Pupillage interviews

How do chambers like to interview, what questions can you expect, and what should you definitely avoid saying? Get an insider's take on pupillage interviews, written by an aspiring pupil barrister.

 

It's 30 April. The Pupillage Gateway has closed. My carefully crafted applications have been sent out into the ether, landing in the laps of barristers up and down the country to be sifted through and sorted into piles of 'yes', 'no' and 'never in a million years'. I cross my fingers and toes and hope that as many of my applications as possible end up in that first and smallest pile – the interview pile. Eventually I land interviews with seven of the 12 sets I applied to. From those seven, I managed to get through to four second-round interviews.

In an attempt to lift the lid on a process which remains shrouded in mystery, I'd like to share my experiences, observations and anecdotes about pupillage interviews.

 

The basics

First-round interviews tend to be relatively short and focus on making sure that you're a nice person capable of holding an intelligent conversation. Mine were broadly similar, save for one chambers which introduced a written assessment too. The interviews were mostly with junior barristers and I knew that they were unlikely to have done anything more than skimmed my application before my arrival. So I felt confident that I could repeat any information on the forms.

My second-round interviews were all in front of a panel of senior barristers. Beyond that, I had four very different experiences, as follows:

  1. The point-scoring system: A panel of four; I was given a case study to prepare the night before, and then a choice of four topics to prepare about 30 minutes before the interview. Candidates were given points for each element of the interview.
  2. The firing squad: A panel of seven (yes, SEVEN); a case study was emailed to me the weekend before the interview. Some panels decide in advance who is going to ask what when. This panel hadn't. It was a free-for-all. By the time I got out (after a 40-minute grilling) I was totally exhausted.
  3. The philosophers: A very short interview – just 20 minutes – in front of a panel of four. I was given a series of bizarre, existential questions to prepare 30 minutes before the interview which bore no relation to law.
  4. The advocates: A panel of five; I had an advocacy exercise emailed to me a week before the interview; it covered a complex and evolving area of law.

Save for the philosophers, all of my second-rounds were focused on legal analysis and insight. Does this give an advantage to those who've done a law degree, theGDL or the BPTC? Well, I've completed the Bar Course but I didn't use any of the materials from the course to help me prepare for my interviews. Instead I relied on journals, blogs and cases that I'd picked up on over the past few years.

None of the panels let me take my notes into the interview, and when they were questioning me I certainly didn't have time to look back through the problem itself. This means that knowing the problem and the relevant law inside-out, upside-down and back-to-front is super important. Preparation is key.

Ethical questions crop up in both first and second-round interviews. They're a bit like GCSE Maths: you can still pick up a considerable number of points without getting the answer right. Show your workings; the panel want to see how you think and what options you are considering.

 

What I learnt

Your first interview will be your worse

Be prepared for your first interview to be a car-crash of such epic proportions that you will essentially find yourself having an out-of-body experience in which you fly up to the ceiling and look down on yourself in sheer incredulity.

That may sound a bit dramatic, but for me my first interview was definitely my worst. I'm not sure whether that was because I didn't particularly like the chambers in question or because I was so new to the whole thing. I do know that it was the only instance when I found myself faced with a question that truly threw me. I was asked about a judgment that had come out the day before – an important one to do with sanctions in civil proceedings. I hadn't seen the judgment. So when they asked me about a particular point there was little I could do but sit still and mentally whimper.

Prepare to be unprepared

There are few candidates who can afford to dedicate the entirety of June and July to preparing for and attending interviews. I'm certainly not one of them. Working during those months is tough – you need a kind employer who's prepared to let you come in late or leave early when a chambers decides to give you two days' notice that they have decided to interview you. I remember a particularly tough week in which I had three interviews: a first-round on the Saturday, a second-round on the Thursday (for which I was given a case to prepare on Wednesday night) and a surprise second-round on the same Thursday which I was only told about two days in advance. Scheduling all of the interviews was difficult enough, let alone preparing for them.

Balancing interview preparation alongside full-time employment forces you to be very clear and focused in your approach.

However, I think that all this hassle is the perfect introduction to the chaotic nature of practice at the Bar. Balancing interview preparation alongside full-time employment forces you to be very clear and focused in your approach. At the same time, preparation for interviews isn't done the night or even the week before but should be the culmination of everything you've done so far: work experience, years spent sweating in libraries, and cases you've read up on in your spare time.

Some of the questions will be bonkers

Whispered in careers offices around the country are horror stories of obscure interview questions designed to throw and unnerve you. These are not urban legends.

I endured a number of left-field questions throughout the course of my interviews. For the most part, they are designed to test quick thinking skills. One great question that a friend of mine was asked was this: “We all break the rules. Give us an example of a time you've broken the rules and explain why you did it.” In one fell swoop, this question lets the interviewer find out how fast the candidate thinks, how good their judgment is in picking an answer that is amusing without being concerning, and whether they're the kind of person the interviewer want to work with. The first thing to do when considering a question like this is to work out what is really being asked. Once you know that (see above) you have seconds to craft an answer which is witty, honest, and won't lead to concerns that you'll make off with chambers' petty cash.

“We all break the rules. Give us an example of a time you've broken the rules and explain why you did it.”

If you (claim to) speak a foreign language, don't be surprised if you're quizzed on it. I speak a fairly unusual language to a conversational level (for the sake of argument, let's say it's Elvish), and at the end of one interview a member of the panel asked me in an off-hand manner:

“Am I right in thinking that you speak [Elvish]?”
“Yes, conversationally,” I replied
“Oh excellent, well done,” he said... in Elvish.

Terrified, I stuttered something like “thank you” (in Elvish) and simultaneously thanked the gods that I hadn't suggested I was fluent whilst praying to those same gods that he wouldn't ask me any more questions. Thankfully, he didn't.

Most of the questions won't be 

In my first-rounds I found I was often asked one or more of these questions:

  • Why do you want to be a barrister?
  • Why are you interested in this area of law?
  • What do you think about [insert current affair here]?

While I don't advise rehearsing perfect answers to these questions (you will sound like a bad actor), it is a good idea to prepare a rough outline of what you would say. But beware: your interviewers will notice instantly if you're regurgitating a prepared answer.

No one will ask about that time when you saved the world

I was a bit surprised really. I was asked less about my CV specifically and more about my skills generally. This means the onus was on me to highlight and underline all the wonderful things I'd done so far.

You will say stupid things 

Accept it now. There is nothing you can do to guard against it. I once said something so stupid that I considered standing up and beginning an interpretive dance just to distract the panel from my idiocy. Don't agonise over it, move on and say something brilliant in answer to the next question.

You will say brilliant things 

In every single second-round I got into a debate with the panel about something. I surprised myself by making elegant and nuanced points, rooted in fact and supported by evidence.

You will also say brilliant things in slightly different circumstances. In the firing squad interview, after a fairly intense grilling, the head of the pupillage committee asked me which one point I would advance in my client's favour if I were restricted to making just one submission. I answered too quickly and picked out something that was fine but not 'the One'. The panel looked obviously crestfallen. In that split-second I decided I could do one of two things: carry on or take it back.

I answered too quickly and picked out something that was fine but not 'the One'.

I decided to take it back. I said: “Sorry, I actually think there's a much better point. May I change my answer?” The head of pupillage said “no,” but the rest of the panel revolted and I was allowed to resubmit. I made the much better point and at the end of the interview one of the panel looked at me and said, genuinely: “That was very brave, well done.”

Some people aren't very nice

But luckily they are in the minority. Of the four panels who interviewed me, I have to admit I disliked two. But only of one did I feel it had asked unfair questions. I dealt with it by pretending not to care, putting on a brave face, and doing the best I possibly could.

Most people are lovely

While interviews are always horribly stressful experiences, they are also a chance to meet those people who you hope one day to work with. Barristers frequently volunteer to be on pupillage committees not because they enjoy terrifying people but because they recognise how important recruitment is to safeguarding the reputation of their set. My experience of most of my interviewers was overwhelmingly positive.

It might not end in pupillage, but it will end 

I was gutted not to get pupillage this year. I'd spent at least six consecutive weekends in stuffy interview rooms answering difficult questions when I could have been frolicking in the sun. Not getting pupillage this time also means that I now have to go through the whole thing again next year – not a thrilling prospect.

But I'm not resting on my laurels. That, I hope, will be the key to succeeding next year. I've done another mini-pupillage, entered a mooting competition and organised a paid internship abroad for six months. So here's hoping that next year I'll nail it.

 

This feature originally appeared in our September 2014 newsletter.