A pupillage is notoriously tough to obtain, with several hundred applicants fighting for a handful of pupillages every year. So what can you do to stand out from the crowd?
1. Start now
It’s never too early to gain some experience. If you’re at school or university take a week or two of your holiday time and write to various solicitors firms, chambers and even your local Magistrates’ Court seeking a day shadowing or a few days work-experience. Some chambers will have an application process for mini-pupillages; do your research and apply through the proper channels. If there is nothing on the website to suggest their preferred method of communication, write to the chambers director. Specify when you are available, why you’d like to go to that particular set and why you’re asking for the experience. If you don’t get a response within a couple of weeks, phone them. Ask for a call-back if necessary. Anything to get your foot in the door. Persistence pays.
I started off by shadowing a local solicitor during a week-long work-experience that was arranged by my secondary school. I spent much of the week in the Magistrates’ Court, watching first appearances, trials and sentencing hearings. This cemented my passion for Criminal Law. Thereafter I applied for a number of mini-pupillages during the summer between the first and second year of my degree. Be aware that you are likely to apply for far more ‘minis’ than you are actually offered. Keep at it, you need this experience. In total I undertook 8, week-long, mini-pupillages at various chambers. This led me to apply to some of those sets for pupillage. In doing so I was able to explain exactly what attracted me to that particular set of chambers. Without that hands-on experience I would have been reliant on their website alone, along with the several hundred other applicants.
2. Use your university
If you’re doing a law degree you’re perfectly placed to use the connections you have right on your doorstep. Your tutors may well be or have been practising barristers or solicitors. Talk to them, ask them questions, find out what led them to (and from) a career at the Bar. Perhaps you’re undecided as to whether to do the BPTC? Your tutors will be able to give you an insight into what it’s like, and what the road thereafter might be. Don’t be shy; they are there to help you!
Mooting is a fantastic way to get some advocacy experience. I mooted across the UK with my university and it was invaluable experience, both in meeting those already in legal practice and in gaining an insight into the interaction between counsel and the judge. If you don’t have a moot team in your university, start one.
3. Get a mentor
One of the great things offered by all of the Inns of Court is the mentoring service. Mine was invaluable. He kept me going when it looked like I would forever be the reserve candidate rather than the illusive new pupil; he read through draft after draft of my applications and was there to crack open the champagne when I got an offer.
4. Put the effort in
Barristers read through hundreds of pupillage applications every year. I can guarantee that many will have grammatical errors. This is sloppy! Read and re-read your applications. If you make basic errors your application is only ever going to find its way into the bin, regardless of whether you came top in your class at Oxford.
It goes without saying, but ensure you know why you want to be a barrister! Why not a solicitor advocate? What attracts you to the self-employed/employed Bar? How will you sustain a practice? What will you do if you find yourself without
work for a period of time? Do your homework and ensure you can eloquently argue your case, both on paper and in person.
5. Get some proper experience
Once you’ve completed you BPTC and been called to the Bar you can start to get some proper experience. I helped out with the Free Representation Unit and the Prisoners’ Advice Service both during and after, what was then, the BVC. Both were excellent ways to get an insight into different types of law and, in the case of FRU, some hands on advocacy experience.
Of course, you’ll also be looking for paid employment. A friend of mine applied for a role in the probation service; a great way of becoming more involved in Criminal Law. I looked to the legal department of my local council, where I’d been helping out over the summer months during university as an office manager. Having proved myself to be reliable and committed, they offered me a trial as a prosecutor, prosecuting a range of offences from benefit fraud to planning offences. Given that I was yet to undertake pupillage, I was only able to act in the Magistrates’ Court, with authorisation from the head of the legal department. The Magistrates’ Court alone was invaluable experience; I’d be in Court a couple of times a week prosecuting first appearances, trials and sentencing hearings. I continued to do this for three years, and I believe it was this hands-on experience that helped me obtain a pupillage offer.
Having been offered pupillage in 2010, I had a year to fill prior to starting in chambers. I opted to join Amicus and undertake an internship in Texas, assisting a team of defence lawyers in preparing pre-trial death-eligible cases. It was an excellent insight into another jurisdiction, and something that I would encourage anyone to do given the opportunity.
6. Be certain
I hope that if you’re already undertaking the BPTC you’re fairly certain that you’d like a career at the Bar. But it’s worth being sure, as sure as you can be, before you embark on those pupillage applications. The Bar Council recently published a document entitled Barristers’ Working Lives 2017, available here: https://www.barcouncil.org.uk/media/661503/working_lives_-_final.pdf In compiling the document, the Bar Council surveyed over 4,000 practising barristers, asking questions on how they felt about their careers. Some of the results may surprise you. For instance:
a. Only 34% of criminal law barristers felt they were able to balance their home and work lives. Across the board (all areas of practice) this figure stood at 45%, a drop from 47% in the same survey in 2013 and 50% in 2011.
b. Only 50% of criminal barristers felt they we able to cope with the level of stress in their careers. Across the board this figure stood at 58%, a drop from 64% in 2013 and 69% in 2011.
c. Only 37% of criminal barristers would recommend the Bar as a career. Across the board this figure stood at 48%, a slight increase from 40% in 2013 and 45% in 2011.
I’ve focused on criminal law here as it’s the most popular area to go into, possibly because TV shows seek to glamorise it. But all too often there’s nothing glamorous about being a barrister whatsoever! The hours are long, the work is demanding and the pay can be shockingly low. However, it can be an incredibly rewarding career choice.