Getting pupillage is the Holy Grail for those aspiring to the Bar. It is brutally competitive from the first application to interview and you need to make sure anything you show potential chambers is the very best it can be. Take a deep breath, don’t rush and use our tips and helpful advice from qualified barristers to guide you through.
1. Proofread and structure your pupillage application form
A large number of chambers use the Bar Council’s online Pupillage Gateway system www.pupillagegateway.com as their primary method of receiving applications from candidates. This system may also be referred to by its two previous names OLPAS and the Pupillage Portal. However, don't be surprised if barristers or chambers still use the older descriptions.
Those not on the Pupillage Gateway very often have their own online forms instead, although a few chambers still offer the option of applying via CV or an application form and CV.
As a general rule applications require:
- legal academic and work experience
- non-legal academic and work experience
- responsibilities and interests
- answers to competency/suitability questions.
Don’t forget to include everything you possibly can to tilt the scales in your favour. Degree and exam grades are an absolute necessity and, while languages may only be a tiny box on the application form, the Bar is increasingly looking for multi-lingual barristers.
Application forms and CVs have their own formal structures and rules to abide by just as legal papers do. An ability to follow that structure means your CV is easier to read and demonstrates an attention to detail that they will expect to see throughout your career. Whether you’re writing a CV or filling in an empty and dateless pupillage application form there are rules to remember.
‘Applicants need to set out their educational achievements (including grades) and work experience in reverse chronological order,’ says Georgina Wolfe, barrister and pupillage committee member at 5 Essex Court. ‘They should differentiate between legal and non-legal work experience. They need to include their mini-pupillages, mooting, debating, marshalling and voluntary work – it is amazing how many candidates say “oh yes I have done that” but it is not on their CV. Pupillage committees are not mind-readers!’
Always, always, always get at least one person, preferably not a lawyer, to proofread a completed application form before sending it off and get them to ask you questions on anything that they need clarifying as a layperson. There’s no guarantee the very first person to see your CV will be a barrister, so make it as clear as possible.
The single most important proofreading rule? Do not mix up the words ‘practice’ and ‘practise’ – you want to practise law, as then you will have a law practice.
2. Stand out on your pupillage application
Every other candidate will have a good degree and a respectable academic background. The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate what makes you different and sway a pupillage committee inundated with application forms to put yours on the interview pile.
It would be easy to list your participation in the university law society or a mooting and debating club in the ‘interests and any non-work related involvement’ box on an application form, when in reality some of your more personal pastimes might be more eye-catching. Perhaps file your involvement in these societies in the experiences and skills gained box instead and use the opportunity to reveal some of your personality to chambers.
‘Chambers obviously place a great deal of weight on academic qualifications and relevant experience. However, in addition to this it is important that applicants give a sense of their character and personality in their applications and CVs,’ says Justin Leslie of 42 Bedford Row. ‘This gives applicants the greatest chance of being invited to an interview and being remembered afterwards. If you’ve tasted every commercially available gin, you've been on a game show or you're a techno DJ in your spare time (all real examples) don’t be backwards in coming forwards.’
What may seem like an innocuous pastime to you could be relevant from the right angle. You may not think that a techno DJ would be welcome on pupillage, but if you’ve been performing to people (indicates advocacy potential), keeping to a gig schedule (shows you’re organised) and picking up new tricks (quick learner) then you can use that to your advantage with the added bonus that you prove you are not just a walking law degree.
In the same vein, don’t try to be something that you’re not. You might think that everyone in chambers speaks Latin and asks for a ‘calescent demitasse of caffeinated decoction’ every time they want a coffee but you have to remember these are people too and no one talks like that, especially if they want to be in statu pupillari anytime soon. Use plain English in your applications.
‘There’s nothing worse than somebody trying to sound like a lawyer,’ says Stephen Vullo QC of 2 Bedford Row. ‘When in court the finest advocates never say a word that is difficult. They never say a word that you wouldn’t readily understand or that my eight-year-old son wouldn’t instantly understand. Only people trying to sound like advocates use long words, Latin and other things. It’s totally unnecessary.’
3. Lead with your experience
Some sets put mini-pupillage or pro bono experience at the top of their list of requirements, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore part-time jobs, internships and other experience. Keeping a regular working schedule, interacting with people and the decision making that occurs in almost any job are all useful in showing a chambers that you can look after yourself and that you’ll keep working to bring in the chambers’ fees as well. That’s before you get to interests that can be useful.
‘There is such a wide plethora of skills that are useful to a barrister, anything to do with performance. If you like to act, perform music, or have a particular cause that you are passionate about, go out and advocate for it,’ says Harry Adamson of Blackstone Chambers. ‘Any of that is extremely impressive and it’s just a great comfort for you to say "this is why I’m here and this is why you should take me".’
You may not think that your stint volunteering on hospital radio or acting in a play for a sick children’s charity has anything to do with a pupillage application, but you’re still performing. If you’re interested in personal injury law and need an example to back up your advocacy, use it to your advantage, show your public speaking and performance experience, and show how you've been in close contact with people suffering injuries.
Candidates can overlook even the well-trodden extracurricular activities like law societies and mooting if not careful. Always include what experience you have, even if you were not president of the law society or international mooting champion three years running. You may not have been president of the society, but if you had any role from treasurer to leaflet distributor you have had people relying on you, used your skills or charm, and made a contribution to something you (hopefully) believed in – all useful traits in a pupil.
4. Write why YOU want to be a barrister
‘Why do you wish to become a barrister?’ is one of the key questions on the application form and you will have to get comfortable with sharing your personal experiences. They are asking you and you alone, so any answer that begins quoting dead philosophers or legal professionals is immediately off topic.
DON’T fill the box with meaningless platitudes: ‘I enjoy,’ ‘I’m good at,’ ‘other people tell me’ or ‘mum says’. They want hard evidence to see that your skills match up, not your opinion. If you need to present an answer try to back it up experientially. One example might be to use the format: my time at [experience] working on a [type of case] which involved [details] and was resolved by [process] taught me [skills] that appeal to my [personal trait].
Likewise DON’T talk about Silk, Kavanagh QC or Law and Order (or Rumpole of the Bailey if you’re a mature student) inspiring you to become a barrister. Wait a few years past tenancy, or when you’re speaking as a barrister at the TARGETjobs Law National Pupillage Fair 2050 talks, before you mention this dark little secret.
Draw on your experiences and relate your reasons to actual events or actions in your life. Mini-pupillages can help with this answer, particularly if you can compare that experience to a vacation scheme at a solicitors’ firm. This can give you evidence to back up why you chose the Bar above other options.
Look at what motivates you. Perhaps you like the idea of being self-employed (although make sure you know exactly what that entails)? Maybe you’ve been a public speaker from the age of three and the Bar is the only paying outlet for those advocacy skills? If you want it for the intellectual challenge, what evidence can you use to show that you have faced intellectual challenges in the past and can grow at Bar? Any legal experience will come in handy, such as visits to chambers and pupillage events.
5. Answering questions about chambers and areas of practice
DON’T re-use the same application for each set of chambers. You need to target an application to its areas of law and mention cases its barristers have worked on when you answer why you picked that set.
DON’T copy and paste – mistakes are easier to make if you’re reusing an application for different sets and listing the wrong chambers name on ANY part of an application form is pretty much guaranteed to get paper-sifted out. This doesn’t just apply to the one question about your choice of chambers.
‘I’ve been on pupillage committees in the past and have been surprised when I’ve seen an application from someone who wants to do pupillage in my chambers and wants to prosecute,’ says Di Middleton of Garden Court Chambers. ‘I’ve only ever been in chambers that do defence work. If you’re filling in lots of forms and casting your net across the waters widely you do have to be very careful to know where you’re applying, what that chambers specialism is and, within that specialism, what level of work they do.’
DO make a chambers feel special across the form. When writing about areas of practice, be specific – what you like about claimant professional negligence, assuming that is the chambers' speciality, sounds a lot more targeted than what you like about commercial law. Likewise when giving reasons for your choice of chambers you have the chance to show what you know about everything from their ethos and cases to what you love, if you know, about their social nights and culture in chambers.