Competition for pupillage is fierce. One of the main criteria your pupillage application will be judged on is your work experience, so it’s vital to make sure you’ve got this in order before you even consider applying.
The quantity of your experience may have some influence on a pupillage committee but quality and variety are much more important. Generally speaking, an impressive candidate is one who has taken three or four mini-pupillages, gained other forms of legal experience (including time spent with a solicitors’ firm, if possible) and can show evidence of some sort of experience or interests outside the law.
Mini-pupillage: the chance to experience life as a barrister
Mini-pupillages are short periods of time (generally between three days and one week) spent shadowing barristers in chambers. They may involve attending court and conferences (meetings with solicitors and lay clients), completing small research or drafting tasks and discussing your supervisor’s current cases. You’ll certainly have close contact with practising barristers and a chance to observe them at work.
Kathleen Donnelly, a barrister at Henderson Chambers, completed four mini-pupillages at London sets practising civil and commercial law. ‘Most lasted a few days and the normal procedure was for me to be assigned to one barrister and sit with him or her throughout,’ she says. ‘I was often given papers to read and discuss, and was sometimes asked to attempt the answer myself. On some days, I went along to court to observe other members of chambers in cases of particular interest.’
Kathleen found that observing the law in action was an invaluable experience. ‘It was great to get involved in real cases and discover how pragmatic matters, such as the solvency of a defendant, can influence the shape of proceedings.’
How do you decide where to apply for mini-pupillage?
It’s wise to apply for mini-pupillages with sets that work in different areas, even if you think you know which type of law you’d like to practise in. You may find that the reality of working in a certain area is very different from how you imagined it and that subjects you enjoyed studying on your course don’t interest you in practice (and vice versa). Experiencing different types of sets will also show pupillage committees that you’ve explored the options available and are in a good position to judge that you’d prefer to work for their sort of set rather than in another area. However, do try to make sure that you’ve done at least one mini-pupillage in the area that you eventually decide to go for. 'If we saw that a candidate had done all of their mini-pupillages in criminal or family practice, we would be puzzled, since these are not our areas of practice,' says Shaen Catherwood, barrister and head of pupillage at Devereux. 'I would advise candidates intertested in Devereux to think about doing a mini-pupillage in a chambers that does our sort of work. It’s a good idea to explore different areas of practice rather than focus on one area.'
Work experience is always a two-way process. As well as trying to make the right impression during mini-pupillage, you will form your own views about the chambers where you are based. Use mini-pupillages to experience the culture at different chambers as this can vary enormously. Some sets will encourage an open-door policy, perhaps with members of chambers enjoying Friday-night drinks at the local pub as part of the set’s tradition; others might have a more formal, hierarchical atmosphere.
Richard O’Brien, a barrister at 4 New Square, says, ‘Doing a mini-pupillage is not just about CV points. I got a good feel for the work that the set does and the people who work there: you can learn a lot about a set of chambers and whether you’d want to be a tenant there in just a few days.’
How many mini-pupillages should you do?
Don’t think that you can impress recruiters by taking a large number of mini-pupillages for the sake of it. Three or four is a good number; more than six may start to look pointless. However, one exception to this is with assessed mini-pupillages. Some sets, such as Blackstone Chambers, require you to take an assessed mini-pupillage with them before you can be considered for pupillage, or as part of the pupillage interview process (normally between first and second interviews). If you are applying for pupillage with sets that have such requirements this is likely to rack up the number of mini-pupillages you have do. 'We are aware that there is a lot of competition for mini-pupillages and we have limited vacancies ourselves,' explains Shaen Catherwood, head of pupillage at Devereux. 'We don’t expect candidates to have done pupillage with our set: after all, we interview 40 people but we don’t have 40 mini-pupillages available each year. However, our experience is that most people have done a minimum of four and that is roughly what we would expect to see.'
What is an assessed mini-pupillage?
When asked in 2012, one third of chambers advertising in TARGETjobs Law told us that they use assessed mini-pupillages. If you undertake an assessed mini-pupillage, your performance will be formally judged (for example, with an exercise on which you are marked and a written assessment by your supervisor). These details will be taken into consideration if you apply for pupillage at that set.
Some sets use assessed mini-pupillages as part of the recruitment process. Littleton, for instance, has a policy that everyone who is selected for first-round interview has to do an assessed mini-pupillage. Other chambers offer assessed mini-pupillages but do not insist that potential pupils take one. Most sets offer either only assessed mini-pupillages or only unassessed mini-pupillages but a few offer both, so make sure you are clear about who offers what and what you are applying for.
Mini-pupillage application criteria
Different sets have different policies as to who can apply for mini-pupillage. Almost all will specify that you must have at least started an undergraduate degree. A number will specify that you must be in at least a certain year of study, and some will ask that you have completed at least a minimum amount of legal study (for example that you are in your second or third year of a law degree or have started a conversion course).
Check with individual sets before you apply to make sure that you are eligible. Application processes also vary. Most sets request a CV and covering letter but others will have an online or paper application form. Some will interview you before offering you a place; others will accept or reject candidates on the basis of their application alone.