Applying for pupillages

Fountain Court, Middle Temple


The Pupillage Gateway opens on 7 January 2020 and closes on the 7 February. Are you ready to apply? What skills and experiences do you need to have under your belt before you do so? An aspiring pupil barrister shares their experiences on getting Bar ready.

Ping! An email pops up on my phone, and I open it hoping to be told about the latest Topshop sale. Instead, what I find is an email from the Pupillage Gateway reminding me that this year’s pupillage offers can now be viewed. My first thought was: what the hell have I done?! I don’t mean that I suddenly realised I had chosen the wrong career path (I’ve had that panic attack before and managed to work my way through it, thankfully), but more: ‘what have I done over the last few years which demonstrates the necessary skills and dedication for a career at the Bar?’ After all, pupillage committee honchos reading my application aren't mind readers.

My first thought was: what the hell have I done?!

I know that I need to tell them exactly what I've done with my lif and why it's relevant to them. As my careers adviser once put it: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” (although she wasn't recommending sending in a Legally Blonde-style home video of yourself in a bikini!) With this in mind I started to dredge up memories of all of the relevant things I had done, from the not-so-impressive article about the state of canteen food at school to the quite-impressive pro bono work I'd done for a school while at university. So what did I decide to flaunt?



Mooting took up so much of my time at university, I think it deserves pride of place. In the first year, I dipped my toe in the water and took part in a couple of non-competitive moots. My first attempt was laughable: I didn’t even know how to put a bundle together! But that's what the experience is all about. I learned a lot about procedure, formalities and of course advocacy. By the time I was in my final year, I was involved in mooting, negotiation competitions and mock trials. These were all great ways to improve my advocacy and legal reasoning skills.

I also thought it might be a good idea to see things from the organisational side, so in my second year I helped run the mooting competitions themselves. Unpicking a legal problem is one thing, but actually putting one together that is balanced enough to argue from both sides is quite a different kettle of fish.

All this has gone a long way towards building up the experiences and skills I need to help move my career along. But non-legal experience – which some people still forget to mention on their applications – is important too.

Even something as simple as waitressing (which I've done myself) is a great way to demonstrate that you can manage time, handle high-pressure situations and interact with a range of different people.

If you've had a full or part-time job at any point, you'll have picked up some important skills. Even something as simple as waitressing (which I've done myself) is a great way to demonstrate that you can manage time, handle high-pressure situations and interact with a range of different people.

It's easy to think of certain activities as being things you just have to do or just things that you enjoy. But all kinds of experiences – like being part of a sports team or amateur dramatics club – can be of value.



You need mini-pupillages experience. Your application forms should contain information on what you did during them and what you learned from them – it's hard to overemphasise their importance.

My first mini experience was at a common law set on the Western Circuit. In just one week, my illusions of a career at the Bar were shattered and a more realistic picture emerged. Going to court and watching the barristers in action was brilliant. Yet more fascinating and useful was seeing them behind the scenes: reading through court bundles; attending meetings with clients; speaking to opposition counsel – this was the real experience for me.

Going to court and watching the barristers in action was brilliant.

You can go to court and sit in the public gallery to watch cases whenever you like – another useful experience I might add – but it's seeing the steps leading to that point that make mini-pupillages so valuable. Mine also gave me the chance to talk to current pupils and baby barristers to find out what the first few years at the Bar are like.

In my applications I can contrast this experience with a mini-pupillage at a criminal set in London and another at a family set in Birmingham. I must admit that neither of these were as good as the first mini I did. In fact I didn't even go to the chambers of the criminal set; instead I just met a different barrister in a different court each day! This meant that I didn't really get a feel for chambers, but it was an invaluable experience nonetheless as it showed me the realities of a career at the Criminal Bar, and made me realise how little it appealed to me!

Why didn't crime appeal to me? It's often glamourised – students picture themselves standing in court defending a client to the bitter end. But in reality you might just be handed a sheaf of paper with very little time to prepare and then spend five minutes before a judge trying to get a simple adjournment. Or you might be a 'floater' – not actually listed, but just sat about all day waiting to go into court when there's a free slot. Some people might be attracted to the fast-paced, unpredictability of all this, but as criminal cases are becoming harder to come by even for those with experience I am not one of them.

I spent time with the barristers, in client meetings, reading through papers and in court.

In contrast, my time at the family set was more positive; I spent time with the barristers, in client meetings, reading through papers and in court. It was interesting to see just how different the procedures are and how sensitive the issues can get.

These experiences have played a key role in helping me decide what kind of set I want to apply to and whether I want to be at the London Bar or the Regional Bar. But don’t forget, mini-pupillages aren’t just a chance to learn about the set and a career at the Bar; they're also the time for you to make an impression. If you're applying to a set where you've done a mini, mention it. It's sure to count in your favour – provided you left a good impression, that is!



Full-blown nepotism may be a thing of the past, but getting your name known among the right group of people at a set is still important. Besides minis there's one other main way of doing this: networking. Get yourself out there and show people that you're proactive and dedicated to the profession.

A good place to start is by attending dinners at your Inn of Court. 

A good place to start is by attending dinners at your Inn of Court. I went to a few while I was at university, before I had become a member of a specific Inn and found them a nice way to meet barristers in a less formal setting. I don’t know how others feel about this, but to me barristers sometimes appear so experienced and commanding that you forget sometimes that they are normal people too!

Every practising barrister was once an aspiring pupil, and – would you believe it – they're almost always happy to talk about it. When you're networking make sure you have scores of questions to ask (though avoid going into interrogation mode). What have their best experiences at the Bar been? How do they view the current health of the profession? As well as learning about the profession, you can store up the responses you get and use them as useful interview fodder.

There are also lectures you can attend and of course the annual National Pupillage Fair. All of these experiences can provide relevant material for your applications. Explaining how speaking to a barrister from the set, either at a dinner or at the Fair, influenced your decision to apply can make you stand out.


On the road again

Now that I've taken a trip down memory lane, the application process doesn't seem so daunting. In fact it's almost the opposite; looking back at what I've done, I've found myself wondering how I'll be able to fit everything into such restrictive word limits! But that's the whole point of the exercise – to ensure you remain as clear and concise as possible. Why say in 50 words what you can say in ten?

So for fear of 'rabbiting on', I will draw this piece to its conclusion with my three top tips:

  1. Get everything relevant into your applications. Don't assume that the pupillage committee will just know you have mooted because everyone else has; tell them!

  2. Don't speak in the abstract; make every answer link to you personally and your experiences.

  3. Don't give up. If this is your second or third time applying for pupillage, all that means is that you should now have even more stuff to support your application. Hopefully you realised this career path was challenging and competitive when you chose it, so if this is what you want then why stop now?


This feature first appeared in our March 2014 newsletter and has been updated since.