. You have done the leg work and you know your stuff. Now is the time to show it off. Go for it and enjoy the experience!
It may be helpful to share my background so you can use it as a yardstick against which you can compare your position.
I was not your typical candidate for pupillage. I grew up and lived in a deprived ex-mining town, attended a state school, achieved a mixed bag of GCSEs, completed my A-Levels (excelling in some subjects but not in others), and then took a gap year which turned into a gap decade. Throughout that decade I worked in my family business, a motorcycle dealership, performing various roles from online marketing to service managing.
In 2012, I decided to take a new direction and started a part-time law degree at the Open University. I continued to work full-time during my degree and also became heavily involved in my student law society. I mooted for the OU and won some national titles.
I graduated with a First in 2017 before taking a year out for personal reasons. In 2018 I applied for and obtained pupillage.
Abigail Scott – Open Uuniversity Alumni and current BPTC student at Nottingham Law School