Pupillage application tips

Pupillage Question Time

On 4 December 2017 we attended the University of Law's 'Pupillage Application Question Time' to get some tips on pupillage applications.


How should you handle the questions on pupillage application forms? What are the dos and don'ts for interviews? Should I apply to a set which has previously turned me down? These were some of the questions asked at the University of Law's 2017 'Pupillage Application Question Time'. ULaw had assembled a 'junior panel' of four pupils and baby barristers who had recently completed pupillage and a 'senior panel' of four barristers involved in pupil recruitment to answer students' burning questions. Here are some of the best nuggets of advice we heard during the evening.

The senior panel

The application form

The senior panel began by describing how they sift initial applications. 5 Essex Court’s marking system seemed typical of many, looking at academic ability, experience, presentation and special/interesting features. These criteria are usually pretty clear-cut and tend to be displayed on a set's website, so there are no excuses for not knowing them. A criminal set like 2 Bedford Row tends to look more for good advocacy ability than pure academics.

The sifting process usually involves a sizeable panel of members and the cross-referencing of decisions. “All of that takes quite a lot of time – weeks, if not months,” warned Georgina Wolfe of 5 Essex Court. So, advised Louise Oakley of 2 Bedford Row, “don't follow up with our clerks every day to ask if you have an interview!” (We would say that if you still haven't heard anything after several months you should feel free to follow up, but, yes, not every day.) Something you definitely should avoid: “Don't book a holiday during the interview period!”

“Show enthusiasm and make everything you say evidence based.”

Back to initial applications: how to handle them? “Show enthusiasm and make everything you say evidence based,” advised James Counsell QC of Outer Temple Chambers. “For example, when responding to a question on why you want to be a barrister you might say that you've been to court and were particularly impressed by something and give a short description of that.” The word limit for most questions will be 200 words, but “if you can give a response in fewer than 200 words that is great.” Concision is a useful tool for a barrister and should be considered in your applications.

Georgina Wolfe highlighted a significant change to the 2017 Pupillage Gateway application form: the five standard questions have been replaced by two standard questions on why you'd make a good barrister and why this chambers (which sets can amend or chuck out) and up to five questions which chambers can add themselves. “We are going to be asking seven questions,” revealed Louise Oakley, “including 'What makes a good advocate?', 'Give an example of a time you took personal criticism well', 'Give an example of good advocacy' and 'What is the importance of diversity at the Bar?'” For many sets advocacy is a key skill they'll ask about. “That doesn't just mean advocacy in court or for the FRU but speaking up and advocating on someone's else behalf,” says Louise Oakley. Jim Sturman QC of 2 Bedford Row adds: “Real-life advocacy can be demonstrated by something as seemingly trivial as helping someone out at school.”

“Real-life advocacy can be demonstrated by something as seemingly trivial as helping someone out at school.”

Other things can make you stand out too. “We have a process which we call 'the X factor',” revealed James Counsell QC. “It means that if someone who is marking an application form sees something which really grabs them they can give that candidate an extra mark – that extra mark is then reviewed to guard against bias.” So, do what you can to stand out – in a good way.

Georgina Wolfe had a good tip on how to judge your own applications to see how they'll stand up to scrutiny: “Look at the BSB's Fair Recruitment Guide – it's really useful to go through it marking your own application.” The guide is available online here. Another useful tip from Wolfe: “In every answer, put your best point first. It may be tempting to save it for the grand finale, but you actually want to put it front and centre of your argument.”

Here are some more quick-fire tips from the panel: tailor each application to each individual set; don't lie; don't quote a set's website back at it; don't brag about engaging in personal litigation (it looks bad); don't claim that investigating criminal evidence is one of your hobbies (you'll be caught out); make sure mitigating circumstances really do mitigate something on your form (“ie not your grandma's dog died five years ago”); and finally, steer well clear of comedy, “even if you are hilarious.”

Pupillage interviews

Moving on to interviews, Louise Oakley started with some basic interview advice: “Always wear a suit,” (even if the panel may be dressed more casually) and arrive on time. The panel shared some thoughts specifically on how to approach legal problem questions:

  • Fools rush in – “if you are nervous or unsure of how to approach a question, just ask for a minute or two to think about it. That is something you will end up doing a lot with judges as a practising barrister,” said Louise Oakley.
  • Start again if you need too – “if you say something you thought was nonsense, just go back and start again from the start.” said James Counsell QC.
  • Expect to be interrupted – “it would be pretty rare for the panel to let you complete an entire exercise, say a plea in mitigation. We are going to interrupt you,” advised Jeremy Johnson QC of 5 Essex Court.
  • No one likes an ass – “if you think you know more than anyone on the committee, you're going to come across like an ass,” quipped Louise Oakley.
  • You may be asked a topical problem question, so “keep abreast of the news that week,” recommended Louise Oakley.
  • “Do your homework and revise modes of address, for instance how do you address a district judge in the Magistrates' Court?” advised Georgina Wolfe. The answer is 'Sir' or 'Madam'.
  • Ethical questions can crop up at any point, so “revise ethics and review the BSB Handbook,” recommended Louise Oakley.
  • Don't waffle – “if a reply is timed at two minutes make sure you stay within those two minutes. And if you can say what you want to within 30 seconds then do,” advised Jim Sturman QC.

Finally, the panel took questions. One student asked if sets are open to interviewing people they have previously turned down. “It varies by the set,” is the perhaps not so useful answer. All the sets on the panel said they'd consider applications from candidates who'd been turned down before. “Some sets will blacklist you,” warned Georgina Wolfe – usually larger commercial sets with the wherewithal to keep track of applicants. Louise Oakley advised second-time applicants “to be a bit cute about it. Say that you applied before, what stage you got to and demonstrate what you have done since which now makes you the right candidate.”

“Inevitably overall impression does count.”

A second student asked if sets look at the overall impression an applicant makes on paper and in person as well as marking them against criteria. “Inevitably overall impression does count,” responded Jeremy Johnson QC, adding that some applications are so bad that they can be binned right away, but the recruitment committee will go back and look at precisely where they didn't fit the criteria. And remember that 'X factor' which Outer Temple awards... so show your best side, and remember a set is judging you as a complete package.


The junior panel

Application tips

Chris Burrows of Hardwicke began by addressing how you should prepare for pupillage applications. “I did my research over ten years,” was his first revelation. (Burrows was previously an army officer and worked in various other roles before heading for the Bar.) While most people won't have this long, his comment does emphasise the advantages of having plenty of time to familiarise yourself with the profession. Burrows says he found it helpful “to meet with practitioners and talk to them” whenever possible.

“Go to the website of a set you want to apply to and look at how you stack up compared to the barristers there.”

What other research should you do? Burrows recommended the Chambers UK and Legal 500 directories, and cautions: “Use sets' websites, but beware they are chambers' window to the world of solicitors. A set may be repositioning itself in the market and advertising new areas which a majority of its members don't actually work in, but which they do want to hear you are interested in.” The Chambers Reports and Chambers UK Bar rankings can help you find out what a set's strengths really are. Showing an interest in and motivation for working in the areas a chambers practices in is crucial in your application. Burrows also told the audience about the 'junior barrister test': “Go to the website of a set you want to apply to and look at how you stack up compared to the barristers there under five years call.” Then ask yourself: are your qualifications and experiences in the same league?

The junior panel agreed that the question 'Why do you believe you will make a good barrister?' is the toughest one on the application form. “It's really two questions: 'what are the qualities that make a good a barrister?' and 'why do you have those qualities?',” explained Molly Joyce of 5 Essex Court. “My advice? Google it! There are so many good potential answers out there. Work out what your reason for becoming a barrister is and then make sure it is something which will literally trip off the tongue when you're asked.” Chris Burrows recommended: “Make your reason for wanting to be a barrister something you have experienced, so that it is evidence based.” Vondez Phipps of 42 Bedford Row tackled one common reason you might pick: “For me becoming a barrister was all about seeing injustice and wanting to do something about it. People told me I shouldn't give that as a reason as it was too common. But I decided to stick with it as I had to be honest, but I realised I needed to be more specific and provide evidence behind my reason.”

“Treat your whole application as a piece of written advocacy.”

What, the panel were asked, is their top tip for dealing with the application form? “Treat your whole application as a piece of written advocacy,” replied Vondez Phipps. “Think about all the experiences and knowledge you have and then decide how you want to present that as a narrative showing how you will make a good barrister. Every sentence and paragraph must demonstrate a skill or some knowledge that you have. So be succinct: if you can say something in eight words, don't say it in 32.” It helps to be well organised. “I put all my research and potential responses to questions into a huge spreadsheet,” Chris Burrows revealed. “It was a painful experience and made my eyes bleed, but it was really helpful.” We haven't heard this particular piece of advice before but we certainly think it is a great idea, bleeding eyes or not.

Interview tips

“Do all your research again,” was the advice on interviews from Colm Kelly of Devereux Chambers. “Check that everything you put on your application form is still up to date when you come to interview.” To this end, “the news sections of sets' websites are really useful. For instance, it's great if in an interview you can say you just read about a Supreme Court case which is relevant to an area of law which you find fascinating.”

“I used to think making eye contact is overrated. It's not.”

And how to behave in the interviews themselves? “I used to think making eye contact is overrated. It's not. Remember you are before five people.” Engage with all of them. Also, expect the unexpected. “One interview question which my chambers asked last year was, 'What is important?',” revealed Vondez Phipps. “Another they once asked was 'Setting aside red and green. what colour would you like to be?'” These questions are designed to show you can be quick-witted when needed.

The junior panel also gave their thoughts on making pupillage applications again and again several years running. “Being able to relax a bit in interviews is important,” observed Colm Kelly. “Some of that comes with trying again and again. I did two years of interviews before I succeeded.” Molly Joyce also interviewed for pupillage two years in a row before success came knocking. “The second year I found it useful to go back and research some basic points of law and look over the ethics points in the BSB Handbook again.”

“I've had a few interview horror stories!”

Any bad interview experiences? “I've had a few interview horror stories!” revealed Molly Joyce. “I was once asked whether there should be a statute of limitations for cases of sexual assault. I said there shouldn't be, and then blanked and immediately didn't know how to go on. I waffled. No one will remember a few minutes of silence, but they will remember terrible waffle. So take a minute, compose yourself, and reformulate your answer if you need to.” And how do you deal with failure if you can't recover like that? “Try to learn from it,” advised Colm Kelly. “For instance, perhaps you are being rejected by similar types of set.”

Finally, a student asked the panellists if they could tell a good interview from a bad one? Did they know when they came out of the interview with their current set that they'd got a pupillage? “You definitely know the bad ones!” quipped Vondez Phipps. “They are the ones where afterwards you realise you could have said things better. You can also roughly tell those interviews where you have done okay.” Chris Burrows recalled: “I walked out of every interview exhausted. I'd say you can tell if an interview has gone well, but you can never tell if it has gone well enough.” There's only one way of telling that: the offer of a pupillage.

We recommend that you do your research to understand the barristers' professions, and individual sets and their areas of practice. Check out the Bar section of this website for tips on where to start.


This feature was first published in December 2017.