How to ace your pupillage interview: tips from qualified barristers
Pupillage interviews: interview preparation | researching chambers | typical interview tasks | discussion topics | legal knowledge | presenting yourself | the skills pupillage panels look for | hold your nerve under pressure | asking the interview panel questions | handling rejection
Many sets of barristers’ chambers will hold both first-round and second-round pupillage interviews (in some cases even a third round) in June and July. Some first round interviews are very short indeed, so make sure you are well-prepared to stand out.
Expect to be asked about the Pupillage Gateway application – or CV and covering letter – you submitted early on in your interview. ‘Read through your application incredibly carefully because that’s going to be the basis of all the questions that you get asked,’ says Ben Jaffey, barrister and member of the pupillage committee at Blackstone Chambers. ‘To begin the interview, we ask the candidate about their application and CV, what they’ve been doing recently and why they want to be a barrister. People often turn up and give the impression they haven’t actually read their application; you’re trying to persuade a committee to give you a pupillage and, if you’re not familiar with your own application, you’ve got no hope.’ Practise your answers to basic questions you may encounter, such as ‘Why do you want to be a member of this chambers?’ and ‘What will you do if you don’t get a pupillage?’. A surprising number of applicants are stumped by these questions.
Make sure you’ve researched the chambers thoroughly. Be familiar with the areas of law that the set practises in and rehearse your case for how its work ties in with your own interests and skills. You’ll need to be able to back up what you say about yourself with evidence from your work experience, academic achievements or extracurricular activities.
Many chambers will give you a legal problem or question when you arrive that you must prepare to present in the interview:
- you might need to produce a short piece of written work that you will then be questioned about
- prepare to argue a point as part of a formal advocacy exercise or
- simply consider the relevant issues ahead of a discussion with the interviewers.
There’s also likely to be a discussion of more general legal matters – for example current legal affairs, procedural or ethical issues, or cases that you’ve already encountered, eg while representing clients as a volunteer at the Free Representation Unit (FRU), in a mini-pupillage or moot – and a chat about yourself and the experiences you’ve described in your application. Some sets will ask you to complete role plays, group tasks or stand-alone written exercises.
‘We give you half a dozen discussion topics on legal current affairs issues in the interview that you can choose from,’ reveals Ben. ‘One we’ve used in the past was “Should holocaust denial be a criminal offence?”. There is no right answer. We ask people what they think and then we’ll ask them some questions and have a chat about it.’
‘The discussion topic should not be treated like an academic essay, where you set out the arguments on each side and show off how many cases you’ve memorised. We approach it how a judge would, which is: “Explain to me in very simple terms why your answer must be right.”’
‘Candidates don’t need to have any legal knowledge at all for the discussion topic,' says Ben. ‘The purpose is not to test legal knowledge but to see whether or not they can construct and present an argument and respond to some questions about it, such as: “How would your argument work if we changed this fact?”. Sometimes we’ll ask them what they think the best argument is for the other side; so if they’re arguing that holocaust denial should be a criminal offence, we’ll ask them to give an argument for the opposition as well.’
Given that some interviewees will still be doing their conversion courses you’re unlikely to be expected to have encyclopaedic knowledge of the law; you don’t need to memorise the fine details of case law or statutes. However, you do need to be able to talk knowledgeably about areas that you claim to know about, for example your dissertation topic.
Keep yourself up to date with developments in the legal world, and current affairs. ‘Find out what’s happening in legal current affairs because you can then reference that in your interview,’ advises Ben. ‘You should be ready to answer questions about the particular area of law you’re interested in. Look in the law section of the newspapers and read various law blogs. Barristers read them, so people applying for a pupillage definitely need to as well.’
Aim to come across as polite, positive and professional. You need to be articulate, confident, intelligent and persuasive. Pupillage committees are looking for someone with whom they may wish to work for many years. Dress smartly (a suit is the best bet), arrive early, treat the clerks or admin staff with respect, maintain eye contact and smile.
During the interview, show your enthusiasm for your chosen career at the Bar and answer questions honestly but with a positive spin. It’s a good idea to set up a practice interview at your careers service to polish your technique.
Interviewers at barristers’ chambers aren’t just interested in what you say – they’ll also be taking note of how you say it. They will be considering whether you would instil confidence in a client, an instructing solicitor, a tribunal or a jury, and whether you would also be able to get on with other members of chambers, including clerks.
‘It took me 46 interviews, two years and someone else dropping out before I got a pupillage. You need determination, a thick skin, and perhaps even an element of pig-headedness, because it is going to be hard,’ warns Tom Wainright, barrister at Garden Court Chambers. ‘Frankly the recruitment process gets a bit tiring, but then someone walks in and wakes you up with their enthusiasm and their presence, and those are the ones that get pupillage. If they can hold your attention, they can hold the judge’s attention, the jury’s attention and the magistrate’s attention, and that’s what you need to be able to do.’
Stephen Vullo, barrister and head of pupillage at 2 Bedford Row, says: ‘We invite about 10% of applicants to do a first-round interview where we see you for a minute or two. There’s only one thing that I look for: somebody who can be an advocate. There’s a difference between standing up and being able to talk to a room and being convincing to a jury or a magistrate. When you walk into the room for an interview, just present yourself as somebody that can be an advocate and if you do that in a few interviews, you’ll get pupillage.’
Inviting you to interview gives the barristers involved in recruitment at a particular set or chambers the chance to get to know you and see what you are capable of. They’ll want to be sure you could work with them well into the future before investing time and money in training you.
It’s unlikely that chambers will try any scare tactics on you or deliberately ask questions that they think you’ll struggle with. However, if they do, keep in mind that they’re probably looking to see how you react under pressure. Take a deep breath and do the best you can, then move on. If you’ve stayed calm and thought of something sensible to say they’re likely to be impressed.
‘From my experience of attending pupillage interviews recently, I think some chambers ask questions that are specifically designed to be completely random to see how you can cope with that,’ reflects Deirdre Malone, barrister at Garden Court Chambers. ‘I’ve certainly been asked some very odd questions in pupillage interviews. It might seem a bit unfair but it’s a very good test to see how you can think on your feet and cope with that. How you present yourself in the interview is very important – if you’re so nervous that you can’t perform well in an interview, it will indicate to the interviewer that when sent to court with just a few hours’ notice, you’re unlikely to be able to deliver. Focus, keep calm and do the best you can because you’ve got this far, you just need to really go for it.’
‘Your ability to cope with stress comes out at interview,’ says Richard Clayton QC from 4–5 Gray’s Inn Square. ‘I remember an outstanding candidate who was brilliant, but gave a wrong answer and just completely blew it. After ten minutes he suddenly realised. But in fact he’s now a tenant at my chambers: there’s always a way back. If an interview goes badly it doesn’t actually mean it was a bad interview. It happens to everyone.’ Showing your ability to recover is what makes you a strong candidate for pupillage.
Consider how to phrase any questions you want to ask the interview panel. ‘Why should I want to practise at this set of chambers?’ comes across as arrogant and aggressive, while ‘What do you like about being a member of this set?’ is more likely to elicit the information you want and create a good impression.
‘We give an opportunity for candidates to ask questions at the end. Some people do, some people don’t. Lots of people say, “No, I’ve read all of your pupillage information, everything’s been covered in the interview, thank you very much,” and that’s fine,’ points out Ben. ‘Lots of people ask the same questions about how pupillage is structured, but often that’s already been answered in our pupillage materials and we get a bit bored at that point.’ If your research and the recruitment process have told you all you need to know, don’t feel obliged to make up queries just for the sake of it.
Tom offered these words of wisdom at the TARGETjobs National Pupillage Fair, based on his experience: ‘There are some people who swan off to an interview every other week and may end up being offered more than one pupillage, and there will be some who don’t get offered many interviews but still get a pupillage, or some people who get a lot of interviews and no pupillage, like I did. The interview process isn’t perfect so I certainly shouldn’t take it personally if you don’t get through at a particular set. It helps that it’s so competitive because it causes you to think about how much you really want to do it, and everyone will have their limit for how badly they want it. Those who get it are the ones that want it most and are the most dedicated and enthusiastic.’