Getting the right pupillage is obviously important to you. What you may not realise is that getting the right pupils is almost as important for a chambers. Recognising this fundamental point is key to maximising your chances of being selected and also to avoiding the mistakes that can ruin them.

The way that chambers approach selecting pupils has become far more business-like. This is partly in an effort to promote equality and diversity but it also reflects one of the main reasons why chambers take on pupils.

Of course, pupils have short-term uses. They help barristers with menial tasks such as photocopying, finding books, attending hearings or conferences when a note needs to be taken. In the latter stages of pupillage they do the least attractive work that is sent in to chambers – the work that even the junior tenants really don’t want to do. This work may need to be serviced to ensure that the solicitors who send it, also send in “better” work for the tenants.

But, from a long-term business perspective, many chambers regard pupillage as an extended audition for membership of chambers. During pupillage the abilities of the pupil can be assessed and augmented by immersive “on the job” training. By the end of 12 months it should be possible to decide whether the pupil has got what the chambers is looking for in junior tenants. It will also of course be possible for you to form a view about whether the chambers has got what you are looking for in terms of a long term career, but that isn’t the focus for now.

You also need to bear in mind that taking on a pupil requires an investment on the part of chambers. Chambers will almost certainly be paying an “award” to assist in covering your living expenses – this comes out of the chambers overheads (and those come out of the pockets of the barristers). And yes, from where you are sitting, they can easily afford the modest amount they are going to pay you, particularly given the hours you will put in, but (1) they may not be earning as much as you think, and (2) even if they are, they are still paying you with no guarantee that your actual efforts for the barristers who supervise you will bring them any particular benefit.

Supervising a pupil properly is also an investment in time, and a substantial one at that. A good pupillage supervisor will spend a significant part of every day (especially in the early stages) explaining what is happening and putting the pupil’s academic legal knowledge into perspective. Tasks need to be set and the work done assessed and feedback provided. This all takes time, and to the self-employed barrister, time is money. Of course, the supervisor has the best chance of benefiting from the pupil’s work, but even the best pupils I have had could never “break even” on that score.

The investment only really pays off if the pupil is a suitable candidate to become a tenant. Then the pupil offers the prospect of adding to the sum total of chambers income and talent. They will pay into the chambers pot and form part of its overall strength. If they are not tenant material, the investment of the preceding 12 months is (from chambers perspective) pretty much wasted. And even if the pupil does become a tenant, if they leave chambers after a few years, the real benefits (of an experienced barrister adding significantly to the overall pool of talent) are still lost.

Therefore, although it may not seem like it, when you apply for pupillage you are probably looking for precisely the same long term outcome as chambers – both sides want a relationship that will last not for 12 months but for 12 years (and longer).

So, how do you help the chambers help itself by selecting you? By remembering that they are looking beyond 12 months when they look at you. They are not only thinking whether you are up to their standards (or whether you will be at the end of pupillage) but also whether you will be likely to stay with them if they ask you. If they think the answer to either is “no” then your chances just took a dive – if it is “yes” then you are still in the game.

Leaving aside academic criteria (which vary between chambers) what you need to persuade chambers that you have a commitment to being a barrister, and to being the type of barrister that would work in those chambers.

Your CV and/or the covering letter should show how you have got to the point of applying. When did you decide on a career in the law and at the Bar? There is no harm in admitting that you didn’t realise that you wanted to be a barrister in primary school, or even until your initial degree at university was done, but you need to be clear about when you made the decision and (if it was relatively late) why. There may have been a specific event (personal or not) which you can identify as significant. But remember, the real reason will (almost always) be better than any false reason. Barristers don’t like to be lied to or fobbed off – they get that enough already at work. The single biggest cause of interview failure is people trying to pretend. This looks dishonest or stupid or both and never ever works.

If you made a late choice because you felt your initial degree choice was simply wrong, say so. Many barristers have come to the Bar after other careers and few things work better than seeing an applicant and thinking that they remind you of yourself many (many) years ago. Making a mistake about education and career choices will be forgiven if it is admitted and explained in an open and self-aware way.

The more sensible understanding you can show for what life as a barrister is like the better. Work experience is good but reading around works as well. Legal blogs may give a more realistic idea of life at the “coal-face” but don’t oversell you understanding. The reality is that until you are in pupillage you will have a fairly superficial idea of what it really like. No harm in saying that on all you’ve seen and heard you think you will enjoy and be good at it, but that until you’ve actually done it you can’t be sure – it shows realism.

Identify the areas of law you have a desire to work in. Explain (if you can) why you wish to do this. Hopefully your work experience will have helped identify the types of work you are interested in but if there are other factors, set them out. Again, if an area of law has simply grabbed you from a long time ago and has kept hold of you ever since, say so. You won’t be the first person not to be able to explain why they wanted to be a lawyer. But do set out what steps you have taken to check that it isn’t just the idea that has grabbed you, but that you also have a basis for saying that you will enjoy the practice of that area of law.

Make sure that the areas of work you want to do are handled by the chambers. Applying to chambers that doesn’t do what you want to do is a waste of your time and theirs. Check the chambers website to see what they do. If they do the areas you are interested in, dig deeper. Look at the barristers who do that work. How many are there? How senior are they? Read their profiles and see what sort of cases they actually do.

If you haven’t got a clear idea of the specific areas you want to spend the rest of your life working in, don’t panic. Plenty of chambers still cover a wide range of work, although this is becoming less common. Explain what steps you have taken to try and decide what type of barrister you would like to be. If you have narrowed it down (as you probably will have) say so and say that you expect that pupillage will further that process.

Before you attend an interview visit the chambers website (again). Check the news page, particularly for recent cases that relate to any area of interest you have set out on the CV. Be aware of any legal issues that are in the public eye (again, particularly if they relate to your areas of interest). Remind yourself why you applied to this chambers (you will probably be asked) and remember that they are looking at you not just as a potential pupil.

Interviews are usually conducted against a check-list setting out the criteria that the chambers looks for in pupils. The questions will often be same for all the people being interviewed – try to avoid it sounding as if your answer is pre-scripted (even if it is). If you have seen something on the website that relates to your interests mention it – and if you don’t fully understand what you found, say so – asking (implicitly) for an explanation works really well as an indication of interest and willingness to learn. It is not weakness to acknowledge that you do not know everything – it is realistic.

If you are asked a question that throws you, pause. Thinking before you speak works better than the other way round. Barristers are used to being put on the spot by judges and the good ones do precisely this. Don’t try and bluff your way out – it just won’t work. If you are asked about a current legal issue that you don’t recognise apologise and say you don’t recall it. You will probably then be given more detail so that your reaction can be gauged anyway.

You will almost certainly be offered the chance to ask questions about chambers. Try and have one or two ready that show that you are looking to the long-term. How many pupils will they be taking and what is the track record of pupils becoming tenants? Do they anticipate the mix of work in chambers changing and if so how? What sort of work do the pupils do?

Barristers generally like people who ask sensible (even awkward) questions. If they like you when you walk out of the interview, you might be back before too long.

William McCormick QC

Author William McCormick QC

Head of Chambers, Ely Place

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