What do you need to show when applying to the commercial bar?
The key thing you need to get into a commercial chambers is a first-class degree. If you’ve got a 2.1 and you really want to do commercial law, my advice is to do a postgraduate degree somewhere respectable and get a distinction in it. This will help you play the numbers game in the application process.
It’s not that we don’t take on candidates with a 2.1 – there are other ways of demonstrating intellectual ability. A first doesn’t guarantee that you have the right kind of attitude and intelligence for the Bar. However, the reality is that a lot of people with firsts apply, and you need every advantage you can get on the paper sift.
You spoke quite passionately at the TARGETjobs National Pupillage Fair 2014 about the fact that the Bar is a meritocracy; how do the academic requirements factor into that?
Academic results (which are usually consistently good through A levels and degree level in our applicants) or other objective demonstrations of intelligence are the basis of a meritocratic selection process. I do think the Bar is a meritocracy, and the reason in general terms is that it is one of the very few industries where there is a direct and real detriment (both in reputation and in monetary terms) to everyone in the organisation of recruiting someone who’s inadequate. Good academics doesn’t necessary mean Oxbridge. There are quite a few people in chambers who didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge. I have never experienced any sexism, either in chambers or at the Bar generally.
Tell us a little bit about your chambers and your work.
Keating Chambers’ main specialisation is construction, which covers difficult and complicated contractual issues relating to anything that can be built. Therefore we undertake work that spans energy, engineering, infrastructure, shipbuilding, technology and related procurement and professional negligence work, all over the world. People always think construction’s just about counting bricks. On the contrary, we deal with complicated contractual and technical requirements and very high-value contracts. There’s an even split in chambers between construction work and international arbitration on big international projects.
How do you assess pupillage candidates once they have applied?
Three people in chambers mark the forms received through the Pupillage Gateway: one silk and two juniors. There’s always a man and a woman. We anonymise the application forms so that the names are taken out so, in principle, we don’t know the gender of the applicant. We then have a second paper stage (again anonymised) in which candidates write a short opinion on a real set of papers. We provide extracts from the relevant textbook because we want to test whether you can apply the law to the facts rather than whether you know the law.
Approximately 30 candidates get to the first-round interview, which lasts 15 minutes. Approximately the top 12 get through to the second round. Both involve advocacy exercises and questions based on a candidate’s CV.
How should an aspiring barrister prepare for a pupillage interview?
The advice that I always give about preparing for interviews really starts with the pupillage application form itself. The form puts the power in the hands of the candidate – you don’t need to tell anyone about the mistakes you’ve made or the areas you don’t know about.
Only write about topics that you actually know about. Don’t mention cases just because you think they’ll get you through the process – if you don’t know the details it will show when you’re asked at interview.
What all the questions on the form are really asking is ‘Do I have the skills to be a barrister?’ Write down a list of the skills that you need to be a barrister generally, and in the area of law that you’re interested in. Then use every question on the form to demonstrate each skill with evidence from your own experience. Don’t just make assertions such as ‘I am a brilliant advocate’, full stop.
Find some glowing examples of advocacy. That doesn’t need to be mooting (which is fine) – teaching English as a foreign language, being head of the students’ union, organising events at your university or heading up a meeting in a political party are all brilliant examples of advocacy.
Reference times when you’ve persuaded people who didn’t want to do something into doing something that you wanted, because at the end of the day that’s the job of a barrister.
Construction law is seen as a specialist area. Do candidates need an in-depth knowledge of the field when applying to your chambers?
Candidates know almost nothing about the industry when they come to us and it’s not a requirement. We look for a commitment to commercial law. We do get applications from engineers, quantity surveyors and project managers, but they don’t have an advantage unless they’re excellent lawyers. It’s essentially the same as going to a chambers that does banking law or insurance law.
The crucial thing that I always say at law fairs is that we look for excellent contract lawyers and advocates. In this particular area you also need to be able to get along with a wide range of people – you’ll be acting for contractors and developers, engineers, architects and construction professionals.
You need to be able to do the academic law analysis, but you need to be able to present it in a different way to the client than you do for the court. Clients may not be interested in the line of cases from 1890, which you will have to look at for the court; what they want to know is ‘Can I down tools and walk off or not?’ Clients in our area are intelligent and sophisticated people running major businesses. They are very straightforward. It makes them a lot of fun.
Do you test candidates on commercial awareness? If so, how?
A necessary part of work at the commercial bar is understanding that clients have commercial pressures that have nothing to do with the purely legal position.
You can’t really test common sense, which is what it comes down to, by asking someone about their knowledge of a particular business. One candidate might ‘happen’ to know about something and one candidate might ‘happen’ not to know; that won’t necessarily be reflective of their ability.
In the second-round interview we expand on the opinion written as part of the paper sift stage with a mock conference where we play the role of solicitors. We see how a candidate responds to a series of questions that test the assumptions made and the views expressed. We create a realistic situation during a discussion of an issue and we see how the person is able to respond to the sort of issues that come up every day in your working life as a barrister.
Keating Chambers normally attend the TARGETjobs Law National Pupillage Fair. What’s the best approach for an aspiring barrister at the fair?
Be friendly, be intelligent, be polite and be normal. Resist the urge to show off, because you may come on too strong.
Candidates shouldn’t see the pupillage fair as a ‘give-me-a-pupillage' type opportunity. They should see it as an ‘information-extraction' type opportunity. If you’re keen, interested and asking sensible questions, people will be delighted to help you with the pupillage application form and how to present yourself. One piece of advice I often give is to download the form before you go to the pupillage fair. Have a look at it, and the sections you’re having trouble with, and ask the barristers for help on those specific questions.
Treat the fair as being about you, rather than about getting pupillage. For some chambers it might be worth trying a different approach, but that’s certainly what I’d recommend if you were applying to Keating.
Any other advice you’d offer about applying to the Bar?
Some people are extremely intelligent, but have been lazy in their lives and got away with it. You can’t get away with it at the Bar. It’s the world’s biggest wake-up call.
It’s obviously very expensive to do the qualifications. You have to look with a straightforward eye at your own qualifications and experience. It’s hard work and long hours; there’s pressure; it’s intense; and, for commercial work, you need to be the sort of person who wants to live their life in a permanent essay crisis, followed immediately by a terrifying oral exam. On the other hand, it is still the best job in the world. You should just give it a go if you’ve got the skills and determination to do it.