How to survive: Pupillage applications

Pupillage is the final stage of your training, enabling you to get out of the classroom and into the courtroom to assist on and run real cases. You must complete a pupillage to qualify as a barrister and competition is fierce.

Statistics show that only one in six UK students who successfully complete the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) will secure pupillage, so it’s important to know your timelines.

Types of Application

Most established sets of chambers will offer at least one pupillage a year, meaning applicants are faced with a huge breadth of choice. This has been somewhat affected in recent years by the squeeze on publicly-funded practice areas and chambers. All pupillages must be advertised on the Pupillage Gateway website.

The good news is that the Gateway offers a central application scheme, which streamlines the process by using one form and timetable to apply to a number of different sets. Any unfilled vacancies will be advertised for candidates to apply directly to chambers. The bad news is that many chambers are not signed up to this system, meaning that you may have to use different application forms, and be subject to competing deadlines, if you are applying to those chambers.

You should also be mindful of the differences in recruitment timelines. Many commercial and civil sets will recruit a year in advance (i.e. before you have started the BPTC). Others will recruit for immediately preceding the course. The latter is most common for criminal, family and common law sets.

You should research this well in advance to know what your timelines are. The benefit of securing ‘deferred pupillages’ is that you can be certain to have a pupillage going into the Bar course and you can often ‘draw down’ some of the funding from that pupillage to help you fund yourself while you’re on the course.

What to Expect

The Pupillage Gateway opens at the start of April and closes at the end of the same month (though it is set to move to January from 2017). You should check the timetable to confirm the dates by which you have to apply. Applications are then reviewed between May and August, where interviews will occur. Offers can be made between the start of August and start of September.

The Pupillage Gateway is used by a huge number of chambers. If you are applying to a Gateway set, you will have to use the online form. You can apply to a maximum of twelve Gateway chambers in one year.

The application form contains a lot of detailed questions, most of which are in the form of short-answer questions. Even for the longer answers, you should still remain as relevant and concise as possible. A sample application form is available for you to download online where you can get a sense of what will be asked before you begin the process.

As the system has automatically logged candidates out in the past, it is advisable to formulate your answers in a Word document and copy and paste it in when they are complete, rather than risk losing them. Do not forget to keep hitting the ‘save’ button at the bottom of the portal form.

The first few questions cover generic issues such as your contact details, education, and employment history. There are also opportunities for you to detail any scholarships or awards you have attained, and what you do in your spare time.

Finally, you must provide two referees. After you submit your first application, these sections are locked down and cannot be changed, so your answers will be the same for all your chosen sets. Some chambers will ask a chambers-specific question afterwards. For this reason, it is wise to research and decide on the chambers you want to apply to before filling in your first application.

The next section is a Pupillage Application Questionnaire, which you can tailor to each separate chambers you want to apply to. The questions cover your motivation, legal areas of interest, reasons for choosing that set, and any relevant skills. Once you have sent your first application, your answers are saved, but with the option to edit or completely rewrite them for each further application. Some applicants delete their answers and then start again, rather than try to tweak what they’ve already written. This could be helpful because if you leave in the wrong chambers name just once, anyone reading your form will put it straight in the bin. It also have the benefit of making you focus on why you are applying to that set of chambers and researching them thoroughly before submitting.

By now it should be obvious that the application process is a lengthy task, and you will need to put a lot of time and thought into your answers. You should try to start your applications a month in advance, and to get them in at least a few days before the official deadline. In the 2008/09 season, the site crashed, the deadline was extended, and the site was then reopened again, twice, in order to try to clear the backlog of last-minute applications. It’s best to avoid this chaos if you can and get your application in well before the deadline as there have been some occurrences of problems with the system close to the deadline.

And finally – if you’re in any doubt about how the Pupillage Gateway works, don’t be shy of asking the support team. There is also plenty of application guidance on the Gateway itself. There’s an online video of how to use the portal on the Gray’s Inn website: http://www.graysinn.info/index.php?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=977.

What you need

There are some general basics that you should consider before applying for pupillage.

  • Academic merit remains one of the cornerstones of the Bar. It is now extraordinarily difficult to secure a pupillage with a lower-second class degree (2:2) in your undergraduate. Firsts and high-2:1s are increasingly common. Master’s degrees do not cover up for poor performance on the undergraduate degree. If you had relevant mitigating circumstances for poor performance be sure to mention the specific reasons. Many chambers also look back to a candidate’s A-level attainment.
  • Work experience is not only helpful to demonstrate your commitment to practising law but also for getting to know different practice areas and sets of chambers. Students are normally advised to completely between three and five mini-pupillages in a range of chambers and legal areas.
  • Extra-curricular activities can showcase your skills in advocacy. Mooting, debating and public speaking are some of the most common but any other performance-related activities – such as drama or fine arts – can also be used successfully in this way. Other interests can also be woven in to these responses, such as sport or politics and other areas where you feel that you can speak to its benefit to your chosen practice area.
  • Accolades such as Inns of Court scholarships can go a long way during your application. Other university awards or having won certain championships – such as those for mooting or debating – will be favorably looked upon.
  • Legal and current affairs knowledge will get you a lot way in your application and interviews. This includes developments within the profession, so you should be well versed on the recent regulatory landscape and developments with new business structures and ways of working.

After Applying – What Next?

What happens after you apply will largely depend on your chosen sets. Although the Bar Standards Board requires chambers to refrain from making offers until 31st July, there are no other regulations regarding the interview timetable. Some chambers will be in touch in early May, others you won’t hear a peep out of until late July. Some highly competitive chambers (often in commercial and chancery) with assessed mini-pupillages may ask you to come in for this period to assess your abilities while some others of this type will require that you have already done a mini-pupillage with them.

The best policy is to be patient, and make sure you check both the Pupillage Gateway and your email (the two don’t always coincide). Failing that, chambers’ websites will usually give you an idea of their timetable, and if you hear nothing before mid-July, it’s acceptable to send a polite email to the clerks asking if they can give you any information.

Non-Pupillage Gateway Applications

Chambers that do not participate in the Pupillage Gateway scheme must still advertise their vacancies on the portal website, and are subject to the Bar Standards Board regulations banning pupillage offers within the online system timetable. However, their application timetables may differ wildly. There is also no limit to the amount of non-Pupillage Gateway chambers you can apply to, and no way for them to know what other sets you have targeted. This means that non-portal applications are ideal if you are interested in some esoteric sets or areas of law which don’t tally with your other choices.

Non-portal applications will usually consist of either a CV and covering letter, or an application form. The normal application rules apply – be concise and relevant, and show why you are interested in that particular chambers. Often sets will publish their pupillage selection policy online, which will give you an idea of what they are looking for and how you will be assessed.

Once you have written your application, you must follow the chambers instructions to the letter. Some demands can be unexpected – such as the few more traditional chambers which still ask for a handwritten cover letter. Make sure you check all information, including the basics such as whether to post or email your form, and who to send it to, well in advance.

If you’re unsuccessful

If you fail to get a pupillage, don’t despair – it’s a hugely competitive process, which most people must go through a number of times before they succeed. Your next step is to critically assess your CV and application, and address any shortcomings in time for next year’s round of applications. There are several ways to do this:

  • Get someone else to look over your application form. If you’re still at university or law school, you can ask your careers service. Otherwise any professional is fine, as long as they can be objective and honest. Your Inn of Court sponsor or mentor may be willing to help in this regard as long as there isn’t a conflict of interest in applying to their set of chambers.
  • There are plenty of excellent books on the application process, which will outline what chambers are looking for in some detail. Reading these will give you much more insight into the inner workings of selection committees and their workload.
  • Email the pupillage co-ordinators at your chosen sets and ask for feedback. Often you will find this is not possible due to the very high numbers of applications received. However, as long as your request is polite, there is no harm in asking. If you were lucky enough to get any interviews, you should always ask for feedback on your performance, as it is much more likely that chambers will be able to help at this stage of the process.
  • Don’t be proud – act on the advice you’re given, in plenty of time. After Pupillage Gateway closes in October, you only have a few months before you need to start applying again. This may seem like a long time, but if you need to up your legal work experience – for example, by applying for mini-pupillages, mooting or Free Representation Unit – you may need to go through other lengthy application or training processes.
  • Use the Inns! The Inns of Court have a number of schemes set up for students to help them secure pupillage. This includes Mock Interview schemes and pupillage advice evenings. Ask your education departments for further details.

Don’t Forget

  • Save, save and save again
  • Double check the deadlines and leave yourself plenty of time
  • Get someone else to read over your application before you send it. It’s easy to miss spelling and grammar mistakes on a page you’ve been staring at for two days.

Updated information provided by Inner Temple outreach manager Anthony Dursi