How to make a successful pupillage application

8 Jan 2024, 10:32

Whether you are applying through the centralised Pupillage Gateway form or directly to chambers, we have the advice and insights to help your application impress pupillage committees.

A gateway with a building that has an open archway built into a door

Jump to: how to apply via the Gateway or directly | standing out in your application | pupillage offers

Writing a winning application for pupillage isn’t actually as difficult as finding the Holy Grail, but we wouldn’t blame you for feeling like it is. With fewer than 400 pupillage vacancies each year and up to 1,800 students graduating from the Bar course alone, obtaining that essential year of work is a competitive process. In this article, we navigate you through the intricacies of the Pupillage Gateway and chambers' own application systems, while giving you top tips and insights from experienced barristers and a brand-new pupil.

How do you make a pupillage application?

You apply for pupillage either through the Pupillage Gateway , the Bar Council's online application system, or directly to the organisation via their own application form or a CV and covering letter.

All chambers and other pupillage providers (known as authorised training organisations or ATOs) are required to advertise on the Gateway, though not all will necessarily accept applications via the platform.

Details of how to apply to each chambers or ATO are included in their Pupillage Gateway advertisement.

What is the Pupillage Gateway timetable and when are other pupillage deadlines?

The Pupillage Gateway opens in early January and closes in early February; however, many pupillage adverts appear online from the November prior. Interviews are typically held between February and April or May, with offers being made in May. Chambers and ATOs that don’t use the Gateway also stick to the same timetable.

Sets typically recruit a year to a year and a half in advance, so law students should start applying in their final year at university and non-law students in their conversion course year (assuming they do not wish to take a gap year or engage in further study before applying). Some sets will allow successful applicants to defer the start of pupillage by a year, though this is not always possible.

Follow our year-by-year action plan to ensure you don’t miss any key dates in your journey towards the Bar.

How many Pupillage Gateway applications can you make?

You can apply to up to 20 chambers or ATOs through the Gateway. You’re free to apply to as many non-Pupillage Gateway chambers as you like.

Think carefully about how many you should apply to. Successful pupillage applications take time and care, and you will be applying at a busy time in the academic year. It’s far better to submit high-quality applications to fewer chambers than to send 20 rushed and inferior ones. Lucy Moran, a University of Law alumnus who received an offer from Exchange Chambers, told the targetjobs National Pupillage Fair: ‘I applied to as many sets as possible without compromising the quality of my applications and, for me, that was eight.’

Lucy received three first-round interviews, one second-round interview and one offer from this targeted approach. But she advises, ‘Equally, if you can send out 20 strong applications, do it.’

How do I fill in the Pupillage Gateway application form?

The exact structure of the form may vary slightly each year, but there are generally sections on:

  • contact details
  • employment and work history, which should include details of any full-time or part-time work, periods of self-employment, internships, mini-pupillages, marshalling and any other work experience, and volunteer work
  • your education history
  • details of any scholarships, awards and prizes you’ve won along with your Inn membership
  • skills, hobbies and interests, including your fluency in languages, any professional qualifications (eg in Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and any positions of responsibility not yet mentioned
  • extenuating circumstances (eg for academic results) and any other disclosure matters (eg criminal convictions)
  • details of referees (one academic and one professional is recommended)
  • up to seven bespoke application questions provided by the chambers or ATO – these will vary, but common questions include ‘why do you want to be a barrister?’, ‘why do you think you would be a good barrister?’, ‘why do you want to join our chambers?’ and ‘what interests you about our practice area(s)?’. You are also likely to be asked about your advocacy experience or your interpersonal skills and you could be asked to give your opinion on a recent judgment.

The Pupillage Gateway website has a downloadable example application form with instructions for you to look at in advance.

Whether you apply via the Gateway or not, think ‘most recent first’ when recording your milestones. ‘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.’

How do you stand out in your pupillage application?

Your application is a piece of written advocacy, so treat it as such:

  1. Muster your arguments
  2. Think laterally to tell a good story
  3. Combine style with substance
  4. Tailor your application
  5. Draft, redraft and get a proofreader
  6. Know why you want to become a barrister

1. Muster your arguments

Each pupillage application should essentially make these three core points:

  • you really want to be a barrister
  • you would be a very good barrister
  • you particularly want to join that chambers or ATO.

Everything on your form (or in your CV and covering letter) should support one or more of these arguments. Use your combination of work experience, academic history, voluntary work, positions of responsibility and extracurricular activities – and your covering letter or application answers – to show:

  • you have a clear-eyed understanding of the role – its challenges as well as its attractions
  • you are passionate about the law and a career in advocacy
  • you have the right combination of skills, traits and intellect to succeed as a barrister
  • you know enough about the chambers or ATO to genuinely want to develop a successful practice with them.

2. Think laterally to tell a good story

In your application, include everything you can to bolster your arguments and show that you have the skills and the passion to succeed at the Bar. 'Pupillage committees are not mind readers,' says Georgina. ‘Applicants 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.’

But you shouldn’t include just law-related examples – in fact, the skills you’ve gained from your non-law experience and extracurriculars is likely to be what makes you stand out. ‘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.

Lucy is joining the family Bar, which particularly requires the ability to build relationships with people who are in highly emotional or difficult situations. ‘I found that working at my local pub was something I talked about more in my applications and interviews than any sort of mini-pupillage or any sort of barrister-related experience because it showed I had developed interpersonal skills,’ she told the crowd at the targetjobs National Pupillage Fair.

The trick is to present your experiences from the right angle and weave them into a good story about why you want to be a barrister and why you’d be a good one.

‘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".’

3. Combine style with substance

Your writing style should reflect your personality but be concise and use plain English. ‘There’s nothing worse than somebody trying to sound like a lawyer,’ says Stephen Vullo KC, an independent specialist criminal barrister. ‘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.’

How do you do this practically? ‘Avoid any sort of excess adjectives, anything ideological or abstract. [It] may sound great in an essay [but] might not sound great in an application,’ Lucy says. ‘Don’t repeat, don’t waffle, omit words you don’t need – get straight to the point and start with your strongest point. Use the active voice and the STAR method for every single competency question. Make sure you are not saying things like “I was able to do this” or “I was given the opportunity to…” […]; it’s “I learned”, “I observed", “I researched”, “I drafted”.’

Similarly, support as many statements as possible with an example. As Lucy says, ‘Be factual, use evidence and back up every single claim.’ Variously throughout her talk, she stresses the importance of giving specific examples and of linking the attributes all barristers need to evidence: for example, while she rightly says you don’t need an Oxbridge first to secure pupillage, she points out that academic prizes can help demonstrate your intellectual ability.

4. Tailor your application

You may think that there is such an overlap between chambers’ requirements and the pupillage application that you can use the exact same application for all – but you’d be wrong. You need to target an application to the chambers’ practice areas and mention cases its barristers have worked on when you answer why you picked that set. Don’t say that you particularly want to prosecute if the chambers mostly or only does defence work, for example. Our chambers research checklist can help guide your investigations.

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.

You should also look at how you are presenting your skills. If an area of practice or chambers requires more of one skill than another, make more of it.

While you might want to use some of what you’ve written previously as a basis for your next application, don’t do a blanket 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 you rejected.

A hand holding a fountain pen over a piece of paper filled with calligraphic writing and an ink pot to the side

5. Draft, redraft and get it proofread

Lucy is clear that a good pupillage application takes a lot of polishing: ‘I had about 11 drafts of my written application in the end,’ she told the fair audience.

Georgina agrees: ‘If somebody has brilliant content but appears to have rushed their application, they’ll get marked down. Writing style is very important.’ She also points out that, even though application time is often busy, ‘This is your only chance to show chambers your written advocacy and how you can construct a persuasive document.'

Have your application reviewed by as many people as possible: you could ask a careers adviser from university, a lecturer or personal tutor or even one of your LinkedIn connections.

As part of your preparation, you may want to follow Lucy’s advice about getting organised: she saved her applications in individual Outlook folders to ensure she didn’t submit the wrong ones. She also says, ‘I wouldn’t submit all your applications in dribs and drabs – you might prioritise your favourite sets (which is a completely sensible thing to do) […] but it might be that when you get to your eighth application you think of an experience that you think actually might have worked in your first one.’ Lucy prepared all of them together and then submitted them around two days before the deadline.

Before you press submit, have your application proofread by someone with good knowledge of spelling and grammar and check the formatting carefully.

6. Know 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 story. They are asking you and you alone, so any answer that begins quoting dead philosophers or legal professionals is immediately off topic.

Be wary, too, of referring back to any courtroom series or boxsets. As Lucy pointed out at the National Pupillage Fair, it’s great if Suits first inspired you to be a lawyer, but that won’t impress a pupillage committee: ‘There will be more experiences that you’ve developed since then that genuinely show you understand what a barrister does.’ You also need to show that you understand what the working life of a barrister is like: you will most probably be self-employed, without sickness and benefits, and you will need a lot of resilience.

Ultimately, though, be yourself. ‘Don’t answer how you think chambers would want you to answer; think about what it means to you because that will be the most persuasive,’ Lucy told her audience of aspiring barristers. ‘Then develop that answer and embellish it with your experience.’ She first approached this question by thinking about how she would answer it if she was asked by a friend down the pub. ‘I developed three reasons: they were performance, intellectual challenge and responsibility,’ she remembered, adding that if you are raising performance and advocacy, your future interviewers will want to know why you don’t want to become a solicitor advocate instead.

How are pupillage offers made?

Pupillage offers from sets that are members of the centralised online pupillage application system will come via Pupillage Gateway in May. Offers from non-Pupillage Gateway sets will come directly from the set around the same time.

Many chambers will give feedback to unsuccessful applicants, especially if they have been interviewed.

If you need help with what comes next, we have an entire advice section on handling offers : from accepting and declining to bouncing back from rejection and asking for feedback to signing your contract.

Where next?

If you are still working out where to apply, browse the chambers and ATOs on targetjobs. Or register with us to follow chambers and other pupillage providers – and get a curated feed of advice tailored to your interests.

Related careers advice

undefined background image

We've got you

Get the latest jobs, internships, careers advice, courses and graduate events based on what's important to you. Start connecting directly with top employers today.