"Honestly, I don't think any Pupillage Gateway application should go out without at least one mini-pupillage on it."
The most obvious answer to the question 'How can I improve my chances of becoming a barrister?' is ‘Do some mini-pupillages’. Minis – periods of shadowing and/or assessment within a set of chambers – are a crucial part of the pupillage application process: they let aspiring pupils sample sets of interest and get on their radar. Put simply, there's no better way to demonstrate an interest in and commitment to the Bar. Recruiters by and large agree that pupillage applications look distinctly lacking without at least one or two minis on them.
Some sets require applicants to complete a mini with them as a formal part of the recruitment process, but most take applications from those who haven't yet spent time with that particular chambers. Year after year we encounter a good number of pupils who didn't complete a mini at their own set. Read on for more about what a mini entails and how to get one.
Read on for more about what a mini entails and how to get one.
What form do mini-pupillages take?
Unlike large solicitors' firms, most of which take a structured approach to vacation schemes, barristers’ chambers tend to run their work experience programmes as ad hoc affairs. Only some sets – namely the most profitable and prestigious – co-ordinate students' visits in a methodical way; others expect them to show up and experience whatever happens to come their way during their visit.
As a rule, mini-pupillages last two, three or five days. Some are assessed with tests and feedback; others are unassessed. According to our sources, “you don’t need to do a five-day mini unless it’s assessed. Three days is more than enough to get a sense of a set's working style and culture, especially during term-time. It’s okay to ask for a three-day mini, even if it specifically says five days on the set’s website. Barristers are pretty switched on to the fact that students have a lot of other stuff on their plate.”
Whether assessed or not, all minis allow students to observe barristers in chambers and often in court too. The degree of involvement you get varies hugely from one set to another. A good mini-pupillage will expose you to the fundamentals of the job, like attending conferences with clients, looking at paperwork and even shadowing a barrister in court. Of course, as one source pointed out: “Students shouldn’t expect to be in court the whole time, as that’s not actually what barristers do all day.” Indeed, depending on the type of set, it’s possible chambers won’t even have anything going on in court during your stint.
“Students shouldn’t expect to be in court the whole time as that’s not actually what the barristers do all day.”
A bad mini-pupillage, on the other and, might see you abandoned in a room with a barrister who doesn’t really want you there. “I got stuck with a costs lawyer,” one pupil recalled with a grimace, adding: “Costs isn’t an easily accessible area of law, even for other barristers. He gave me a load of bundles and told me to give them a read. I came back two hours later and asked: ‘Where do I start?’” Should you find yourself in a situation where you don't exactly hit it off with your supervisor, we suggest turning your attention towards trying to get a feeling for the atmosphere and chatting to other tenants about life in chambers.
A few chambers take as many as five mini-pupils at a time, though more often than not mini-pupils find themselves alongside just one other. Sets with more formalised programmes may put on a drinks party, but it's unlikely you'll be invited to any social events. That's not to say you can’t use your visit for some subtle yet effective networking, though how much mini-pupils achieve in this respect depends on how people in chambers take to them and whether or not their interaction is of the right type. It’s all about striking a good balance with members of chambers and making sure you're remembered for the right things – enthusiasm, reliability, engaging attitude – and not for being a nuisance or a drain on people’s time. Pick your moments for questions and conversations carefully.
Assessments and what to expect
Our sources made a point to mention “there can be a certain prestige to assessed minis,” adding that “a lot of the top chambers do them.” They went on to suggest it's worth trying out some unassessed minis before taking up an assessed one, and advised waiting to sign up until you’ve at least started on the GDL. “They can be very academic and textbooky, which is a challenge if you haven't encountered that type of material yet.”
Many sets require an interview for a mini-pupillage, but the odds go way up if it's an assessed one you're after. In either case, be prepared to talk convincingly about why you've chosen the barrister route and perhaps even make a short presentation on a subject selected by the set.
Assessed minis usually dedicate a couple of days entirely to the assessment process itself. As such, attendees can expect to spend more time on their own than in an unassessed mini. A typical assessment scenario sees mini-pupils instructed to analyse a set of papers and produce a piece of written work that's then discussed with a supervisor. As one interviewee, now a pupil, recalled: “I was given a factual scenario that filled about one side of A4, plus a few questions to answer about it. It kind of felt like an academic exercise, but at the same time I knew they wanted an ‘advice’ of sorts, so my efforts had to be fairly practical. The other mini-pupil and I went to the nearest Inn library to research and answer the questions using Halsbury’s Laws, Westlaw, LexisNexis, etc. I had a day to do this before handing my written answers to a barrister. The following afternoon I had about 30 minutes’ worth of feedback with the barrister, who pointed out where I had done well and where I had gone wrong. Among other things, the exercise was marked on the quality of the legal analysis, the structure and the language.”
Assessed minis usually dedicate a couple of days entirely to the assessment process itself.
Such assessments are usually designed to give people at different stages of the learning process a fair shot. “I was asked to produce my written answer in the form of an opinion,” continued the above source, “but it was clear chambers understood that those who hadn't done the BPTC yet would likely produce something more in line with a GDL-style answer. As such, they put the focus on content rather than style. Essentially they wanted to know if, aided by the right research tools, I could go through the appropriate thought processes and come up with a sensible answer.”
Assessments aren't just limited to written work; sets also judge candidates on the quality of their queries, how quickly they pick things up, and their overall manner. Make sure you're on form at all times, and don't forget to request feedback on your performance.
How to apply
Minis are usually available during term-time, and many sets run more than usual in the run-up to the summer. It’s never too early to get a move on mini-pupillage applications, particularly if you're a law student. We've heard from pupils who did them at all points in their studies – during their final undergraduate year, on the GDL course, in the middle of the BPTC. There is no rule that says first and second-year undergrads can’t do minis, though sets usually prefer students who are more advanced in their studies and have a more demonstrable interest in the Bar. So a lot of it comes down to when you decide to become a barrister – once you’re sure that's your goal, why wait? Each day you spend at chambers will further your understanding of a barrister's job and the industry at large. Many find the experience inspirational if nothing else. As one source shared: “My time at various sets reaffirmed my belief that this was what I wanted to do with my life.”
The first step to getting a mini is checking if, where and when opportunities are available. Most sets offer these details on their website. In the event that it's unclear whether a set offers minis, “don't be afraid to ring up the clerks, find out who deals with minis (it’s usually a junior barrister) and ask to speak to them,” our sources advised. If it turns out they're unavailable, you can at least obtain the correct email address for applications.
Many use personal contacts they have within the profession to pick up a couple of minis – barristers they meet at their Inn, for example.
Most insiders suggest applying for as many minis as you can, “as it’s a numbers game.” That said, it's important you don't compromise the quality of your applications in your bid to up the quantity. Most sets require a relatively simple CV-based form, or a covering letter and CV. Make sure your application explains why you're interested in visiting a particular set and shows you're serious about a career as a barrister. Given the amount of advocacy involved in the job, some kind of mooting or public speaking experience should put you in good stead; in fact, it's a must for some sets.
Many use personal contacts they have within the profession to pick up a couple of minis – barristers they meet at their Inn, for example. Unfair though that may seem, remember that all BPTC students must join an Inn, so if you don't know anyone (yet), then attend events at your Inn and get networking. Then don't hesitate to use any contacts you make. Barristers who meet and chat to students usually do so precisely because they want to help give the next generation of talented individuals a leg up into the profession.
Don’t expect any feedback after making mini-pupillage applications: many sets don’t even bother to send out rejection letters. If you haven’t heard back after a couple of months, it’s likely you've been unsuccessful. Of course, it's possible a set simply didn’t have the space to accommodate you at that point in time or may just be a bit disorganised, so don't get too disheartened. One of our interviewees told of intially getting rejected for a mini at the very set where they eventually gained pupillage.
How many should you do?
According to one barrister we spoke to, “mini-pupillages show your commitment to the Bar, but doing ten ceases to impress. Three is a decent number.” While we've heard from several successful sources who'd completed half a dozen or so, keep in mind there is such a thing as overkill. As one such insider reported: “I personally found all of mine helpful, but I did get asked during my pupillage applications why I did so many. I think some people get the idea that doing a lot projects uncertainty as to which area of law you’re interested in.”
Indeed, if you've completed a long string of minis, it's tactical to delineate a clear narrative when reporting your work experience. For example, if you’re aiming for a criminal pupillage but have done a mix of crime and civil minis, consider leaving some of the latter experiences off of your CV. It also makes sense to list only the more impressive experiences on your application forms if you're conscious of keeping your numbers down.
In our opinion going past three is unlikely to hurt your chances, especially if you've got good reasons for doing so. Few admissions committees will find fault with a clear-cut desire to sample different areas of practice. In the end, as one pupil told us, “it’s a case of striking the right balance between showing your commitment to a practice area and showing that you know what else is out there.” For the same reason, doing a vacation scheme with a solicitors' firm could be a good idea in order to rule out (or rule in) that side of the profession.
Making the most of your experience
To milk your mini-pupillage, take notes, don’t be afraid to ask questions (at appropriate moments, of course), and be sure to reflect on what was good and bad about your experiences. Recruiters often tell us that pupillage applicants who simply list or describe their legal work experience fall short in comparison to those who actually articulate what they’ve learned from shadowing practitioners.
Here are some other tips from insiders:
- “Try to be relaxed while you’re in chambers, and don’t expect too much on a personal or social level. Barristers all differ: some will be very intense, some will have read your CV and will talk to you about your interests, some won’t care and will vaguely resent having to baby-sit you – and you’ll know it. Don’t take it personally.”
- “At the end of every day of your mini-pupillage, mark down each thing you’ve done, no matter how small – every little legal point you’ve looked at, every chat about it you had with a barrister. You'll forget it when it comes to subsequent interviews unless you make a note.”
- “Things may go way over your head while you’re in court, but make sure you stay focused. The barrister who takes you along might ask you how you think the hearing went.”
- "Don't worry if you leave your first mini feeling no more enlightened about the work than when you came in. I learnt that I loved the surroundings of chambers and going to court during my first few minis, but I did find it difficult to engage with the work as I didn't actually understand most of the legal principles at hand. Later into my studies, however, it became much easier to get to grips with and make a good impression.”
- "Be persistent with your applications. If you really want a spot at a particular set, ask yourself whether it's worth trying again and go for it. I didn't get in the first time around, but after applying again I managed to land a mini-pupillage, and now I'm a pupil.”
- “Remember to take each mini-pupillage seriously, particularly those that are a requisite part of a set's pupillage application process. It's your chance to impress, and you should approach it accordingly.”
Although a mini is certainly step in the right direction, it alone won't take you all the way to pupillage. Still, as one pupil reminded us: “A mini-pupillage is a real morale boost – it’s a reminder that at least somebody thinks you’re worth taking a look at.”