How to approach pupillage interviews

The Pupillage Gateway slammed shut around a month ago and chambers began reading the mass of application forms electronically thrust before them in a bid to sift, sort and filter a massive pile, into a carefully selected list of the chosen few who they want to meet in person.

Receiving an invitation to an interview creates the initial rush akin (I assume) to winning the lottery. When that dies down, reality steps in and you realise that in fact you have simply won the right to participate in the next stage of the lottery albeit this one involves probing questions, nervous research and perhaps a sleepless night or two.

I’ve had a few pretty horrendous pupillage interviews. In my first ever pupillage interview I was pretty nervous and the panel asked me if I’d like some water. I said yes and was handed a champagne flute filled almost to the brim. I’d like to say I didn’t spill any, but that would be an outright lie.

Then there was the time I managed to have summer flu and hay fever simultaneously. I suspect the panel had already decided that I wasn’t going to progress to round two of the interview process long before I’d exhausted an entire box of tissues.

I did manage to get pupillage and in time sat on the pupillage committee interviewing many prospective pupils.

In my role as a tutor on the BPTC, I conduct mock interviews for students and hear their stories (some good, some bad) of interviews they attend. My advice then comes from a variety of different perspectives and sources, all anonymised to protect the innocent.

Before your interview

  1. Re-read your application form. You’re giving yourself some insight into some of the questions you will be asked. At least a few will be based on your form if only as an easy introduction to the interview.
  2. Go back to the research you did on chambers and flesh it out. Look again at their website and legal directories to see what further information you can glean.  Your careers service, tutors and perhaps other students who have interviewed at that set many be able to help
  3. Read the newspapers or go online and read about current affairs. Chambers may ask what you think about matters of the day as they often provide a useful basis for non-law questions.  Barristers consider themselves to be a worldly and knowledgeable bunch so even if Buzzfeed and Wikipedia are your go to sites, now is probably the time to branch out a little.
  4. Read about current issues in the areas of law that chambers specialises in. Not just leading cases but the wider points such as funding, court fees, the use of experts and Public Access to name but a few
  5. If the interview involves a practical advocacy exercise on the day then revisit your advocacy and litigation notes if you are on the BPTC, though note that chambers try and create exercises that don’t disadvantage those pre-BPTC. Chambers are looking at your potential to be an advocate which includes your knowledge of the law, delivery, structure and persuasion.
  6. Lots of chambers ask ethical questions so again, revisit your Professional ethics notes if you are on/have taken the BPTC. If you are pre-course then read the BSB Handbook which includes the Code of Conduct. (Freely available on the BSB website).
  7. Look at a map and plan your journey to the interview allowing extra time for travel disruption and in London, for the fact that not all of the gates to the Inns are open at the weekends. Oh and don’t go to a lock-in at your local pub the night before.  A ‘friend’ was slightly late leaving for an interview after sleeping through his alarm due to excessive libation the night before. Already late, he realised as ran down Chancery Lane that the Fleet Street gate to the Temple was locked at the weekend and arrived even later than planned. Not a great first impression.

During the interview

  1. Consider that the interviewers are as interested in hearing how you answer, as they are the content of your answer. Do you think and speak like a lawyer.  By that, I don’t mean you have to sound like Rumpole of the Bailey / Kavanagh QC / Martha Costello (delete according to age) but that your answers have a clear line of thought, are structured and have an end point. Let’s examine each in turn.
  2. Line of thought: If the question asks you to take a position on something, then do so. Take a moment to process what’s being asked and decide what your line is going to be.  A careful, reasoned and positioned answer is different to obstinately refusing to acknowledge anything other than your view. The former can be persuasive and measured. It sounds like a submission in court. The latter can sound like a rant.
  3. Structure: It’s far easier to understand and follow an answer that is structured and well signposted. The extent to which you say out loud “I have three reasons to support my point” is of course, a matter of personal style but it can help the receiver understand what they are about to hear. Importantly, if you do set out your structure at the start of your answer, stick to it.
  4. An end point: We get so used to being cut off by someone else in the fast-paced world that we live in, that the art of finishing a point is being eroded. Does your answer have an end point, conclusion or summary, or are you hoping that you’ll be cut off before you reach the end?  An answer that trails off into mumbling silence is not impressive.  At the start of your answer, as you consider you line of thought and structure, just take a very brief moment to consider where you are going.  Where’s the end point?
  5. Be honest. If you have no idea what the question is about, or you haven’t read the case that the question is based on, say so. The panel is comprised of seasoned practitioners.  They will know if you are trying to bluff and bluster your way out. Neither bluff nor saying “I haven’t read that case” are going to score you top marks but at least the latter has the mark of honesty about it.
  6. Speak to your audience. You may be told to direct your answers to a single person throughout or just to the person who asked the question.  If so, follow the instruction.  If not, try and address the entire panel.
  7. Speak slowly. Most people speak much too quickly by default, doubly so when nervous.  If it helps, consider that someone in the room doesn’t speak English as their first language.  Imagine that they have an interpreter sitting next to them translating every word as you speak it. That should slow you down.
  8. Speak confidently. You will be asked questions, they are likely to contradict your line of argument and probe your knowledge. Concede where necessary (see line of argument above) but be confident in what you are saying. Of course, it very much helps if you have the requisite knowledge (see ‘Before your interview’ above).
  9. At the end of the interview you are likely to be asked if you have any questions. The panel have lots of interviews to get through so my advice is not ask a question for the sake of it.  The structure of their pupillage, number of pupil supervisors and type of work is all likely to be on their website. You should have read this in advance, but if not, read it afterwards.  If you really do have a question that hasn’t been answered elsewhere then use this opportunity to do so.

After the interview

Forget about it and move on. Don’t replay every moment in your head because it will affect your current exams, work, other interviews and life generally.  You can’t change what you did.  If you really want some cathartic release, wait a few years, start a blog and tell people about the time you went to a lock in and turned up late for an interview.  I mean, tell people about your ‘friend’ who did that.  A ‘friend’ yes.  Not me.  Oh no.

Good luck!

Ishan Kolhatkar is a tutor on the Bar Professional Training Course. He Tweets @BPTC_Lecturer and more of his blogs can be found here.