How to survive: mini-pupillages

You wouldn’t choose to become a nurse purely on the basis of watching Casualty or join the police exclusively because you are a fan of The Bill. So why would you train as a barrister solely on the basis of watching Kavanagh QC? Mini-pupillages are therefore here to help. They are the perfect opportunity to get to know all about the work of a barrister.

So, why do a mini-pupillage? The reasons fall into two categories. Firstly, are you sure you want to be a barrister?

“It is a fantastic job. Being self-employed is wonderful and it is varied and intellectually stimulating,” says Maya Lester, barrister at Brick Court Chambers.

But hand on heart, what do you really know about it? Mini-pupillage is the bar’s term for a work experience placement and consists of shadowing a barrister in their working life.

Following a barrister gives you the opportunity to cut through those early years of TV-fuelled views on what they do all day.

Granted, there may well be sudden unexpected evidence dramatically brought before the court. There may well be judges cutting down spurious arguments. There may well be cut and thrust arguments with witnesses. But in truth that is not all a barrister does all day every day.

Shadowing a barrister, be it for an afternoon or a whole week, can mean going to court, assisting with research or sitting in on conferences with clients. As Maya Lester explains, “the mini-pupils will do whatever the barrister is doing: attending court, reading papers or in conference.”

Or it can just be a good opportunity to chat.

Paul Shrubsall, consultant at One Essex Court, urges those on mini-pupillages to take the chance to talk about what life is like at the bar and ask barristers what they did to get where they are now.

You’ve seen the reality of the job and now you’re sure that being a barrister is the career for you so can you stop reading? Well, actually no, there’s still a second problem.

Kavanagh QC? Judge John Deed? Rumpole of the Bailey? This Life? Each show is different. And like the television shows every set of chambers is different. Finding one where you will be happy for many years is crucial.

So what do you do? A second mini-pupillage, preferably a third and so on.

Length of a mini-pupillage

Each mini-pupillage is different. At One Essex Court they are generally two days in length. Each day is split in half so a mini-pupil will get to meet four barristers.

In contrast at Brick Court Chambers they last a week. “We try to match a mini-pupil’s interest with the practice a barrister has and they then sit with them for a week,” says Maya Lester. At the same time an overview is taken to make sure there is enough variety to the experience.

Other mini-pupillages may last a day.

All chambers interviewed by Lawyer2B.com stressed the importance of getting more than one point of view when on a mini-pupillage. You can achieve this by speaking with a pupil or recent tenant or sitting down for discussions with barristers and clerks.

Take notes of every meeting as you are bound to have forgotten much of what was discussed by the time you come to apply for pupillage.

Mini-pupillages – type of law

The work you do, quite reasonably, will differ depending on the type of law practised by the barrister you follow. The day-to-day experience of working life in public law or human rights is in fact massively different to that in criminal or family law.

This means it is impossible to give simple percentages on time in court, time researching and so forth to expect.

The most common misconception is that barristers spend all day every day in court. But this is not what you should expect to be experiencing. As Maya Lester explains: “It is hard to generalise about mini-pupillages. The amount of time in court depends very much on your specialism so try different areas as it is like trying many jobs.

“Practising in different areas is different to studying as they are entirely different jobs and you’ll realise that by following barristers,” explains Lester.

Mini-pupillages – types of chambers

Paul Shrubsall recommends: “Have a reasonably good idea of whether you want to go to the civil or criminal bar. There is nothing wrong with having a look at both but the sooner you can focus the better.”

This is because once you have pinpointed your preferred type of law you need to pinpoint your preferred type of chambers.

There is a limit to the number of mini-pupillages you will ever realistically achieve. Catherine Atkinson, barrister at 9 Gough Square, did nine in total and found, “each chamber had a very different feel and atmosphere.

“Some are forward looking, some more traditional. They are different both by type of law and by size. The more information you have to work with the better. [Your choice] needs to be the best and the most appropriate.

“Before a mini-pupillage do your research. Check out a chamber’s website and look up the barrister you will be shadowing. Have they done any big cases recently?”

In essence the only assumption you can make is that you cannot make assumptions. It is only by getting out there and seeing the chambers for real that you will be ideally placed come your time to apply for pupillage.

As Paul Shrubsall points out it is arguably the biggest decision of your professional career. He says: “You should select 12 chambers you actually know something about, it’s a very big decision for the rest of your life and one to research carefully. Which chambers to apply to is one of the key decisions about how successful and happy you are in your new career.”

How to get a mini-pupillage

Most chambers organise mini-pupillages by cover letter and CV. It is always worth double checking on websites and looking for the name of the person to address your application to.

In terms of the best way to present yourself in your application Paul Shrubsall explains: “We look for a good academic track record, an indication that the person wants to be a barrister, and things like debating clubs – people who have some life experience.”

Other chambers will call you in for an interview before offering you a mini-pupillage. At Brick Court Chambers the process involves approval of the CV and covering letter followed by a successful 15-minute interview. The prospective mini-pupils will be asked a mixture of questions about their experience, background and a legal area.

When to organise mini-pupillages

Some chambers will accept A Level students whereas others prefer their mini-pupils to be either studying for a law degree or be on a conversion course.

Even among those who prefer not to take A Level students there is a difference between those chambers who expect at least a 2:1 – be it achieved or prospective – and those who do not stipulate a level. Given the range of requirements it is essential to check websites to make sure you are approaching suitable chambers.

“Plan your whole campaign early. We look to take people in their second year or first year of a post-grad conversion course,” recommends Paul Shrubsall.

Most students will be limited to the academic holidays but other pressure points are worth avoiding too – like the time in June before pupillages deadlines.

Again, it is important to check the websites for availability. Some chambers run mini-pupillages through the year. Others like One Essex Court have three distinct parts of the year each with its own application deadline. Then others like Monckton Chambers have one fixed period.

Maya Lester has a top tip when it comes to planning your campaign. “Mini-pupillage is a chance for the students to see what chambers are like but also for chambers to assess you so leave your top choices to the end of your series. Make sure those give you the best possibility of performing well as you’ll know more law and have more experience.”

What chambers get out of a mini-pupillage

There are two types of mini-pupillage: assessed and non-assessed.

Non-assessed

As the name suggests there is no formal assessment involved. Paul Shrubsall sees it as, “an opportunity to be a shop window for chambers and the bar so mini-pupils can find out what it is all about. We hope to send a lot of people away with a favourable view of the chambers. At the end of the day we know talent when we see it. We want them to apply and we are looking for the best.”

It means you can see the work of a barrister and gain an understanding of the ethos of that chamber without any formal pressure on your performance. Clearly, it is still essential for you to make a good impression both for your own future should you ever wish to apply there and out of routine politeness.

Assessed

At Brick Court Chambers mini-pupils are set a written task to assess what they are like and to give their work a focus. Maya Lester explains the purpose of testing their ability to write and analyse.

“We are looking for people who could potentially be offered a pupillage in chambers, they are assessed by the people sitting with them writing a report on them. Everyone does the same written test marked by the same person to create a level playing field.”

Whether you want to do assessed or non-assessed it is, as ever, worth checking out each website. Some, like Brick Court Chambers, will not accept applications for pupillage until you have done a mini-pupillage with it.

What mini-pupillages lead to

At the end of your series of mini-pupillages you should have picked up many key points about life as a barrister, the diversity of roles and the different ethos in every set of chambers. Clearly the job is not all about the wigs.

As we have seen at some chambers you need to have done the mini-pupillage to secure pupillage. But even if that is not the case, as Catherine Atkinson points out, there are still many good reasons for having worked through a series of placements.

“Chambers get a huge number of application forms. Often the hardest thing to assess is what kind of person you are: if you are a team player and will get on with other people. You can give concrete examples of why you want to be at that chambers from experiencing it personally.”

So what sort of person is likely to succeed in using their mini-pupillages to their benefit?

The final word goes to Maya Lester who says candidates should show: “Enthusiasm for the job. The main thing we’re looking for is someone with the qualities to make an excellent barrister: intelligence; analytical skills; able to interact with clients and judges. They need to show speed of picking up key points efficiently, thorough research skills and an ability to learn.”

Mini-pupillage profile

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Name: Nicola Downey

Degree: BA Honours History

Law School: Nottingham Law School and BPP Law School

Course: GDL and BPTC

Why did you decide to train as a barrister? I wanted a job that I believed in and that made me use my brain and demanded the best of me everyday. I quickly realised that the intellectual and often ethical and moral challenges that barristers at the criminal bar faced, met both these requirements.

At what stage of your training did you undertake a mini-pupillage(s)? I undertook min-pupillages in both my GDL year and my BPTC year.

Tell us a bit about the type of work you completed during the mini-pupillage? Due to the areas of law that I want to practice in (family and crime), I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time shadowing barristers in court. This allowed me to watch the barristers at work, examining witnesses, making applications to the judge and watching a jury be selected and sworn in. Outside of court I was able to sit in on conferences that the barristers were holding with their clients and also to read up on the cases that the barristers were currently working on. I was even lucky enough to be invited to a barristers lunch; a very daunting but exciting and interesting experience!

What was the best and worst part of the placement? The best part of the mini-pupillages I undertook was from my first mini-pupillage. I was sitting in court on the first day of a six week trial and witnessed the lead prosecutor addressing the jury for the first time. The skill with which he told the story of the case to the jury was unbelievable. I was in awe.

The worst part of the placement was the expense. Mini-pupillages are unpaid and as my mini-pupillage placements were miles away from home I had to fork out on transport and hotel costs. I would still say however, that the benefits of mini-pupillage far out way any cost.

How do you feel it helped you choose your legal career path? For me it confirmed that the criminal and family bar was exactly the place I wanted to be. There are many obstacles to overcome in becoming a barrister and this was starting to take its toll on my enthusiasm. The mini-pupillages however really gave me a glimpse to what my future as a criminal barrister would entail and it reignited my determination and excitement.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when trying to secure a mini-pupillage? Lack of experience was definitely a problem. Having done my degree in history I was not aware of mini-pupillages until the summer before my GDL when I seriously started looking into my legal career.

Another was finding the time to do the applications to a good level. Sending in a half-hearted attempt will only give the chambers a bad impression so I had a few late nights to ensure that I met application deadlines during my GDL year.

What advice would you give to someone applying for a mini-pupillage? My advice to students from a non-law degree would be to investigate what will be required of them in terms of work experience and volunteering as early as possible. It is difficult to find the time, especially in your third year when you are in the midst of finals and dissertations but the earlier you start, the easier the process will be.

Generally, I would say really think about why it is you want to practice law. Chambers are keen that their applicants are passionate about the law. Being able to master the question as to why you want to be a barrister, will go a long way in attracting many chambers to select you for mini-pupillage.

What are the biggest pitfalls students should try to avoid when pursuing a legal career? Wasting too much time. It is easy to think that there is endless time to complete mini-pupillages, volunteering and other work experience. There is not. The paths to becoming a barrister are intense and leave little time to fit in extra curricular requirements. Utilise academic holidays. The commitment will pay off and the experience that you gain truly is invaluable.