Pupillage Portal has just opened and hundreds of aspirant barristers will be applying for pupillage all across the country. Many will be disappointed and will receive correspondence containing the (in)famous line “the standard was exceptionally high”. The standard has been “exceptionally high” for many years now though, which makes you wonder when it’s going to stop being the exception.
I was lucky enough to get pupillage last year so have fortunately been saved from going through the whole system again. It still leaves you with paranoia, but of a different kind: “will I get pupillage?” becomes “will I get tenancy?”, and you start worrying that you will turn up on the day specified to discover that they in fact sent the offer pack to you by mistake, or never received your signed contract.
For all those who are applying this year, I wish the best of luck and hope you get pupillage at a place that you will enjoy.
I am not going to dish out buckets of advice. I am not some super-pupilllage star that had every chambers I applied to clamouring for me and giving me a stack of options to choose from. I’m not going to pretend I know everything about the process and can therefore give out some winning advice. These are just a few brief points that I wish I’d known when I started the process, rather than learning through mistakes.
Like I just said, I’m not an expert. The people who write these are. I read them and found the advice really useful.
Some of these are written for an audience that know absolutely nothing about the Bar and pupillage. That does not make them a waste of time if you are über-moot champion and have published three-dozen articles on your favourite area of law. They contain a lot of detail that is not immediately obvious, and even if you find yourself skim-reading some parts, there are very likely to be others that teach you something new.
Pupillage and How to Get It - written by Simon Myerson QC. Filled with excellent articles containing a large amount of information and detail about the process and what you can do to help yourself along the way. It is worth reading the entire archive of his posts for advice.
The Pupillage Pages – a new site recommended by the above. I’ve only had a glance at it so can’t vouch for its quality, but I’d trust that recommendation.
The Path to Pupillage – a book I simply cannot recommend enough, and not just because I have an indirect interest in it. This book has a lot of useful information and practical advice for applicants, including little testimonials from pupils and practitioners on what they applied for. This book covers everything but it’s still worth reading the chapters that you think you already know, as there are details in those chapters that you probably don’t.
Bewigged and Bewildered (Old Edition; New Edition (pre-order)) - a very good comprehensive overview of a career at the Bar. It goes a little wider than the above book, which allows it to cover different areas. In particular the part on choosing your desired practice area is especially good as it focuses on the practicalities.
This is really for the LLB and GDL students. Quite a few chambers will assess you by way of writing an Opinion. This is a specific type of document in which you offer practical legal advice on a legal question. It is not as academic as a problem question. They have a specific style. Make sure you know how these are written and formatted. BPTC students have an advantage here because they have been taught how to do this over a (roughly) 10-week course. Do not let them get an edge on you because you do not know how to write one of these. In particular, make sure you know how they are formatted: you do not want an otherwise-good answer to be ditched in favour of an answer of similar quality simply because yours looked less impressive because it was a big chunk of prose (I don’t know if this happens, but why take the risk?). Buy a book on opinion writing and learn the basic principles to put yourself on more of an equal footing.
Read the Blogs
You will be asked questions about current developments in the English legal system. You will be rewarded for knowledge and understanding of these. From the rumours I have heard, Alternative Business Structures (i.e. Clementi) and the Jackson review of costs are becoming hot topics in interviews. Read both reports and understand the issues. I wouldn’t be surprised if the proposed cuts to legal aid were also a topic of questioning. You need to know about these areas (especially those that relate to your desired practice area/chambers). You are expected to take an interest. Read the legal press, read the legal blogs. Make sure you know, within reason, what’s happening in this world. Similarly, know wider developments in your chosen practice area. If you want to be a commercial barrister, have “commercial awareness”. If you want to do Family Law, know about the government’s proposed changes to legal aid.
I would particularly recommend Garrulous Law, it’s written by a very charming and handsome man who knows everything there is to know about everything that matters. Seriously though I’d start by looking at the blogs on my blogroll, then the blogs on their blogrolls, and so on until you’re sick of the whole exercise and wish you’d never read this.
Try and relate everything in your application form (within reason) back to why you think it would make you a good barrister. It shows you understand what the job is about and have “relevant skills”.
For example, I used to work as a teaching assistant in a saturday school for under-13s. That sounds about as remote from the Bar as you can get. But it’s still relevant; you need tact, communication skills, the ability to explain complex ideas in simple and comprehensible terms, and an ability to handle large amounts of documents. There’s probably something you’ve done in your employment history that provides you with a relevant skill. Tell them. They won’t know otherwise.
Similarly, no mini-pupillage is unremarkable. Think of something that happened that confirmed why you wanted to be a barrister (finding out how much your supervisor earns probably isn’t quite right), or was otherwise significant or memorable. Say why that was.
Hold Your Own
The softest interview I had was swiftly followed up with a “the standard was exceptionally high” letter. The toughest interviews I had were followed by invitations to the next stage of the process. The interviewers go hard on you to see how well you will cope under pressure. They want to know that you’re not going to take a concession unnecessarily just because the judge looks irritated or your opponent has told you your case is rubbish. Just because they are doing so does not mean that you are wrong or a failure. A tough interview can be a sign that they are taking you seriously enough to test you. I walked out of all of the tough interviews thinking I’d failed. One some occasions I was right, but it wasn’t because the interview was tough.
If you think you’re right, stick to your guns and politely explain why you think you are. Don’t back down just because the senior practitioner is being irritable. That being said, if you are sure that you’re wrong, and it’s not just because the interviewer scares you a little, then it may be better to admit you were wrong and reconsider your position.
On a related note, don’t be afraid of silence. Taking time to think or re-read something can come across as a strength, not a weakness.
Don’t Make Excuses
You’re digging yourself further into a hole. Explain, but don’t excuse. If, for example, you didn’t get your predicted grades because you were lazy, don’t start coming up with all manner of self-pitying reasons why this was the case. They often sound rubbish. Take responsibility for yourself, admit that your grades dropped because you were lazy, and explain why Chambers don’t have to fear that you will be that lazy in the future, preferably with some evidence to back it up.
If you have a genuine mitigating circumstance, explain it (usually in the covering letter), but don’t spend too long on it.
In addition to the matters of ethics and personal integrity, if you lie you’ll probably get caught. If you don’t get caught then you may get found out later. There’s a good chance that whatever you want to lie about will not kill your application or career. By contrast if you lie about it there’s a very good chance that it will. It’s not worth it.
Don’t Steal a Wig and Gown
I know they did it in Silk, but that show is, to put it politely, not 100% accurate. Similarly don’t try and steal an out-of-date copy of Archbold from Hammick’s, don’t push a senior member of chambers down the stairs, don’t have the charisma of a damp fish, don’t ask women their age, don’t stick your hands in your pockets and certainly don’t give off the impression that you haven’t a clue what the law is.
If at first you don’t succeed… well let’s hope you do as I don’t want to receive a load of hate-mail for giving out duff advice.
If you have anything to add, or any questions, please descend upon the comments section.