Applying for pupillage – take note

In the autumn issue of Lawyer 2B one bar hopeful kept a diary of the day she received four pupillage offers. Here, she reveals the secrets of her success

Let’s get one thing straight from the start: there’s no single, set way to secure a pupillage. There are, admittedly, some standard things that make it much easier, such as strong academics or a demonstrable interest in the bar. But the bottom line is that nothing is guaranteed. It’s a bit like running the gauntlet: you might have the muscles, but if you make one wrong decision to duck left rather than right, you’re going to end up in an undignified heap on the floor.

Last year I was definitely in a heap. I put out 11 applications and made it as far as four first-round interviews before crashing and burning. The frustrating thing was, I thought I had the muscles. Academia, mooting, mini-pupillages, commercial experience and interesting extracurricular activities were all boxes I’d ticked and ticked again.

When I rang up chambers to ask for feedback, the most common response was,”You were good, but everyone’s good. Lots of people were better.”

I spent a week feeling sorry for myself, then decided to make a few changes. It turns out they paid off – this year I was the proud recipient of not one, but four pupillage offers. How did I do it? A lot of it was down to luck, but below are a few lessons I learnt along the way.

Applications

  • Be concise. Some chambers read 400 applications just like yours, so they don’t want to see clichés. The word ’passion’ in particular fills many with hatred. They want solid, tangible reasons why they should employ you rather than the 399 other people who are waxing lyrical about their chambers. Decide what these reasons are, use bullet points to list them and get rid of anything else.
  • Have a spreadsheet. I know this sounds ridiculous, but after you’ve hammered out 25 applications (and believe me, you will) it’s easy to forget where you’ve applied to or why you wanted to go to this particular set. List areas of law, numbers of pupils, whether you’ve done any work experience there, what interesting cases they’ve done, when application deadlines are and so on.
  • Complete every application, no matter how rubbish or last-minute you think it is. I once wrote the world’s worst covering letter, scribbled down in 15 minutes at the end of an exam week in which I hadn’t slept and nearly had a nervous breakdown. I almost didn’t bother to do it, but figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. And I was right – this set was the first to offer me pupillage.
  • Seek out and relish criticism. I showed my application forms and letters to my dad, my careers service, my tutors and a few friends who are barristers and who know what sitting on a pupillage committee feels like. I asked for their honest advice, took on board what they said and tweaked my applications accordingly. Comparing them with last year’s naive attempts makes me feel like I’m at a one-woman cringe party.

Interviews

  • Pre-empt the questions you will be asked. You will definitely be grilled on what makes you so special (although it’s likely to be phrased in a slightly more friendly manner), why you want to come to the bar, why this chambers, what qualities a good barrister needs and so on. There will also be some questions that naturally arise from your CV, and possibly some personality questions that can range from the straightforward, ’What are your biggest strengths/weaknesses?’, to the completely bonkers, ’If you were to liken yourself to a cartoon character, who would it be?’ You need to think about all these questions and decide what answers you’d give – not in your head, but on paper in bullet-point format – for you to learn and have on the tip of your tongue when asked.
  • Bone up. A lot of first-round interviews will involve a legal problem question, but they won’t necessarily tell you that before you turn up. Even if you are pre-warned, some chambers ban the use of notes or mobile phones to help you formulate your answer. I put together ’cheat sheets’ on the basics, assembled from my Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) notes, and – shock, horror – actually learnt them. Massive effort? Yes. Worth it? Definitely.
  • Dress like you mean business. A controversial one, this, but last year I went girly, with long loose hair, a full face of make-up, sky-high heels and very closely fitted skirt suits. I thought I looked great, but in retrospect I looked like a bimbo. This year I thought I’d try an experiment: trouser suit, low heels, hair scraped back, a lot less make-up. I was still groomed and unmumsy, but the point was that the way I looked wasn’ t distracting anyone from what was coming out of my mouth – and that’s how it should be.
  • Do well on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). I’m sorry, but anyone who says that nobody cares what mark you get is talking rubbish. I was asked what my results were in almost every single interview, even if I’d listed them on my application already.

Self-esteem

  • Take rejection on the chin. Most of the places I applied to gave me an outright ’no’ without a second glance. It’s a numbers game – there aren’t enough pupillages to go around, and around four out of five applicants go home disappointed. You’ve got a lot of company in the rejection pile, so don’t let it get you down. Just try to work out what it is you need to fix to get that all-important ’yes’ the next time round.
  • Don’t believe the hype. You get all sorts at law school, but I came across a lot of people who were all mouth and no trousers. These people spent a lot of time talking themselves up and intimidating many of their peers in the process. Come August none had managed to nail down a pupillage, because interviewers recognise that the best candidates are the ones who don’t need to shout about themselves. Most of the people I know who got offers are the types who can just shut up and get on with it, safe in the knowledge that the quality of their work speaks for itself. Make yourself one of these and don’t take any notice of anyone else.
  • Find a friend who you’re not in competition with. This sounds like an odd thing to say, but running the pupillage gauntlet is a surprisingly lonely process. As much as you might like to think you and your mates will support each other, when it comes to the crunch you’re likely to find yourselves reluctant to share what’s on your application forms or discuss the content of interviews. So make sure you find someone – a friend who’s already got tenancy or is a solicitor, your mentor, even your mum or someone you went to school with – whose ear you can chew off without resentment.
  • Believe that you can be adaptable. Last year I thought I was one of those people who looked okay on paper but was rubbish at interviews. This year I’ve proved that isn’t the case, albeit after some practice, tough feedback and a lot of prep. Don’t be tempted to pigeonhole yourself. No matter how hard it is to force a change, it will be worth it if it means you get what you want in the long run.