'Chambers look for life experience. Spending a few years doing something else, even if it’s unconnected to law such as travelling or volunteering, is hugely beneficial.'
The Bar is notoriously competitive to get into. What made you pursue a career as a barrister?
It’s a bit clichéd, but I first had the idea of being a barrister when I was about ten or eleven years old – I think I was quite an argumentative child! Then I started working in the courts in an administrative role as an adult and realised that law was what I really wanted to do. I thoroughly enjoyed my law degree and that’s when I started thinking seriously about the Bar.
I love the fact that barristers are self-employed – I’m the sort of person that enjoys self-directed work. Then there’s the academic challenge: I like being given a legal problem and having to go and figure out the answer to it – and it’s never straightforward.
Tell us a bit about the process for applying for pupillage at Matrix Chambers (where it is called a ‘traineeship’). How many interviews did you have, and were you given a legal problem or discussion topic to present?
There are normally two interviews. The first-round interview is very brief: there are only three questions. The second round is more intense. The interview panel give you a legal problem 20 minutes before the interview and then you’re quizzed about that problem at length.
This is followed by other questions testing your aptitude and logical thinking. Some are designed to get an insight into your personality, such as ‘Tell us about a book you’ve read and liked or disliked.’ Others were more equivocal, such as ‘If you could change any law, what would you change?’. Questions like that are testing your powers of reasoning and whether you can back up your arguments. I was prepared for questions like ‘Why the Bar, why this chambers and why this area of law?’ but was never actually asked them.
Unusually, I had to do a third interview – that’s the first time that’s ever happened in my chambers because the panel couldn’t choose between myself and another candidate. So we were invited back for a rerun of the second round interview and given another legal problem on a different topic area.
How did you approach the legal problems you were given in your pupillage interviews?
The first one I had was a European law/employment law problem and it was like another language to me. The second one was about human rights challenges to student tuition fees and that was closer to my personal area of interest. But the idea with the legal problems is that the interviewers try and pick something that people won’t have studied. The aim isn’t to test your legal knowledge: it’s to see how well you can come up with answers and how you work through a problem.
Which skills did you try to emphasise in your applications and interviews for pupillage?
I tried to highlight my awareness of cases that had been going on recently, because I found that interviewers would ask you a question which was actually related to a real-life case. For example, I was asked about cross-examining people like Milly Dowler’s father and whether there should be limits on defence cross-examination. The interviewers did not actually mention the case, just the concepts that arose from it. It was useful to be able to refer to the Levi Bellfield trial in my answer in order to underline the fact that I was aware of what was going on and was up to date. I think that was a good tactic. At university we were taught about current awareness in a commercial context, but in any legal area there are always going to be issues and cases that would be worth talking about.
What do you think made your application for pupillage really stand out?
I had some useful experience, such as working for a law clinic and the Free Representation Unit (FRU), but I think the overarching element that I tried to emphasise in my written application was simply life experience. One piece of advice I’d give to anyone thinking about pursuing a career at the Bar is this: don’t be in a hurry to rush off to Bar school and get pupillage. It’s hugely beneficial to have spent a few years doing something else, even if it’s unconnected to law, such as travelling or volunteering. I think that chambers are looking for that kind of life experience. I was a non-traditional candidate: I went to university quite late, I had children and I’d had other non-legal jobs which gave me transferable skills.
Out of all your experience, legal and non-legal, is there any in particular that seemed instrumental in helping you secure pupillage?
It’s difficult to say, I couldn’t put my finger on one in particular. I worked with the Law Commission in the year before starting pupillage. The research skills you learn there are useful to have at the Bar. I made an effort throughout university to do a lot of extracurricular activities, non-legal as well as legal: I was a member of the university choir and the equestrian society. I put those activities on my application as well, to give a more rounded picture of who I am as a person. I also worked as a TV presenter when I was 15 and that’s a fairly unusual job. So I would say that if you’ve got something a little bit quirky about you and you’re wondering whether to include it in your application, go ahead – it makes you stand out in recruiters’ minds, even if it doesn’t seem relevant to law.
How did you prepare for pupillage interviews?
I followed lots of legal commentators, lawyers and barristers on Twitter. I used newspapers for finding out about stories and cases, but blogs are useful because they offer somebody’s opinion, helping me to develop a debate in my own mind. I then thought of every possible question I could be asked at interview and wrote down my answers – the process of writing out my responses helped me formulate my thoughts. In fact, there were only two or three questions in all of my interviews that I hadn’t in some way prepared for.
You use social media professionally – how can aspiring pupil barristers use social media effectively?
I use Twitter as a forum for debate and a means of engaging with lawyers and non-lawyers on legal issues. Twitter is also a useful tool for building contacts and starting to network, even when you’re still a student: I know of people who’ve had offers of mini-pupillages through Twitter. It’s what you make of it, who you follow and how you decide to engage – my Twitter account is almost exclusively legal in subject matter. It’s a good way to get your name out there so people start to recognise you and know who you are.
What advice would you give to other aspiring barristers seeking pupillage?
It’s easy to understand why, when competition is so tough, you feel like you need to apply to as many sets as possible to maximise your odds. But think about where you want to be, because you have to remember that once you’ve got pupillage, you have to spend a year or longer at that set. I believe that if you are applying to places you really want to go to, that shines through in your application. I didn’t use all of my slots on the Pupillage Portal (now known as the Pupillage Gateway) because when I thought about it and researched sets thoroughly, there were only six or seven chambers that I really wanted to go to. You could see that as a risky strategy, but the sets that were at the top of my list were the ones where my applications were most successful. Originally I’d decided to fill all 12 slots. But then you’ve got to think of the answer to the question, ‘Why this chambers?’ and it can feel a bit forced.
What was the process for getting a scholarship from the Inns of Court?
For my inn, Inner Temple, there was a written application and then a panel interview with five people. It was my first experience of a formal interview in a legal setting and I was very nervous, but it wasn’t as intimidating as I’d imagined. They asked about the work experience I’d done so far and why I wanted to become a barrister. They weren’t really testing legal knowledge, probably because they appreciated that, at that stage, my legal knowledge was still quite basic. They are also trying to tell whether you are likely to get pupillage in the future, so they are looking at your presentation skills and advocacy.
How else have you benefitted from being a member of your Inn of Court?
I was involved in a mentoring scheme that allocated me to a practising barrister who looked over my CV and gave me some useful advice. I attended dining sessions, lectures and other educational days, which were useful in so many ways. If, like me, you don’t come from a family of lawyers and you’re the first in your family to go to university and maybe don’t know any other barristers, then it’s a great way to network.
Has the experience of being a pupil lived up to your expectations? Has anything surprised you?
I was so focused on getting pupillage that I hadn’t given much thought to what came afterwards. If anything, the training is more structured than I would have expected. Obviously it varies from chambers to chambers, but at Matrix I had a timetable of monthly training sessions on different topics. There are four seats with different supervisors in different areas of law, with a formal feedback session.
What role do the clerks play in your career development?
In my set, clerks (we call them ‘practice managers’) have quite a lot of input. You can speak to them and say ‘I want to do this kind of work’ or ‘I’m not so keen on doing this type of work’ and they’ll go out there and try to get that for you. So clerks are massively important, especially at the beginning of your career at the Bar because you’re still getting your name known.