Careers advice and planning

Five minutes with… Shaen Catherwood, barrister and head of pupillage at Devereux

25 Jan 2023, 13:38

Shaen Catherwood, barrister and head of pupillage at Devereux, provides his insights into how to stand out during the pupillage application and interview process.

Professional headshot of Shaen Catherwood, wearing glasses and a suit with a blue tie.

We don’t expect people to have shown a complete and blinkered commitment to one practice area.

Read what Shaen has to say about: how to impress at the National Pupillage Fair | pupillage applications | mini-pupillages | interview | pupillage at Devereux

Devereux will be attending the targetjobs National Pupillage Fair. What’s your advice to aspiring barristers who are going to the fair on how to make the most of the day?

Get the most out of it for yourself, rather than focusing on trying to impress barristers on the stands. Make a list of chambers who you think you’re going to be interested in and talk to as many as you can. Ask probing questions about the pupillage process: how you’ll be assessed and how you’ll be taught. Get a feel for whether you like the people who are there on the stand – you need to find a set of chambers where you think you would like to work and where you’ll like the people.

Tell us about the application process at Devereux

We get around 300 applications and we usually have two pupillage vacancies. We mark the applications against a matrix and this is followed by a moderating process. The 40 or so candidates that come out on top are invited to interview.

The first interview lasts 15 minutes and is relatively relaxed – there’s usually a topical question of some kind. The panel mark against a matrix once again and the top ten candidates are invited to a second interview. That consists of a discussion of two legal problems, which will be given to the candidate half an hour before the interview so they can prepare. If we have candidates of sufficient quality, two offers are made. In some years we are able to make three offers.

What criteria do you mark candidates against in the application and interviews?

Our criteria focus on: intellect and analysis; communication and presentation skills; a good, practical approach to problem solving; and aptitude for chambers’ core areas of practice.

What stands out to you on a pupillage application form?

Many candidates fall down because they draft their application badly. Applicants should remember that a significant part of a barrister’s job consists of drafting, so if they write at excessive length, or use sloppy phrasing, or make spelling or grammatical mistakes, it goes down extremely badly. On the positive side, candidates have the opportunity to be persuasive and to put their case well – that is often what leaps out at us.

You need to have something interesting to say or show. That could be involvement in relevant activities, such as volunteering at law centres, mooting, essay competitions, or teaching; but it could also include activities that are outside the legal profession but might nevertheless indicate somebody is likely to be motivated, interesting and talented. We’re looking for evidence that the person has committed very hard to something in their lives and that they are likely to commit to something else, namely a career at the Bar. Academic qualifications are not enough given that we get so many good applicants.

Do you tend to recruit people who have a first?

We generally expect a minimum of a 2.1 – but that’s not to say that we wouldn’t consider a candidate with less than a 2.1 if there were exceptional circumstances. We are fortunate to be able to recruit quite a lot of pupils with firsts, but it’s not a prerequisite and we have outstanding barristers who don’t have a first. The job requires much more than pure academic excellence.

How important is it that applicants know which areas of practice they want to go into?

We understand that it’s difficult to know for sure what you want to do for a lifetime’s career before you’ve even started doing it. When I was starting out I didn’t know that I was going to end up doing what I currently do. We don’t expect people to have shown a complete and blinkered commitment to one practice area. Nevertheless, we will expect them to show an enthusiasm for our areas of practice. If we get the sense that we are number 12 on their list and really they want to work somewhere else, then we are unlikely to take their application any further.

How many mini-pupillages would you expect a candidate to have completed?

We are aware that there is a lot of competition for mini-pupillages and we have limited vacancies ourselves. We don’t expect candidates to have done pupillage with Devereux: after all, we interview 40 people but we don’t have 40 mini-pupillages available each year. However, our experience is that most people have done a minimum of four and that is roughly what we would expect to see.

If we saw that a candidate had done all of their mini-pupillages in criminal or family practice, we would be puzzled, since these are not our areas of practice – I would advise candidates to think about doing a mini-pupillage in a chambers that does our sort of work. It’s a good idea to explore different areas of practice rather than focus on one area.

How can a mini-pupil make a good impression during their time at Devereux? Do you remember mini-pupils when they apply for pupillage?

There is no real connection between the mini-pupillage and pupillage processes. Occasionally information is fed back about a mini-pupil; however, this is unlikely to have any impact on pupillage recruitment.

The key thing is that mini-pupils should avoid making mistakes – don’t talk or ask questions in conferences unless invited to do so; turn up on time; work hard; rigorously respect client confidentiality. We would hope that the mini-pupil would have quite a lot of time to talk to their supervisor about their cases, and that’s an opportunity to make a good impression – but it’s unlikely to be at all relevant in the pupillage application process. We see mini-pupillage as a service we offer to students and to the Bar generally; we don’t expect to get anything out of it.

Tell us a bit more about the first interview. What does the discussion topic involve?

It might be a moral question or an interesting and light-hearted legal conundrum, for example. It’s something that requires no legal preparation but will test the candidate’s speed of thought, ability to problem solve and, very importantly, ability to communicate persuasively and engagingly.

How can someone prepare for the first interview?

With any form of oral presentation, practice helps. Just as barristers at Bar school are expected to practise standing up and talking, there is no reason why people shouldn’t practise being interviewed. Students can interview each other in a formal way and give constructive feedback. For example, you could ask a friend to choose an interesting topic of the day – perhaps a moral question that’s in the day’s news – and they could then ask you to discuss it with them.

Try and relax when you come to interview. We need to see what you’re like as a person. We put a premium on the quality of the communication – that somebody doesn’t speak too quickly, that they think before they speak, look you in the eye and communicate to the whole room without slouching or mumbling. We also like people who can make us laugh – if it’s done appropriately!

How do the discussion exercises in the second interview differ from the first?

They tend to be proper legal problems sometimes based upon real cases. They will not call for detailed knowledge of unusual areas of law, but they will require a good understanding of basic legal principles such as contract law, the construction of statutes or the principles of tort.

We’re looking not just for legal understanding, but for practicality. A barrister’s job is a very practical one that requires not just thinking about what the academic answer might be, but how the interests of the client are going to be best served. We are looking for somebody who can explain the point in a way the client would understand and who can suggest how the case is likely to proceed in a practical way.

What distinguishes a good advocate from an average advocate at the interview stage?

The first thing is structure. The best candidates follow a logical structure that is easy for us to understand and gives a sense of direction and purpose to their presentation. The second thing is quality of analysis – we want them to get it right. The third thing is prioritising – don’t discuss an irrelevant matter at length, but focus on the important points. The fourth thing is dealing well with interventions – don’t be defensive, but respond thoughtfully and intelligently and answer the point that has been raised. Finally, the manner of presentation should be clear, unhurried and engaging.

Another tip would be to avoid asking too many questions; we get some candidates who spend the first ten minutes asking questions about the legal problem. It’s generally best to take the facts as given and then crack on with your response.

There is a quality about a good advocate that you can’t really define. The main thing is that you should be yourself, rather than the barrister you think you ought to be.

Finally, is there anything that stands out about pupillage at Devereux?

We aim to provide the best pupillage experience available at the Bar. We have a very organised programme with regular assessments, constructive feedback on written work, two advocacy exercises conducted before real judges, and informal advocacy training, where junior practitioners train the pupils in some of the types of application and minor hearing that they will be doing in their early years. We provide a high level of support and encouragement to pupils.

Our pupils do not compete with each other: if they meet the required standard then they will become tenants. There is no question of only one tenancy being available, however good they are. That makes pupillage a less stressful process than if there were more pupils than tenancies available.

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