Eight dos and don'ts for pupillage interviews

Pupillage interviews: an uphill struggle

Pupillage interviews are pitted with potential mishaps: po-faced panels and their left-field questions can trip up even the most prepared of candidates. Here we parse out the lessons one applicant learnt during his bumpy – but ultimately successful – journey to the Bar.


  1. Do look the part       2. Don't skip out on your research  
  We've written about dressing for interviews before, and our main point still stands: always err on the smart and conservative side. Assuming you haven't gone for full-blown black tie, you won't lose points at a pupillage interview for dressing too formally; there's a good chance, however, you'll get the snub if you turn up looking too casual, even if the set's day-to-day dress code is a relaxed one.

Our source unfortunately learnt this the hard way when a criminal set implied that his Saturday morning, first-round interview would be an informal affair: “They cheerily said their members would be dressed casually and invited me to do the same. I decided to wear a brown suit and pink shirt – in my eyes, a good compromise. It became clear I was badly mistaken as soon as I walked through the set’s front door: the receptionist’s eyebrows went up, my fellow interviewees looked shocked, and my interviewers could barely suppress smirks.” 

Following this incident, “I immediately went out and purchased a dark blue three-piece suit for future interviews.” Of course, this move alone didn't land him a pupillage, but it did help. After all, an appropriate outfit shows interviewers you're taking proceedings seriously, and that you understand how to dress for clients.
      The research it took to get your pupillage application singled out will certainly serve you well at interview, but further swatting up is a must. As our soon-to-be-a-pupil source points out: “By the time your interview rolls around – usually summer – those cases you spent the early months of the year researching will already be out of date. The set will expect you to know about cases that have occurred more recently.” 

He also recommends looking into the backgrounds of a set's junior tenants. “It's their career paths you'll likely be following in your early years, and it's worth noting anything that interests you about their practice – for example, if they assisted one of the set's heavyweights on an issue of interest to you, or if they've developed a practice slightly out of kilter with chambers' norm. This way you can ask nuanced questions at interview that show you're thinking about a long-term future with the set.” 

Make sure you do some digging on the pupillage committee too. “Anything you can find out about your interviewers beforehand should work in your favour. At the very least, you'll be able to introduce a personal element to the interview – for example, saying 'I noticed that you do such and such kind of work. Is that something pupils can be involved in?'”
  3. Don't forget to brush up on your application        4. Do judge your audience  
  – every part of it          
Make sure you re-examine your written application in preparation for your pupillage interview. Anything you mention on the form is fair game for questioning, so it's important to know it inside and out.

Consider our source's cautionary tale: “At a common law set I interviewed at, I was asked to rehash the arguments on an article I'd written over a year ago. It was a huge swing and miss: the only points I could remember were totally disjointed, and I could see the ticks turning to crosses next to my name as I struggled to present something coherent.”
      Pupillage interviews are serious business, and you should treat them as such. Focus on the questions at hand and address each one in a way that speaks to your potential as a barrister; don't squander the little time you have on comic attempts to endear yourself to the panel. 

Case in point: “At one of my interviews, the final question concerned a ticking bomb and torture scenario: what would my legal advice be if my client, an army officer, wanted to torture a captured terrorist who'd planted a bomb in a busy marketplace and set it to go off soon? Specifically, the panel wanted to know what I thought constituted a ‘suitable’ injury for justifying the potential good that might come from any revelations; they suggested a broken arm. I said I didn't think that this was suitable, and unable to think of anything else, I decided to gamble on making them laugh by suggesting 'a Chinese burn'. Not one of them smiled, and I was shown the door soon afterwards.”


  5. Do expect the unexpected       6. Do be prepared to argue both sides of an issue  
  It's not unusual, especially at crime sets, for an interview problem to include a red herring or another diversionary tactic that tests an applicant's willpower and attention to detail. Our source still recalls the “scathing” response he received after failing to notice in a fictional bail application that the defendant's address was suspiciously close to the alleged crime scene – “something no right-minded judge would consent to.”

He also recounts a difficult conversation with a 'witness' during an examination in chief without papers: “He refused to give his name for the court, and I caved and said 'Well that is, of course, your prerogative.' At that point, those watching decided they didn't need to see any more.”

Such ploys essentially function to separate the wheat from the chaff, and while there's little you can to do prepare for them, knowing there might be a curveball coming can help you keep a level head when you come across it.
      A common interview tactic at all types of sets is to ask a candidate to argue for or against a certain topic, and then have them follow up with an argument for the other side. Indeed, “right after I'd made a case against buses as an adequate form of public transportation, I was asked to give a counter-argument singing their praises,” our source recalled of one interview. “Turning at a moment's notice like that is something you should keep in mind when preparing your initial position.”

To this end, we suggest noting down any potential holes in your initial position during prep so that you can later use these as a basis for your counter-argument.
  7. Don't forget the importance of commercial        8. Do keep going  
Everyone who's made it to the interview stage is exceptional. It's at this point you have to set yourself above the already high median. This means not only selling your skills and personality, but convincing the panel you have a sufficient understanding of the commercial aspects of the profession.

“Going into my first few interviews, I knew the basics of commercial awareness, but I'd mostly thought of it as something solicitors have to be concerned with,” admitted our source. “I'll never forget the final interview question I faced at a small crime set: 'If you were a representative of this set, how would you market yourself and chambers?' I made the mistake of saying confidently that I hoped my work would speak for itself, and one of my interviewers jumped on that and tore it to pieces. In retrospect, my answer was naïve and a touch arrogant, not to mention it failed to acknowledge the position the criminal Bar is in.”

To avoid this kind of ignominy, make sure you research a set's main clients and competitors so you're well versed on its standing in the market and where its strengths lie. Our Chambers Reports can help on this front.
      While there are some applicants who manage to squeak their way into pupillage on their first attempt, we regularly hear from pupils who took several application cycles to get it right – including our source for this feature, who only secured his pupillage after four years of trying.

This brings us to his final point of advice: “Don't give up at the first hurdle.” Indeed, every failed interview is a learning experience, and many find that the lessons they gain from these unsuccessful attempts are what eventually propels them to success.

Elsewhere on this website you can read more about what to expect from pupillage interviews, and don't forget to check out our Career at the Bar section for extra advice on how to get a foot in the door.


This feature was first published in our May 2015 newsletter.