“I sacrificed my social life to get the best experience possible,” a pupil at a top set told us of their time at law school, “and in the end it paid off.”
Meet enough pupils and barristers and you'll see that lots of different personalities make it to the Bar: there are softly spoken bookworms and chatty Cathys alike, a slick suit for every savant who can complete The Times crossword in three minutes. But barristers do tend to share some guaranteed traits, among them diligence, an articulate manner, a flair for writing, and excellent people and analytical skills.
Building up a CV that shows you too possess these faculties is crucial to dazzling pupillage recruiters and landing that all-important interview. Here are a few things to focus on in the run-up to application season.
Top grades are a must: the Bar highly values academic success, and we've heard time and again from recruiters who say the easiest way to whittle down applications is by undergraduate degree class. Speaking frankly, unless you can demonstrate some truly remarkable alternative qualities, anything below a 2:1 will scupper your chances of securing a pupillage. Landing a First is optimal, particularly if there's anything a little dicey about your CV (like poor A levels), though many chambers do take on pupils with 2:1s. Still, second-class honours are two a penny, so yours will need to be a high one and supplemented with decent A levels to pass muster. The latest research published by the Bar Standards Board shows that the number of UK/EU students with a first-class degree enrolling on the Bar Course (BPC) has increased year on year since 2011, reaching 31.5% by 2019/12.
Landing a First is optimal.
Like trainee solicitors, incoming pupils are split pretty evenly between law and non-law graduates. When it comes to postgraduate degrees, it's really up to you. Many of the Bar’s most successful candidates have a Master's degree from a decent UK university or institution abroad, often in specialist areas like international law, but simply holding a Master's will not in and of itself help you score a pupillage.
Chambers tend to be more interested in your undergraduate performance than what you score as a postgrad or on the BPC. Nevertheless, you should aim for the best grades at every stage. Of those from the UK or EU who completed the course as of January 2020, around 9% received an ‘Outstanding’ overall; 50% received a ‘Very Competent’; and around 10% received a ‘Competent’. Around 85% of those with a both an ‘Outstanding’ overall grade and first-class degree had started pupillage as of March 2020; it drops to 79% for 2:1 degrees. If it hasn’t been drilled into you by now: academics matter.
Stellar marks alone aren't sufficient to get your application into the 'yes' pile; recruiters will also want to see that you're capable of balancing your studies with a robust extracurricular calendar – a preliminary way to measure commitment and time management, among other skills.
There's plenty you can do on the non-law side to spice up your CV. Many recruiters place a premium on high-grade personal achievements like, say, mastery of the violin, telling us such accomplishments show dedication and perseverance. Roles such as captain of your uni's netball team or head of the arts society can also make a splash as they demonstrate leadership and an ability to work well with others.
“This job is as much about advocacy as being analytical, and experience that shows your interest in and aptitude for that is invaluable.”
As far as academic extracurriculars go, “I find that people don't always focus adequately on specifically Bar-centred activities,” one recruiter from a top commercial set told us. “This job is as much about advocacy as being analytical, and experience that shows your interest in and aptitude for that is invaluable.” Involvement with debating and mooting clubs is particularly prized, as are attending mock trials and volunteering with law clinics. Keep an eye out for essay competitions too – there's no better way to underscore excellent writing skills. Winning academic prizes and scholarships is a good way to impress recruiters: at the top commercial and Chancery sets some of the pupils and baby juniors we've met have as many as a dozen!
The Bar Standards Board requires all BPC students to undertake a certain amount of pro bono work during their year of study. Investigate the options as soon as possible to ensure you land something that interests you and illustrates your interest in a certain type of law or set of chambers.
Consider the backgrounds of some of the pupils we've spoken with over the past few years: one used to work as a human rights intern investigating genocide in Mexico and Guatemala, another ran a charity in South Africa, and a third interned at the European Commission in Brussels before reporting on war crimes trials in Tanzania. With impressive rivals like these at every turn, it's important to make sure your own CV is up to scratch on the work experience side.
Of course, working abroad is by no means a requirement for the Bar, nor is a previous career. What is non-negotiable, however – whether you're showing up straight out of law school or off the back of another job – is some law-related experience to demonstrate your commitment to the profession. This could be gained by shadowing a barrister, clerking, marshalling for a judge, volunteering with a law clinic or pro bono organisation, or undertaking a mini-pupillage (a formal work placement at a barristers' chambers).
“Virtually everyone we recruit will have done a mini."
Our recruitment sources agree that mini-pupillages are far and away the best way to show you're serious about a career at the Bar. As one QC at a big commercial set told us: “Virtually everyone we recruit will have done a mini, either here or elsewhere. It's rare that we look at somebody who hasn't, and if we did we'd expect them to have an extremely good reason for not doing one – for example, working abroad throughout the application period.”
Nearly all large and mid-size sets take in mini-pupils, and some may offer dozens of minis a year. Be aware that sets may only take students in the final year of academic legal study (be it a law degree or GDL), so make sure you check each chambers' criteria carefully for how and when to apply. This year we've provided information on how many minis each set offers and what the deadlines are in our Chambers Reports. For more on what to expect and how to get a stint, see our feature on Mini-pupillages. We've also produced a new listing of Mini-pupillage vacancies.
Personal contacts can go a long way in helping you obtain a mini or other work experience, so make the most of what you've got from the get-go: apply to an Inn of Court to be assigned a sponsor, or if you’ve started dining at your Inn, begin schmoozing. You can meet a lot of people at networking events (for instance, public talks organised by chambers), so get out there and get chatting. Of course this is all going to be more difficult as a result of Covid-19, but be sure to look for online networking opportunities. If you're nervous about the idea of networking, go to our website to read our Nine networking tips.
Don't forget that scholarships offered by the Inns of Court are not just a way of funding your education; such prizes go a long way in marking you out from other well-qualified candidates.