Five minutes with... Erin Hitchens, barrister at XXIV Old Buildings
Erin Hitchens, a barrister specialising in commercial chancery law, shares her thoughts on how to impress pupillage committees in applications and interviews.
Find a balance between ambition and arrogance in your answers to interview questions.
Tell us a bit about your chambers and your work at the commercial chancery bar.
The work of Chambers combines the traditional elements of the chancery bar, such as trusts, probate, civil fraud, insolvency and company law with work that has a more commercial aspect, such as business litigation, financial services and hedge funds, construction and aviation. Many of our members have rights of audience in the Caribbean, where a lot of our work relating to offshore trusts and funds takes place.
What can students expect if they undertake a mini-pupillage at your chambers and how might they go about securing one?
Our mini-pupillages are deliberately unassessed because the purpose of them is not for us to test students. Rather, they allow mini-pupils to experience what life at the Bar is like and to help them make a decision about whether or not they want to pursue a career as a barrister and at a set such as ours. We decide mini-pupillages on paper only – a covering letter and CV. Strong academics are helpful, but the covering letter should give strong reasons as to why the applicant wants to become a barrister and why they are interested in joining a commercial chancery chambers. Evidence of experience in advocacy, such as debating or mooting, is useful for showing dedication to the Bar.
How can aspiring barristers make the most of campus law fairs?
I’d advise students to ask directed questions, rather than simply introducing themselves as a law student and asking something generic. There can be some level of opaqueness over what chancery involves, so it’s nice to meet people who have done some research before talking to us, rather than relying on us to explain this area of law to them. It’s much more engaging for students if they have thought of something original to ask us, or have some specific query.
Talk us through the application process for pupillage at your chambers.
The first stage is a timed verbal reasoning test that applicants sit on their computer. We believe that this tests the type of skills we look for in candidates. There is also a very basic application form, which is anonymous at this stage, in order to eliminate any kind of bias which may exist – conscious or not.
We then select around 40 candidates on the basis of test scores and the information in their initial application form. We take into account academic results, candidates’ motivations for working in chancery law and why they want to come to our chambers. These candidates are invited to a first-round interview – a 20-minute interview with a panel of three people – and we ask them to send in a covering letter and CV in advance, so by the time we meet them, we have much more information about each candidate. The application process obviously ceases to be anonymous at this point.
After the first-round interviews, we invite 12 candidates back for an assessment day. Candidates spend the whole day with us and alternate between activities – an advocacy exercise, a written exercise and a group discussion. Candidates are up against each other in the advocacy exercise and group discussion, although chambers’ invigilators may also get involved. The exercises that we use tend not to have a commercial chancery focus: we try not to advantage applicants who know more about law than others, such as those who have already completed a law degree. The assessment day also provides an opportunity to meet candidates socially – we have a lunch where candidates are seated next to members of chambers. We recognise that the best candidates have a choice of where to go and so the lunch allows them to get to know us in a less formal context, which we hope will encourage them to choose us.
What do you think applicants find most challenging when it comes to pupillage interviews?
The questions ‘Why do you want to be a barrister?’ or ‘What attracts you to the chancery Bar?’ are often stumbling blocks – largely because people’s responses can be rehearsed and sometimes sound insincere. It can also be difficult for students to find a balance between ambition and arrogance in their answers. While we are keen to see ambition and self-confidence, candidates who talk about how they could improve chambers tend to come across as rather presumptuous.
Do you ask applicants legal problems in pupillage interviews?
We have previously posed legal problems in interviews and may reintroduce them. In the past, they have revolved around issues of interpretation and have not required candidates to understand any principles of law. For example, we might ask applicants to analyse or interpret a clause of a contract.
Describe your ideal pupillage candidate.
We place an emphasis on intellect, because the chancery bar can be very intellectually rigorous. But strong academics are not enough – advocacy and presentation skills are important at every stage of assessment. In the past, we have interviewed candidates who have impeccable exam results, but who have lacked spark in interviews or failed to use a convincing method of presentation. Given that commercial chancery is a demanding and specialised area of law, we value people who know what we’re about and who can explain why they want to do the type of work we focus on.
As you doubtless know, only one in ten applicants secure pupillage. Can you define what makes a candidate successful?
The two candidates we took on last year both had very strong academics, but not the strongest of all the pupillage applicants. Neither did they come out with the top scores on the aptitude test, although they did perform well. However, at our assessment day they displayed a calm but confident presentation manner, sound intellectual analysis of the points they needed to consider and a method of dealing with counterarguments that was not aggressive, but measured, firm and confident. That is what made them shine.