Kaplan Law School's 'Pupillage Application Question Time'
Kaplan's 'ethical approach' to the BPTC is well publicised, and it's one that we support: it only accepts students who have at least a 2:1 and have passed an aptitude test. It also dedicates a lot of resources to giving students practical careers guidance so they have the best possible chance of winning a pupillage.
And it's paying off. We're told that an impressive 58% of 2013 graduates has so far managed to secure a pupillage – a much higher success rate than any other provider.
It's with this knowledge in mind that we attended Kaplan careers service's 'Pupillage Application Question Time' on 12 February 2014. The event brought together BPTC students and practising barristers for an evening of discussion and networking.
The main attraction was a two-part panel discussion featuring one panel made up of current pupils and baby juniors, and another of more senior barristers.
[Editor's note: since this event took place Kaplan Law School has stopped offering the BPTC.]
Panel One: advice from senior barristers
The 'senior' panel went first, chaired by Georgina Wolfe of 5 Essex Court. (Wolfe has also written a book entitled The Path to Pupillage, which you can buy here.) The panel consisted of three other barristers of several years' call, and its first topic of discussion was the scoring system used by sets when sifting initial applications.
The room was reminded that members of pupillage committees have to trawl through huge stacks of initial applications. “Put yourself in my shoes!” mock-pleaded Shaen Catherwood of Devereux Chambers. “It's 4pm on a Sunday afternoon. I'm sitting next to my wood-burning stove in my slippers, and I've just gone through a pile of 100 applications. I've got 100 more to go through, and I've just picked up yours. Now: what are you going to put on your form that will make me put it on the 'yes' pile rather than the 'no' pile?”
Tip 1: “Write in a concise and articulated way and show off skills using evidence.”
Besides having good academics and lashings of work experience, applicants should “write in a concise and articulated way and show off skills using evidence,” says Catherwood. “Written advocacy is a very important skill for barristers, and I want candidates to demonstrate it in their applications. A good piece of drafting will stand out.”
Tip 2: “Go through your application time and time again to check for spelling and grammar errors.”
Jeremy Johnson QC of 5 Essex Court adds: “Go through your application time and time again to check for spelling and grammar errors. Get someone else to read through it for you. Pupillage committee members are busy, and spelling mistakes are a dead-easy way of weeding out candidates.”
Tip 3: “Show us that you are a well-rounded person.” But: “Don't be zany!”
Anne Heller of Church Court Chambers makes another good point: “People don't pay enough attention to showing that they have interesting hobbies besides being a legal eagle. You need to show us that you are a well-rounded person.” At the same time, Heller warns: “Don't be zany! The Bar is still quite hidebound. Someone once sent us an application in a ring binder, laid out like a set of pleadings. Now if that were an application to an advertising agency, I'm sure they'd be impressed. But we just put it straight in the bin!”
Tip 4: “Use practical examples from your own experience to demonstrate your interest in the Bar.”
Georgina Wolfe deftly tackled the issue of how to handle the question 'why do you want to be a barrister?' “Don't say it's because you loved Rumpole or adore Martha Costello. Senior barristers may say this in interviews, but that's just because when you're that senior you can say whatever you want! Use practical examples from your own experience to demonstrate your interest in the Bar.”
Tip 5: “The best way to practise advocacy is by doing it for real.”
This brings us to the interviews themselves and how to deal with (legal) problem questions. The aim of these exercises is for you to show off your spoken advocacy skills. “The best way to practise advocacy is by doing it for real,” says Jeremy Johnson. “Participate in debates, do moots, join FRU! These experiences will also allow you to back up the trite claims you have to make about your skills by drawing on examples.”
Tip 6: Think carefully about how you structure responses to problem questions.
Think carefully about how you structure responses to problem questions. It's important to take your time. “Work out the order of what you want to say, and then go through it,” Shaen Catherwood advises. “And listen to the interventions made by the interview panel and react to them. If someone makes a good point which undermines what you've said, then adapt your argument. Don't stick rigidly to your position at all costs. At the same time, if you know that something can be argued from your point of view, then do so!”
Tip 7: Revise for an interview in the same way you revise for an exam.
Georgina Wolfe says you should revise for an interview in the same way you revise for an exam. “If the set does tort, read up on your tort law.” Awareness of current affairs matters too. “If you've read the papers on the day of the interview, you've a greater chance of being able to say something smart if you know there's going to be a topical interview question.”
Tip 8: “Turning a written argument – a skeleton – into spoken advocacy is one of the main skills you need as a barrister, so this is what you have to demonstrate.”
A member of the audience asked whether it's okay to repeat something in an interview (eg a work experience example) which you've already mentioned on an application form. “Don't assume I've read your application form!” exclaimed Shaen Catherwood in reply – a reminder of how busy pupillage committee members and interviewers are. Jeremy Johnson adds that “turning a written argument – a skeleton – into spoken advocacy is one of the main skills you need as a barrister, so this is what you have to demonstrate.” In other words: yes, you can and should repeat what you have said on a form in an interview; just add that extra bit of eloquence and pizazz which will tell your interviewers you'll make a great practising barrister.
Panel Two: advice from junior barristers
Tip 9: “Do as many mini-pupillages and visit as many sets as possible and find the places you are in love with!”
The second panel was chaired by Devereux junior Seb Purnell (call 2010). Its attention turned first to the question of how to select the sets you apply to. “Do as many mini-pupillages and visit as many sets as possible and find the places you are in love with!” advised Blackstone baby junior Kerenza Davis (call 2012). This Valentine's Day reference got a good laugh from the audience, but beneath it is a serious point. “You need to have a good reason – a passionate reason – why you want to join a set. Maybe you met someone there who does really interesting work. Or you read about a interesting case the set worked on.” The panel agreed that five to six minis at different types of sets should give you enough of an idea of what you're interested in.
Tip 10: Chambers UK and other guides should be part of your research.
When discussing how to research sets, we were pleased when the panel name-dropped Chambers & Partners a few times. (One of our rivals also got a mention, but we'll skip over that quickly, given the conflicts of Westeros-like proportions which bedevil the world of legal publishing.) Chambers UK and other guides should be part of your research because, so says Kerenza Davis, “you have to avoid taking a set's website literally – it may list cases from areas of practice like public international or sports law because they're hip, but most barristers may not actually practice in these areas at all.”
Tip 11: Use a set's website to look at the backgrounds of current junior tenants.
Do use a set's website to look at the backgrounds of current junior tenants. “If they all did internships at the ICJ in The Hague or studied abroad at Harvard, and you didn't, then it's probably not worth wasting a Gateway application on them,” says Church Court baby junior Colin Witcher (call 2012). At the same time, having a chip on your shoulder is not recommended – don't be put off if a set has loads of Oxbridge graduates, even if you've never spent time in those hallowed halls.
Tip 12: “Start preparing applications well in advance.”
“Start preparing applications well in advance – that will give you the chance to sleep on it and reread your application form the next day,” advises Alice Meredith (call 2013), a pupil at 5 Essex Court. When filling out applications don't lie, don't make stuff up, and “don't make things more overblown than they are.”
Tip 13: There are plenty of qualities you need as a barrister which are not glitzy: “One is stamina.”
One audience member asked what the balance should be between showcasing your “glitzy” achievements and listing more regular skills on your application form. “I don't think there is a distinction really,” replied Alice Meredith. “What may appear glitzy to you may not to someone else, and vice versa.” Seb Purnell pointed out that there are plenty of qualities you need as a barrister which are not glitzy: “One is stamina. You can be jumping straight from one case to the next, with only the evenings to prepare. The experiences you can use to demonstrate stamina don't have to be legal.” For example, having worked full-time while simultaneously doing the BPTC part-time would be one way of showing you don't fear hard work.
Tip 14: “Read one case from every set you interview with.”
Finally the panel turned to interview preparation. “Read one case from every set you interview with – or at least least one case from each practice area you are interested in,” recommended Seb Purnell, saying this worked really well from him. “It meant I knew about the work each set did, and if I was asked what the most recent case was I had read, I had one ready and waiting which my interviewer probably knew about.”
Tip 15: If you don't know the answer to a question, just admit that you don't, or explain how you would find out the correct information.
The issue of 'curveball' or 'left-field' questions came up quite a bit during the course of the evening. The panel agreed that the most important thing to do when answering any type of question is to structure your response and 'show your workings' like you would for a maths problem. And if you don't know the answer to a question, just admit that you don't, or explain how you would find out the correct information.
This feature originally appeared in our February 2014 newsletter.