Use pro bono and other legal work experience to get a pupillage
You'll need to arrange mini-pupillages, or work experience at barristers' chambers, in order to put together a strong application for a graduate training position to become a barrister, known as pupillage. Strengthen your hand and your understanding of the legal profession as a whole by seeking out other law-related work experience opportunities.
Vacations schemes at solicitors’ firms
Would-be barristers are well advised to spend some time in a solicitors’ firm. This shows recruiters that you have actively explored your options and have good grounds for your eventual career decision. It also gives you a feel for how things work in the other main branch of the legal profession and the types of tasks that solicitors are likely to be involved in. You’ll spend a great deal of time as a barrister in contact with solicitors, so the clearer the idea you have of what they do the better.
Many large solicitors’ firms run formal work experience schemes, generally known as vacation placements. These tend to be longer than mini-pupillages, typically lasting between one and four weeks. As well as shadowing solicitors and completing small, discrete tasks, there may well be presentations about the firm and its work and a number of social events. Many vacation placement students are paid: between £200 and £350 per week is typical. Vacation placements are extremely popular – it can be harder to get onto one than to get a training contract. Most vacation placements will have fixed closing dates.
‘A career at the Bar is a massive financial commitment,’ says Saima, who has sat on pupillage panels at QEB. ‘Be aware of the challenges and be sure about what it is that you want because you will be thousands of pounds in debt. Exploit all the opportunities for experience that you have – for example, doing vacation schemes at law firms allowed me to be sure that I wanted to be a barrister and not a solicitor.’
Pro bono and other legal work experience to fit in around your studies
As well as spending time with a solicitors’ firm, other good forms of legal experience include volunteering at a Citizens Advice Bureau or law centre, marshalling (shadowing a circuit or high court judge for up to a week) and getting involved in mooting and debating.
You could also consider taking on cases via the Free Representation Unit (FRU), which provides legal advice, case preparation and advocacy in tribunal cases for those who cannot otherwise obtain legal support. ‘I met one of my loyal instructing solicitors while volunteering with FRU in 2002 and he has probably sent me over £250,00 worth of work since then,’ says Heather Platt, employment law barrister at Pump Court Chambers. ‘Early in your career, you not only have to find yourself a good set of chambers but you then have to build up your practice – that’s the hard part. You need to make connections as early as you can and think commercially, because you need people to send work to you.’
To begin training with the FRU you will need to have reached at least the third year of a law degree or have started a conversion course; other volunteering schemes may require you to have a certain level of legal knowledge depending on the position you are applying for. Taking on pro bono cases for legal advice charities is a great way of getting noticed by solicitors – if you impress with the work you do for free, they might well come back to you one day with paid work.
You’ll also gain experience of representing a client in court. ‘People who’ve done FRU or similar can have the confidence that they’ve been to a tribunal and they’ve represented a client,’ explains Ben Jaffey, barrister and member of the pupillage committee at Blackstone Chambers. ‘They can then talk about their cases at an interview at the same level as if they were another barrister. That is going to help you enormously.’ You can also arrange marshalling opportunities via the Inns of Court or by contacting your local Crown Court.
Become a research or judicial assistant in your gap year
If you have a substantial amount of time available to you (for example if you are thinking of taking a gap year to gain more experience), there are various other options you could consider. Emma Zeb, a pupillage committee member at St John’s Chambers, comments: ‘I spent a summer at an American law firm doing personal injury work on the recommendation of my Inner Temple sponsor. I know that this impressed the interview panels when I attended pupillage interviews.’
Other options include becoming a paralegal; working as a judicial assistant in the Court of Appeal; spending time as a research assistant at the Law Commission; or becoming an outdoor clerk in a litigation firm.
Paralegals are employed by solicitors’ firms to assist their lawyers on cases and transactions. There are no official rules as to who can apply but most firms will favour those with some legal knowledge (generally law graduates and those who have completed the conversion course).
Judicial assistants spend between a maximum of two terms at the Court of Appeal, assisting judges with their work and observing how things work behind the scenes in court. Positions are normally advertised three times a year in The Times, the Law Society Gazette and at www.justice.gov.uk, HM Courts and Tribunals Service website. Again, there are no hard and fast rules about who can apply, although many assistants take up their positions at a relatively late stage in their training.
Research assistants at the Law Commission help more senior members of staff to develop recommendations for legal reform; positions last for approximately 12 months. If you’re a non-law student, be aware that the Law Commission requires its research assistants to have studied law for at least two years, so you may not be eligible to apply. Outdoor clerks assist solicitors at locations outside the firm, for example going to court to complete admin tasks or other errands.
Commercial experience that will help you become a barrister
Don’t make the mistake of overlooking opportunities that aren’t law-related. You’ll need much more than just legal knowledge to practise as a barrister and you can develop the relevant skills (commercial awareness, communication and organisational skills, teamworking, professionalism and so on) via a whole manner of activities. What’s more, some recruiters tend to feel that applicants who’ve done nothing apart from law are just a little bit dull, and lack broader practical experience of the world of work. Satya Chotalia, tenant at criminal law set 187 Fleet Street, says: ‘My advice for aspiring barristers would be to do something outside the legal world to make you stand out.’ Satya worked in sales for a few years to fund his studies.
Pupillage recruiters look for candidates with commercial awareness, and casual jobs can help you to demonstrate this. Barristers provide a service and need to be focused on their clients' needs and aware of the wider market in which their clients operate. Casual jobs that involve client contact, such as bar or shop work, provide experience of dealing with customers and the opportunity to see how businesses operate. If you need more time to weigh up your graduate career options or to save up for conversion course of Bar professional training course fees, Saima Younis says there’s no need to rush: ‘There’s no harm in taking a year off and doing a job to save up for your course – it’ll give you something interesting to talk about at pupillage interviews. Kill two birds with one stone: find a job that will earn you money and develop your skills at the same time.’
Casual work on your CV also shows that you have gone out and been independent; if you’ve juggled a part-time job with your studies this also indicates that you’re able to prioritise and manage your time. Office experience with any type of employer can be helpful, particularly if you can find a position with the sort of organisation you'd like to represent as a barrister.
Volunteering or charity work always looks good, and positions of responsibility or significant involvement with clubs or societies can potentially impress as well. However, beware of joining a group or taking up a position as a ‘CV filler’ – unless you’re prepared to get actively involved and make a significant input, it’s probably a waste of time.