Crown Prosecution Service (careers) - True Picture

Open to budding solicitors and barristers alike, the CPS's legal trainee scheme is one route into criminal law you'll certainly want to consider.

Justice League

It's not enough to arrest a criminal to bring them to justice – once that part's done, the CPS takes over. “We're involved in reviewing cases from homicide down to motoring offences to decide whether or not to charge the accused,” training principal Martin McKay-Smith explains. “The CPS then prosecutes the case in the Magistrates' or Crown Court either with its own advocates or self-employed practitioners.” Fourteen regional teams of Crown Prosecutors span the length and breadth of England and Wales, each made up of a mix of barristers and solicitors. Both get to do their own advocacy – a big draw for trainees we spoke to.

The CPS takes up to 30 trainees and pupils each year, spread across the country from Derby to Manchester to Lincoln to London. At the time of our research a total of 18 were based in London, 13 in Yorkshire/Humberside, 11 in the Midlands, seven each in the East of England and North West, six in the North East, four in the South West, seven in the South East, and two in Wales.

Anybody who's completed the LPC or BPTC can apply and “everyone's recruited by the same process,” says McKay-Smith, “the idea being we'll take the 30 best candidates regardless.” In both the 2016 and 2017 intakes BPTC graduates slightly outnumber their LPC counterparts. Because advocacy is such an important part of the job, applicants should be able to “present orally in a structured and persuasive manner and know when to pursue cases and when not to,” says McKay-Smith. Interviewees said the appeal of the CPS came from being “particularly interested in the process of constructing a case,” while several made clear they had “no interest in making a load of money for businessmen. Everyone here really cares about what they do.”

“... no interest in making a load of money for businessmen.”

The primary difference between the solicitor and barrister routes is structure: the former is a two-year training contract, the latter a one-year pupillage. Like at the independent Bar, pupils spend their first six “learning the trade with a pupil supervisor”– one single prosecutor. Second sixers get on their feet immediately and handle their own cases in a local Magistrates' Court. Those on the solicitor route don't rotate through seats as they would in private practice – they do get a supervisor whose work they shadow and who can point them in the right direction to get the right experiences.

Both routes involve secondments outside the CPS to fulfil training requirements, and both lead to a guaranteed position as a Crown Prosecutor. Everyone who completes the legal trainee scheme ends up beginning by prosecuting cases in Magistrates' Courts. However, looking forward, only barristers have the option of qualifying to practise advocacy in the Crown Court, where more serious offences are referred.

Cast a shadow

In their first few months, legal trainees follow whatever their supervisor is doing and soak up knowledge. Lawyers from across the entire CPS take trainees on, and our interviewees' early experiences depended heavily on what their supervisor was doing: one “spent the first few months preparing for a Crown Court murder trial,” while another saw “mostly drink driving, shoplifting and minor assaults,” and yet another had a supervisor who “wasn't going to court at all during that time, so I ended up shadowing three or four other Crown Court advocates.” Along with generalist Magistrates' and Crown Court departments, the CPS also encompasses specialist groups for fraud, organised crime and counter-terrorism. In lieu of a seat system, trainees are encouraged to spend time with different Crown Prosecutors to get a feel for everything the CPS does. “It's a very unstructured programme,” we heard. “You're left to your own devices to shadow people.” It's thus essential to be proactive and pursue your own interests. The system seems to work: trainees and pupils told us they'd seen “a full range of criminal work – I can't think of anything I missed out on.”

As time progresses trainees will begin reviewing documents, writing up practical case notes and delving into research for their supervisor. Any early experience like this will come through low-level proceedings like Plea and Trial Preparation Hearings (initial hearings in the Crown Court after a case has been referred by magistrates) and Section 10 admissions under the Criminal Justice Act (related to conclusive evidence). Some supervisors test their charges' advocacy skills through exercises: one source remembered “having to read cases and prepare an opening and closing speech, then by the end of the day presenting it to my supervisor.” The CPS also provides extensive e-learning modules – “some of which are helpful, some very bureaucratic” – and pays for trainees to attend external sessions. Each trainee is also set up with an 'Individual Learning Account' which gives them a certain amount of credit to spend on their own development.

“I spent a month in a defence chambers to get a more objective view as a prosecutor.”

Trainees on the solicitor path need to spend at least six months on secondment; for barristers, it's 12 weeks minimum. Secondments can be to a law firm, the independent Bar, a local authority or a specialist CPS department. The time can be split over several different excursions. The onus is on trainees to pick where they want to go and get their ducks in a row, but our interviewees got help from their supervisor. Many “spent a month in a defence chambers to get a more objective view as a prosecutor;” others went abroad to work for UK legal institutions overseas. A pupil described the experience in chambers as an “extended mini-pupillage,” where the workload “can range from just watching cases to drafting advices and skeleton arguments for the supervisor.”

Getting to show off your advocacy skills in court is one of the CPS's big selling points. Pupils tend to get on their feet pretty quickly in their second six, while trainees will get some experience under their belt before qualifying. “I was definitely eased in,” said one, “though the workload can become challenging and can be quite exhausting. But what's interesting is that you're always in new situations with different types of cases.” Newcomers to court cut their teeth on simpler fare like guilty pleas before moving on to the juicy stuff. “I started out with bail applications in the Crown Court for ABH and assault matters,” one barrister told us. “Then when I qualified I was doing a variety of assaults, serious offences in the youth court, criminal damage cases and public order offences.” No matter where they've been before, trainees and qualified solicitors can only prosecute their own cases in Magistrates' Courts – in Crown Courts they can only do some limited advocacy. This was a sore spot for some who pointed out: “If you've mostly been in the Crown Court with your supervisor it means your experience isn't exactly transferable after qualification.” The transition from trainee to Crown Prosecutor is pretty much as smooth as qualification can get – the only major difference is the hours requirements.

Trial of a Time Lord

Legal trainees must record 37 hours a week, but a flexitime policy means they can pick when to come in and leave each day. “The latest you can come in without notifying your manager is 10am, and the earliest you can leave is 4pm,” a source explained, “but within that you can do whatever as long as you hit the target.” Qualification throws this framework out the window, though, and “there can be an awful lot of really long days because you need to prep for cases.” This and the spread of trainees across many, many locations restricts their ability to get together socially, but group training days do bring everybody together. We heard that “there is a social scene in each location. It's not like at firms or chambers but we'll sometimes informally go for drinks or a meal.”

Long days in court mean Crown Prosecutors don't spend much time at their desks. CPS buildings “can be a bit of a rabbit warren,” and all follow a hotdesking policy. Public bodies are strapped for cash at the moment which makes a challenging environment like prosecution even more taxing, but almost every interviewee declared: “The people are amazing. Everybody just gets on with the job and they're all willing to help out in any way they can.”

Crime doesn't pay, but the CPS does: the starting salary of around £24,000, rising to £33,000 upon qualification, is good money for criminal law. There's also a London weighting to accommodate the extra cost of living in the capital.


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How to get into the CPS

Application deadline (2019): 1 March 2019 (opens 4 February 2019)


Recruitment scope

As a national institution, the CPS aims to attract applicants from across the UK, and hosts interviews in Liverpool, Birmingham and London to cover as many bases as possible. The minimum requirements are similarly inclusive: unlike the majority of firms or chambers, applicants need only a 2:2 degree, and to have passed the LPC or BPTC.

Sources told us what attracted them to the CPS was that they “wanted to do work that benefited the average Joe on the street” and were largely drawn to the CPS as a means of helping the community. Resourcing and recruitment officer Emily Miller tells us she “likes to see candidates who recognise our values and want to pursue public service.” Getting to do only prosecution work was another attraction, and many of our interviewees only applied to the CPS legal trainee scheme.

We noticed that quite a few current trainees are career changers – perhaps because the unstructured training “suits me as a more mature person.” Interviewees applauded the “real diverse mix of people” brought into the scheme: “There's a really wide variety of ages, genders and ethnicities, and very few egos.”

The application process

It's safe to say the CPS is a popular option training – in 2018 the scheme attracted a record 1,700 applications, 100 more than the previous year. The deadline to apply is (usually) in the spring for a start November that same year. The application opening and closing dates are normally announced in December or January. The deadline has slowly been getting earlier in the past few years, moving from mid-May to the start of March.

Prospective trainee solicitors and pupil barristers go through the same exercises when applying. Applicants initially submit a short form through the Civil Service Jobs site which including their education history and work experience. “We also ask for a CV so we can get to know candidates,” EmilyMiller says. All applicants who meet the minimum criteria are set a situational judgement test standard to all government jobs. An upper percentile from those go through to online verbal reasoning and critical reasoning tests – all of these can be practised in advance.

Next comes a three-minute video interview, where candidates have to answer two questions. Miller says: “We're not testing their legal knowledge here. We're examining their motivations for wanting to join the CPS.” Following that there's a legal assessment stage, after which the best 80 or so candidates get invited to interview at one of the CPS's hubs. We make that six application/interview stages, which may be some kind of record.“It was all a bit lengthy,” sources agreed, “but it's easy to follow.”


It's reassuring to know that interviewees get a detailed pack outlining the profile of an ideal candidate and explaining what they're getting themselves into. The interview panel consists of a Deputy Chief Crown Prosecutor in the chair, plus another experienced lawyer and an HR representative. Interviews typically last 45 minutes to an hour and test candidates' legal knowledge and competencies – these include communication skills, oral presentation, leadership, seeing the bigger picture and effective decision making.

“Hopefully candidates will come in prepared for what we're testing them on,” Miller tells us. “They can adapt examples from their time at university, extra-curricular activities or past work experience.” The interview process aims to get candidates to demonstrate that they have the skills necessary for crown prosecution with examples from their past. Miller also says: “We're keen for candidates to ask the panel questions about the roles they do or their views on issues. Panellists enjoy that and will encourage conversation because it's another means of getting to know the candidate.”

Before interview – before submitting your initial application, even – have a read of the CPS website to learn more about their main areas of work. You can also contact your nearest CPS centre and ask about shadowing lawyers there: not only will it build your knowledge of how the organisation works, but it also demonstrates a clear interest in what it does, which can only benefit your application.

Interview with training principal Martin McKay-Smith

Chambers Student: Could you give us an overview of the work the CPS does?

Martin McKay-Smith: The CPS reviews criminal cases brought in by the police and decides either to charge or not charge members of the public suspected of offences. These can range from the most serious, including homicide, down to less serious ones like motoring offences. Using the code of Crown Prosecutors, we must decide whether or not there's a realistic prospect of conviction. Having decided to charge somebody, the CPS will then prosecute the case either in a Magistrates' Court or Crown Court, either through its own advocates or by instructing self-employed practitioners. The role of the CPS is as an independent body making decisions completely removed from any political influence or the subjective interests of individual prosecutors.

CS: The training programme has a solicitor and a barrister route. Could you outline the structure of each?

MMS: The legal trainee scheme runs each year, taking up to 30 participants at a time, and is open to students who aspire to be either a solicitor or barrister. The latter are taken on once they've completed their BPTC and offered a 12-month pupillage before being given a job as a Crown Prosecutor. The approach is similar with solicitors, who once they've completed the LPC are eligible to apply for a two-year period of recognised training. During that time they'll spend time within the organisation and go out on secondment either to another organisation or in private practice.

Trainee solicitors and pupil barristers are recruited through the same process and go through the same interview, the idea being we'll take the 30 best candidates regardless of their qualification. We like to have a fairly even split but don't make any steps to control how many of each we take.

CS: What tasks will legal trainees typically be doing?

MMS: They will be involved with their supervisor's work whether that's reviewing cases, or drafting applications, summaries, bad character notices and the like. Supervisors' caseloads will vary – they might be a prosecutor on rape or sexual offences spending lots of time in court, a senior prosecutor with various cases to manage, or something else entirely – so trainees need to be adaptable to what their supervisor is doing. At all times, legal trainees are appraised against CPS competencies and the requirements set by the BSB or SRA.

We aim to send trainees to spend time with other people within the CPS to pick up on what they're missing, and they'll definitely spend time in court. Supervisors take on the role voluntarily and we don't want people to feel like they have to take on a trainee. They all get introductory training to being a mentor and we only pick people who we think would be good for the job to act as supervisors – they're all Crown Prosecutors with a certain amount of experience under their belt.

CS: What kind of person is suited to the CPS?

MMS: We're looking for somebody with good oral advocacy skills who can present an argument in an ordered and structured manner. Good analytical and writing skills are also essential to the role. Crown Prosecutors need to exercise good judgement, balance the strengths and weaknesses of a case and come up with their own conclusions independently of other people's ideas.

Disclosure is currently under the spotlight, and that's revealing just how important the Crown Prosecutor's role is. It comes down to knowing not only when to pursue cases, but also when to discontinue them if it's the right thing to do. A certain amount of common sense is also necessary.

CS: What trends within the profession should our readers be aware of?

MMS: There are contingency plans in place following the Brexit vote, as the CPS has various international links. Our people work as criminal justice advisers in locations across the world. The global reach of the CPS is something that will inevitably attract people, along with the ability to go into an area like extradition in the long term.

We want talented individuals to join the CPS and stay here long-term but are alive to the fact that young people may want to prosecute then move to defending or another area and then maybe return to us. There's a career for life here if you want it but we're proud of the fact that Crown Prosecutors move on to other organisations – we're not going to be jumping on your head if you apply elsewhere after a couple of years here.

The CPS is a place for people who want to make a difference and we offer a broad diet of varied, interesting criminal work in which you're serving the public interest. Down the line there are opportunities to become a Crown Court advocate, and what's not to like there?

CS: Do you have any advice for our readers who are about to enter the law?

MMS: Follow the specialism that fascinates you and see what opportunities are available within that. At the same time, don't be put off trying different things and getting training wherever you can get it. Kindness and conscientiousness are a currency that find favour everywhere and will be invaluable to you. If you're thorough in your work, learn new things every day, reflect on how you can do things better, and observe others to see how they do things differently, you'll make progress and enjoy what you're doing.

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