Five minutes with... Georgina Wolfe, barrister at 5 Essex Court
Georgina Wolfe, barrister and pupillage committee member at 5 Essex Court, provides her insider advice on pupillage applications, interviews and how to impress at the TARGETjobs National Pupillage Fair.
We see so many excellent candidates who have both strong academic credentials and stellar extra-curricular interests or employment. You really need to do both as far as possible.
How does your set manage the task of assessing pupillage applications?
We receive around 150 applications each year for one or two pupillage vacancies, which I think is less than average because we’re a small niche set. We divide the applications up between our pupillage committee and every single one is read by at least two committee members. We then compile a list of the top 30 candidates to invite for interview.
What kind of things on an application form will really stand out for you?
There are three things that stand out for me. Firstly, we’re looking for a well crafted form. Application time often coincides with exams and people may put it low on their list of priorities, but this is your only chance to show chambers your written advocacy and how you can construct a persuasive document. Writing style is very important – obviously substance is important, but if somebody has brilliant content and appears to have rushed their application, they’ll get marked down.
Secondly, I’m impressed by somebody who’s done their research by reading our website and using that information to influence their decision. It sounds obvious, but when you’re applying to up to 12 chambers at once then they all start to blur together.
Thirdly, as when applying to any chambers with a niche practice area, it is important to mention the practice area and explain why it interests you – even if you have no specific experience. If you do have any such experience, that’s the icing on the cake.
How can somebody demonstrate that they’re interested in your practice areas?
5 Essex Court is a leading set in police law, which is a specialist field involving many different areas of law. It encompasses all areas of law that involve the police: everything from employment to public law, false imprisonment to defamation and public inquiries to inquests following police shootings.
Inner Temple runs a police liaison scheme whereby you spend a day or two going around in the back of a police car, which is quite exciting. You can also arrange that yourself with your local police force. Other experience you can get includes working with the Crown Prosecution Service. We had one applicant last year who had been a volunteer attending police stations to check that the police were treating detainees appropriately, which was very impressive. We do not expect our applicants to have any police law experience but it does not take a huge investment of time to obtain some and it does make an application stand out from the crowd.
What stands out for the wrong reasons on a pupillage application form?
Misspelling ‘practice’ is incredibly common – probably about a quarter of all applicants do that. People who submit applications where it’s obvious that they’re more interested in applying somewhere else, right down to saying ‘I wish to practise in pharmaceutical law because…’ are never very impressive.
How important are academics? Should students focus on getting a first or on extra-curricular activities?
Evidence of academic ability is essential (whether by degree result or an alternative); unless there’s a good reason, we won’t interview somebody who has less than a 2.1 and that is the same at most sets.
The problem is that we see so many excellent candidates who have both strong academic credentials and stellar extra-curricular interests or employment. You really need to do both as far as possible. We want to see that somebody has left the library in the time that they’ve been at university. We wouldn’t be very interested in somebody who had a first but no other experience.
What kind of experience are you looking for on an application form?
We like to see mini-pupillages at chambers that do similar work to us. Mini-pupillages are a great way to find out which areas of law really interest you because it’s all very well to enjoy the academic study, but until you experience the practical side then you can’t be sure that it’s the right area for you. Mini-pupillages are also a good way of getting pupillage interviews, because once you’ve got your foot in the door you have a few days to meet different people, see a number of different cases and become more informed about that chambers. You can then base your interview answers on experience rather than just theory.
We’re also impressed by people who have done cases with the Free Representation Unit (FRU) – particularly employment cases. We’re equally unimpressed by people who say that they’re FRU-trained but haven’t taken on any cases. We also like to see some mooting and debating.
5 Essex Court will be at the TARGETjobs National Pupillage Fair in March. How can students attending make a good impression?
Read the information in advance, find out which chambers are going to be there and target them specifically. Make sure to attend all of the relevant talks – there is an excellent talks programme but it tends to fill up very quickly, so join the queue early.
It’s also worth approaching barristers and pupils and asking questions because it’s the only opportunity where barristers can tell you what it’s really like first-hand. For example, if you’re not quite sure which area of law you want to practise you can ask the barristers more about it and about what level of experience they expect from candidates.
Do you remember the good candidates you meet at the National Pupillage Fair? How can they impress you?
We’re impressed by people who come to meet us and know which areas of law we do and are interested to see whether the reality measures up to how we promote ourselves. Ask the sorts of things that aren’t available on our website. Don’t waste your time asking ‘How many pupillages do you offer?’. It’s better to ask ‘How does your pupillage differ from others?’.
How important are the Inns of Court in securing pupillage?
The Inns of Court are fantastic. When I started, I didn’t really know anyone in the profession and I was very nervous that that would count against me. You can go along to events at the Inn or the Cumberland Lodge advocacy weekend and meet all kinds of interesting barristers and judges and learn from their experience. They also offer a mentoring scheme where you’re allocated a barrister who will give you advice.
How do you spot a good potential barrister from the mini-pupillage students?
Those who are well presented, turn up on time and who have obviously done their research – it’s disappointing when somebody asks you a lot of questions that are all answered on our website. We like people who are there to learn and who are enthusiastic. We’ll remember those people when they then apply for pupillage with us.
We’re not impressed by mini-pupils who show bad judgement – for example, somebody who starts to try and give clients legal advice in a conference. It’s also important to listen to the barristers – you’re there to learn rather than to show off.
How can you make the most of a mini-pupillage?
Listen and take notes as you’re going, because people will ask you who you met or what you did yesterday and it’s hard to remember what you’ve done throughout the week. Be open and willing to try things – go along to all the cases that you can and ask questions at appropriate moments. Remember that before court, the barrister will probably be thinking about the case and even still preparing, so save all of your questions until after court.
What’s the structure of your pupillage interviews?
The first-round interview, which lasts around 20 minutes, is about getting to know the candidate. We will also give them a legal problem to discuss – they’ll have 20 minutes before the interview to prepare this. We try to vary the questions and ensure that they’re fair to all candidates, whether you’re just finishing your degree, a conversion course or the Bar course. We’re looking most of all for logical reasoning: somebody who can analyse the question accurately and who reads and understands it. You do need some legal knowledge, but certainly no more than you would get from a conversion course or law degree.
We then cut it down from about 30 candidates to 10 for the second round. The second rounders are invited to drinks, which is an informal and unassessed opportunity to meet members of chambers and make sure that you like us!
In the second interview, we have an advocacy exercise. Again, we try to make it equal for candidates at all stages of their training. If there is any relevant law or statute that we think is essential for the exercise, then we’ll provide it. It’s not about assessing your legal knowledge, it’s about your advocacy skills and how persuasive you can be. Normally, candidates will be given a factual scenario and then some instructions. They will have 20 minutes to prepare.
The advocacy exercise is run similar to a moot – one member of the panel will act as a judge and they may or may not intervene depending on the circumstances.
What are you looking for in the advocacy exercise?
We’re looking for good logical reasoning in the way that they present their argument and someone who is a persuasive advocate. If you have done the Bar course, we’d expect you to address the judge properly. We’re looking for good engagement with the question itself and with whoever is the judge.
Any final advice for pupillage applicants?
When you’re deciding which chambers to apply to, look online at the CVs of their junior tenants and find out two things: firstly, whether your CV measures up to theirs and whether it’s realistic for you to apply to that chambers. Secondly, use it to get ideas for what kinds of experience you should do to make yourself an ideal candidate for that set.
What do you think would surprise our readers about your set?
Even though we’re a small, niche chambers, we do an enormous amount of really exciting, high quality work. In the last couple of years we’ve worked on the Leveson Inquiry, the 7/7 bombings, the Ian Tomlinson inquest and all sorts of human rights work at the top level. As a pupil, I worked on the Jean Charles de Menezes inquest. Our last pupils both worked on the phone hacking inquiry – the top quality work starts from day one.
I’d also add that we have an excellent retention rate for our pupils – we have taken on 100% of pupils since I have been in chambers.