"Great academics simply aren't enough to show you have the intellect to succeed at the Bar; you also have to be an outstanding advocate and convince us you'll be good at servicing clients."
Through the Gateway
Most aspiring pupils coming straight from uni begin making pupillage applications during their final undergraduate year, although some of the top commercial sets encourage students to apply in their penultimate year in an attempt to snap up the best candidates early. In general, however, the majority of pupillage offers tend to be made to students following the completion of the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC).
Since 2013, students have been able to make applications through the Pupillage Gateway, an online tool that lets users tailor their applications for each of the sets they apply to. Participation in the Gateway is voluntary for chambers – around half of sets recruits via the Gateway and half recruit outside. Those that run their own separate application schemes must still advertise vacancies on the Pupillage Gateway website. You can find out which sets use the Gateway and how to apply to the ones that don't by reading our Chambers Reports or looking at our listing of All sets offering pupillage.
Participation in the Gateway is voluntary for chambers, though those that run their own separate application schemes still have to advertise vacancies on the Pupillage Gateway website.
Applicants can target a maximum of 12 sets through the Gateway each annual cycle. Previously, the Pupillage Gateway was open for applications during April; now the Bar Council has moved the deadline forward. In 2018 the Gateway will open for applications on 8 January and close on 7 February. Interviews will take place in the spring with offers made on 3 May.
The change was made in order to avoid exam clashes and allow students to know whether they have an offer of pupillage before coughing up for a pricey BPTC place. While most sets have acquiesced to the new deadlines we have heard grumbles from some about the change; so don't be surprised if some sets which previously recruited via the Gateway pull out. Equally, the Gateway changes may have a knock-on effect on the deadlines used by non-Gateway sets (at least one, XXIV Old Buildings, has moved its deadline to November.) Also, the few sets which require a mini-pupillage to be undertaken before you apply have run into a spot of bother as the earlier deadline doesn't leave applicants much time to do a mini.
Pupillage Gateway timetable 2017/18
28 November 2017 - Adverts start to go live
8 January 2018 - Gateway opens for applications
7 February 2018 - Application deadline; Gateway closes
3 May 2018 - Offers made
What can you expect from a Pupillage Gateway application? Alongside queries about an applicant's education, employment history, scholarship/prizes and other experiences, the Gateway application form now asks two standard questions (it was previously five): 'Why do you believe you will make a good barrister?' and 'Why do you wish to join this set of chambers?'. Sets can revise these two questions as they wish (or even remove them) and add up to five questions of their own, which can be on anything from advocacy skills to diversity at the Bar. The word limit on responses can range from 100 to 1,000 words, but in most cases a maximum of 200 words is all that's allowed, so concision is key.
The sets that recruit pupils outside the Gateway machinery often do so because they don't like its format or feel applicants' interests can be better served by other means. Application methods differ among non-Gateway sets; so do deadlines. Check out our listing of Pupillage deadlines for the latest information; several non-Gateway sets' deadlines are in early January or late December. Oh, and do be aware that some deadlines are actually at 9am or noon on the day of, so make sure you double check to avoid paying a massive stupidity tax.
Dos and don'ts for written applications
- Do use your application as an opportunity to show off your written advocacy skills. Make it persuasive and succinct.
- Don't be tempted to hit the maximum word limit for every question just for the sake of it – long answers are not necessarily better. As one pupil advised: “Whoever reads your application will have to read a lot of them, so do them a favour and get to the point rather than trying to fill the boxes all the way.”
- Do ask for help proofreading your application. Most sets will mark you down for any spelling and grammar mistakes they come across, if not discount your application altogether. "I personally find them unforgivable at this level," one recruiter revealed.
- Don't fall back on generic answers. Make sure you tailor your application to your prospective sets to show that you've researched them properly and understand their work and commercial outlook. "You shouldn't be able to substitute an application to X chambers for one to Y with just a few tweaks," one source warned.
- Do be honest about your answers. "There's definitely a temptation to write down what you think they're looking for, but if you try to pretend you're interested in areas of law you aren't, for example, you'll come pretty unstuck at interview," one pupil told us. "If you don't fit into a certain set, accept it and turn your attention to another one."
- Don't attempt to make your application stand out with jokes or other quirky touches. The Bar remains a traditional profession, and frivolity is decidedly unwelcome at the application stage.
- Do think long and hard about why you're interested in the Bar and how you can relay that reasoning into your application. "We want people who want to be barristers first and foremost, and can explain exactly why that is," confirmed a recruiter at a top commercial set.
Interviews: what to expect
So you’ve got an interview – first things first, congratulate yourself because that's already an achievement. Now turn your attention to preparing for the interview, as it's no easy ride.
Most sets operate two rounds of interviews/assessments. The ins and outs of procedure vary quite a bit by chambers, but fortunately most tell you what to expect on their website. Or you can read up on the process in our Chambers Reports. The first round is usually a sit-down interview with a few barristers which is often just ten to 15 minutes long. The interview might focus on a topical legal or ethical question (eg, 'Do celebrities automatically forfeit their right to a private life?'), or a discussion of the current issues in your prospective practice area. On top of that it'll likely involve a short investigation into you and your application form.
An increasing number of sets ask candidates specific pre-set questions that probe for certain competencies, analytical ability and advocacy skills.
An increasing number of sets ask candidates specific pre-set questions that probe for certain competencies, analytical ability and advocacy skills. Interviewers might prompt you further on a question, but time constraints leave little room for back-and-forth, so it's important to give as full and rounded an answer as possible the first time around. You might also be asked to complete a written test or group exercise in which you have to argue a point against or alongside others.
If you make it to a second interview, you'll probably find yourself in front of a large panel composed of a cross-section of people from chambers. By and large the panel will aim to assess the depth of your legal knowledge, advocacy potential and strength of character through some kind of legal problem given in advance. You might be asked to interpret a contract or piece of statute, or compare several judgments and give your view on a case study, with preparation time ranging from just ten minutes to a full week.
“We're more interested in seeing how a candidate approaches a problem than whether or not they get the right answer."
While it's important to demonstrate a solid grasp of the issues at hand, know that chambers generally aren’t looking for faultless knowledge of substantive law here so much as an insight into how your mind works. As one seasoned interviewer explained: “We're more interested in seeing how a candidate approaches a problem than whether or not they get the right answer. Sometimes we even ask them to give an argument for the opposition as well.” Another summed up their aims as follows: “What we're looking for is somebody who can take a case, select the good points, reject the bad ones and structure the most compelling argument available.”
On top of this, criminal and mixed sets commonly give interviewees an advocacy exercise like a bail application or a plea in mitigation. (A word of advice: the basic structures to such matters fit on a post-it, so we suggest you note these down and keep them with you at all times.) Some sets ask for a brief non-legal presentation at this point too, which gives further insight into an applicant's speaking skills as well as their character. A second interview is when a professional ethics question may raise its head (though be wary of such issues cropping up at any point). You can prepare by reading the BSB Handbook.
Dos and don'ts for interviews
- Do keep up to date with industry ongoings during interview season. Radio 4's Law in Action, The Times’ Law supplement, Guardian Law and Current Awareness – an excellent daily blog you can have emailed from the Inner Temple library – should all be on your radar.
- Do expect interviewers to ask about your application at interview: in some cases they haven't had a chance to read it closely beforehand and will ask to be filled in on certain points; in others they might use it as a tool to test you on your consistency. In any case, read through it carefully beforehand and don't be afraid to repeat the sentiments you expressed on paper. It's also worth having a think about how you can account for any questionable circumstances lurking on your CV (for example, disappointing grades or a less-than-robust work experience section).
- Don't forget your main aim is to show your interviewers what a brilliant advocate you are. “I don't think people always realise that when we ask you to speak before us, we mean do so as a barrister,” one recruiter shared. “We don't want to hear what your personal views are; we want to hear a structured argument that contains your best points.”
- Do stick to your guns. The interview panel will probably try to catch you out or play devil's advocate against whatever point of view you choose to argue, but don't let them push you around. If you can support your position, then stick to it – resolve is just as necessary for a career at the Bar as receptivity, and recruiters want to know that you can fight your corner. As one observed: “It's amazing how many people can’t stand up for themselves, which is essentially what we want to see.”
- Don't overlook the fundamentals of advocacy and courtroom behaviour. “Sometimes really good candidates fall flat on their face when it comes to code of conduct,” one interviewer shared, telling us: “You get some who misstate instructions, and others who fail to draw jurors' attention to things or attempt to mislead the judge. These are basics, and we have to fail you if you ignore them.”
- Do make sure you engage with the interviewers on a personal level. “Don't underestimate the power of smiling,” one recruiter advised. “When you walk into the room and smile at us, it shows you've got a good personality and a bit of energy, and it generates confidence in your argument. People are no good if they're not approachable.”
- Don't choose something controversial or likely to offend if you're asked to come up with a non-law topic for discussion. Our insiders tell us subjects to avoid on this front include politics, religion, sport rivalries, and embarrassing or frivolous personal anecdotes.
- Do make sure you look the part by dressing neatly and discreetly: tidy up your hair, iron your dress, straighten your tie, do up your jacket. Most chambers will be grading you on standard criteria, and that includes everything from intellect and personality to whether your suit is rumpled or not.
- Don't forget that interviewing is a two-way process. Chemistry is a must between applicants and interviewers, and if things are going badly on that front, it's not necessarily an indictment of your potential as a barrister; it may just be that you're better suited to a different type of set and/or area of law.
Try, try and try again?
All's not lost if you strike out at your first round of applications and finish the BPTC without a pupillage secured. It may seem like a grim prospect, but many find an enforced year out gives them time to bulk up their CV and make themselves more marketable. In the words of one pupil who faced rejection their first few times around: “It's worth trying again next year if you plan to use your time wisely – you've just got to be persistent and make sure you're focusing on things that make you a better candidate.”
“It's worth trying again next year if you plan to use your time wisely – you've just got to be persistent and make sure you're focusing on things that make you a better candidate.”
Indeed, it's imperative you make the most of your spare time. Seek out mooting and marshalling opportunities wherever you can, and take up a day job in a field related to your area(s) of legal interest. We've interviewed plenty of lawyers who secured pupillage following a period with a company, charity, university or non-profit. Others have come off the back of stints as paralegals or legal secretaries.
Finally – and this may sound confusing – it's worth bearing in mind that quite a few commercial sets like to recruit pupils who've previously completed a training contract at a City firm and qualified as a solicitor. While this isn't a route we recommend taking, it is a reflection of the advanced levels of background experience and knowledge that top sets now expect from their recruits.
“Be as true to yourself in your application as possible. It's a waste of everybody's time to pretend you're interested in or knowledgeable about things that you aren't.”