Five minutes with... Stephanie Hall, junior tenant at Francis Taylor Building
Tell us a little about Francis Taylor Building and the work that you do
We’re a public and environmental law set. Much of our work is for or against local authorities or central government, challenging or defending their decisions on matters such as planning applications. A lot of what we do concerns big infrastructure projects, such as the high-speed rail project HS2 and new nuclear power stations.
Our client base is fairly wide and, aside from public sector clients, our members have acted for water providers, energy firms, Network Rail, harbour operators, wind farms and fracking projects.
What really stands out when someone applies to Francis Taylor Building?
We get many applications from people with good academics, so to get invited to interview you need that something extra that makes your application stand out. That could be anything from a previous career to interesting experiences. I think my CV stood out because I previously worked for local government for three years and so had an understanding of our client base. Another member of chambers spent two years at the Law Commission and undertook an internship on Capitol Hill. Overall we are looking for people who can demonstrate an interest in our chambers and who are interesting.
What’s the recruitment process for pupillages and mini-pupillages?
For pupillage we have a written application process that is separate from the Pupillage Gateway, with an application deadline in early 2015. The paper applications are assessed by a panel. We try to interview around 20 to 30 people in the first-round interviews, which include a small advocacy exercise. We invite around ten people back for a second-round interview, where they’ll have to tackle legal problem questions.
For mini-pupillage candidates need to submit a short covering letter and a CV. We recruit mini-pupils in three tranches each year. The next deadline is 6 February 2015 for mini-pupillages from April to July 2015.
What sort of advocacy questions do you ask candidates?
In the first-round we’ve tended to ask people to give a short presentation on an accessible and topical issue, where they have to essentially argue for one side or the other. When I went for interview it was around the early years of the coalition government, so there were topics such as: ‘coalition governments are inherently undemocratic – discuss’.
I think I chose to discuss the classic topic: ‘jury trials are irrelevant and unnecessary’. It’s essentially an opportunity for us to see how good people are at crafting and presenting an argument without requiring too much in the way of background knowledge.
How can a candidate answer the essential pupillage question: ‘Why do you want to work in law?’
For us, the question is more ‘why do you want to be a planning lawyer?’ We recognise that our main practice areas are quite niche, so we look to people having an answer that rings true and sounds like they’ve actually thought about it and what they want to do. Saying something like ‘I saw it on Silk and it looked good’ won’t be good enough!
The question tests whether they’ll be happy working in our areas of law, and whether they’ll be good at it. There are people who apply for law just because it’s a proper job and it pays well. We’re interested in attracting people who are going to stay with us and they’re usually the people who’ve thought about this. A personal answer is always going to be more convincing.
We are a reasonably small set; we socialise together and we want people who are going to come, enjoy it and want to stay. You only get that from people who know what they’re good at, have thought about what they want from life and who have decided on an informed basis that this is it.
Problem questions and interviews are high-pressure situations. What do you look for in a candidate under fire?
We want people to be relaxed. We’re not trying to catch people out or trip them up as we don’t gain anything from that. Instead, we’re genuinely interested in finding out who the candidate is. For instance, someone might not know the answer to a question, but we’re interested in seeing how people respond to that in the hope that someone will try to reason their way to an answer instead of giving up.
Equally, if someone says something that’s not quite right, we may correct them or give them some more information to see how they take on board and respond to new points. I remember from my interview that there seemed to be lots of things that I didn’t know and I came out thinking ‘oh I did really badly, but at least they were nice about it’.
There are QCs in planning and environmental law who also work as professors or lecturers. How academic do you need to be to reach the planning bar?
The Bar is not ‘one profession fits all: every barrister is the same’. Environmental and planning law attracts a particular style of advocate and a particular type of person. It doesn’t have the fast-paced turnover that you’ll get with the criminal bar.
Some of our members do quite a lot of lecturing and we do a fair bit of that in-house, as we run breakfast briefings for our clients on recent issues. That easily segues into academia and, if you want, publishing.
We are looking for high academic achievement, but we’re certainly not looking for PhDs and masters as a prerequisite. Instead, we look for applicants with academic ability and the easiest way to display that is with strong degree results. But there are different ways of showing you are academically capable.
How can someone show they are interested in planning or environmental law at the Bar?
We recognise that we specialise in areas that few people will have come across at university or Bar school. So an interest in public law generally will help. Equally, some people come into planning law from other careers, such as surveying or planning. Others may have had experience of applying for planning permission or village green inquiries.
One good way of showing an interest is to have done a mini-pupillage at a planning set. That will give a good feel for what planning is all about.
What happens on a mini-pupillage at Francis Taylor Building?
We run unassessed mini-pupillages because we feel people ought to be able to come and find out whether the Bar, and planning, is for them. It’s best to see mini-pupillage as something for you rather than for us.
Each mini-pupillage will be different. We try to get mini-pupils to court or to inquiries, and to make sure they have exposure to people in chambers at the senior and junior ends. The hearings we’re involved in are often reasonably accessible and last one or two days, so they are a good way into our practice.
When I have a mini-pupil I always allocate them time for a chat, get them to look at some of my papers and, if they are post-university, I might get them to do some research and see the kind of work that we do.
Francis Taylor Building will be at the TARGETjobs National Pupillage Fair on 7 March 2015. How should visitors to the fair use it as an opportunity?
As with mini-pupillage, people should use the fair for themselves; it’s not really for us. We see so many people and the person you speak to at the fair is unlikely to be the person looking at your CV when you apply for pupillage, so don’t worry too much about asking silly questions. Use the fair as an opportunity find out what a planning barrister does.
Ultimately you want to end up at a set where you’re going to be happy. The process can become ‘I want a pupillage – any pupillage’, but you don’t want to be taken on at a set where you’re going to be unhappy. You want it to be a good fit for you.
Do you have any other advice for aspiring barristers?
It sounds trite, but please check your applications for silly errors. We still get mini-pupillage applications addressed to the wrong chambers or from people telling us how much they want to be a chancery barrister.
Don’t cut and paste, and don’t use proforma covering letters. Our process is not a difficult one; it requires a CV and a covering letter. Spend some time reading about us and our areas. If someone has no idea about our chambers or about planning law and hasn’t tried to find out, it shines through.
If you make it to interview, don’t worry. Unless you manage to keep up a bad impression throughout the first-round interview, we’d always forgive a brilliant candidate. If someone came in a bit late and scruffy because they’ve had to leg it from the tube, then they’re bound not to make their ideal first impression, but that wouldn’t be fatal if you did a stellar interview. We’re all about getting the best people (although I still wouldn’t advise being late!).