How to gain pupillage: inside advice

An aspiring barrister shares his tips on searching for pupillage.

Part 1: The Pupillage Advisory Service meeting


It's mid-October. I hadn't even started thinking about pupillage by this point in the last two years. But then maybe that's why I'm having to go to the Pupillage Advisory Service. Because, despite two rounds of Pupillage Portal going by, I am still sans pupillage.

In my first year of applying for pupillage (2011) I was on the GDL and not ready to apply – as my grand total of three first-round interviews proves. Last year I was doing the BPTC and had greater success in getting interviews but ran into what may be an insurmountable hurdle after that – me! Out of nine first-round interviews, I got called back for two second rounds, neither of which ended in a bottle of champagne being cracked open. One included the question “What is your favourite invention?”to which I gave the immortal answer of: “the slow cooker.”

I panicked.

The pupillage interview is something all who seek to don the wig and gown must face. How can we be good at it? What are barristers looking for when we go in? Is there an ideal answer to various questions? Do I need to argue my view until I'm blue in the face or do I concede ground in a discussion?

But it was with issues such as these in mind that I headed down to my old law school offices to seek advice.

I also had another burning issue that I'm sure many in my position have: what do I do with this year while I am trying to get pupillage? Are there jobs chambers prefer you to have? I'm not a student any more and I need cash – what should I be doing to get it and assist my application?

Currently, I'm working at Chambers & Partners to pass the time until I can drive myself in to the ground doing Pupillage Portal again. However, is this the right thing to be doing? Yes, it's law-related and I am improving various skills that I need for the Bar but is it legal enough? Shouldn't I be paralegalling so I can be involved in litigation and case prep? And what about my mooting and pro bono? When I finish a day at work I can't be arsed to go and do that – do I HAVE to? The point remains, however it is put: having spent my BPTC year getting my CV to a good level I don't want it to slip down a notch now.

 It was with these two issues in mind – how to prepare pre-interview and what to do with this year – that I went before the advisory team.

Regarding the second question, they seemed as stumped as I am. “There is no ideal job really, you could paralegal, but what you're doing is quite good...” Suggestions boiled down to: anything that you can take into a pupillage interview that demonstrates an ability to bring work in to chambers. So (and bear in mind I would like to be a criminal barrister), financial regulators, paralegalling or work experience with a criminal solicitors, even something in government. As long as it's a possible avenue to bring work in, chambers will appreciate it. Which is fair enough – barristers who have worked hard to get their client base up and running aren't going to want to to give up some of that work to some little tick straight out of law school.

And what about my mooting and pro bono? Do I need to keep them up? Yes, a little. It's good practice. I, fortunately, do have some work experience lined up should I want it and can go to my Inn's mooting and debating club and (excellent and highly recommended) weekends to keep my hand in. But pro bono? “FRU – you've done a lot of pro bono but FRU would be useful.” Oh, goody. I didn't need time off anyway. On a serious note though, the FRU point is a legitimate one. It provides the full 'barrister experience' pre-pupillage. It's little wonder chambers like it. You will liaise with a client and the other side and then, possibly, get up in court to do a little advocacy.

So, that's the first issue sorted. What about the second – how to deal with interviews? I am, admittedly, particularly naff at them. I have what various people have told me is a smart mouth. I don't mouth off at those interviewing me, I hasten to add, but I make jokes or silly, flippant remarks. In one memorable interview in 2011 I made a joke when asked a question concerning torture. To a five member interview panel. Including two QCs. None of whom laughed. It was mortifying.

However, I have received a few good pointers, both from the advisory service and generally. Here they are.

A dark suit is good you want to look, if not sombre, then at least downbeat. A lecturer summed this up well: “You want to look like you already are a barrister, or at least like someone who chambers could make into one.” On this advice I now wear a navy three piece to interviews. I do feel I look the part more. Plus it's thinning. Double win. (See? These are the kind of ridiculous remarks I. Must. Stop. Making.)

An ability to converse with those the other side of the table at somewhere near their level on legal issues in chambers' field is an absolute must. So: “buy a decent broadsheet newspaper every day and read it.” We are talking about The Times, The Guardian, The Independent or The Telegraph here. The first two of those have very good legal sections. This means you will be up to speed and not blindsided during the interview.

Do not fidget – body language is a big point. In court you will have to stand still and speak. In conferences you will have to sit and listen quietly and occasionally ask questions. Fidgeting is off-putting. We are all trying to look like barristers in waiting – stillness and calm are of the essence.

For those who get nervous before interviews apparently yoga or some exercise regime that allows you to control your breathing and centres yourself so you can concentrate. This is something I will report back on the success of at a later date.

To shave or not to shave? Personally, I am a beardy person. I prefer it and look very young without it. Especially when I have a neat interview hair cut. Is looking young (assuming shaving is necessary, which – it seems – it is) a drawback? Apparently not. I know some people who have got pupillages – and, in some cases, tenancies – who look like they're about to take their GCSEs. It doesn't matter. Looking like a barrister dress-wise is important but facially it is not a problem if you are as cherubic as a botoxed Boris Johnson.

A specialised interest within your chosen practice area, demonstrated on your application form, will give your interview a focus. Be it fraud within criminal law, divorce with family, or construction contracts between contractors and third parties from an arbitration point of view, bring it out in your application. Saying it is all well and good, but how to go about demonstrating it? Mini-pupillages and work experience are the obvious answer. Some people say they are just a tick-box for chambers but I do believe there's more to it than that. I was at law school with one chap who is definitely smarter than me, yet he told me the other day he'd only secured a handful of interviews this time around. He is qualified, has done very well in moots and done his bit of pro bono, but he hadn't done a huge number of minis. It does pay off. How can you show you are interested in whatever area of law without having tested the water first?

Another way – and one that I have had raised in minis and by the advisory service – is to publish articles. Make sure whatever you write is on a topical issue which interests you – there is no point in slogging through all the research in something you don't like and won't want to talk about in interview! The article will serve to demonstrate your interest in this area of law better than any work experience. It shows that you have gone away and, in your own time, looked into the area of law. Chambers will appreciate this interest – it is the equivalent of a architect showing ideas they had in their free time drawn up to scale, or a journalist bringing along opinion pieces or a clearly thought-out and well written blog.

The final point I was told might be holding me back wasn't all that comforting, if I'm being honest. It is.... “luck.” Right time, right place, right person. Then you'll get on with them, it won't feel like an interview and – most importantly of all – they'll like you. If they like you the chances are they would like to work alongside you in chambers, and if that's the case they would probably like to give you a pupillage.

And what to do about saying stupid things in interview? I suppose the first hurdle is to be aware that I do it. But being aware of it and not doing it are very different things. So, how to prevent it? Practice, I guess. Just as well I have mock interview organised for next Thursday then...


Part 2: Mooting – what, who, when, where & why



Mooting is, in essence, a 'pretend' and simplified trial. It has a structure similar to a court, with claimants and defendants, plus a judge.

A central point of law is put up for debate by both sides. It can literally be anything: the meaning of a word in a contract and its construction, the correct interpretation of a certain law – anything. Each side then has to put forward an argument favouring them. This is where the phrase 'a moot point' comes from – a point which is debatable and has an uncertain answer.

A judge then picks the winner(s) based on the strength of the arguments presented and the way in which they were presented, along with some other factors.


Anyone. Normally each side of the moot has a senior and a junior so you're looking at four 'mooters' plus a judge. However, for all that it's open to anyone, some legal knowledge is going to be needed since the problems set are legalistic. It will also be necessary for any contestant to have some sort of understanding about how to find their way around legal texts and precedents, since they will form the basis of any argument. Understanding legal terminology – what to refer to which judge as and so on – is also advantageous.


Could be considered in two ways: when should I do it? And when can I do it? The answer to the first question is obvious: as often as possible. Mooting is a great thing to be able to have done, it is near mandatory at some chambers and it will improve your court room skills for later in your career.

The answer to the second question depends on where you are and what level of study you are at. Personally, I started doing it as soon as I got onto my GDL, but there were other opportunities too, as various chambers and other such establishments run their own moots. Moots can even go international – a friend of mine recently went out to the International Space Law Moot in eastern Europe!

The answer to the second question depends on where you are and what level of study you are at. Personally, I started doing it as soon as I got onto my GDL, but there were other opportunities too, as various chambers and other such establishments run their own moots. Moots can even go international – a friend of mine recently went out to the International Space Law Moot in eastern Europe!


Almost anywhere. I can't produce a definitive list but some good starting points are:

  1. Any of the Inns of Court – I am a member of Lincoln's Inn and have done several moots through them. Also of use is the advocacy weekend that the Inn ran – the other inns generally run them too. Inn mooting clubs are also fantastically helpful as they give anyone, of any ability, the chance to hone their mooting skills regularly. This is the kind of thing where you really do get much better with practice. [For more information read our feature on The Inns of Court or check out our Inns of Court Comparison Table - ed.]
  2. Law Schools – all run their own internal ones and also often compete against each other in tournaments. [Read more about Law Schools here - ed.]
  3. Independent/External moots – there are lots of these, run by various sources. I mentioned the Space Moot above, but chambers also run them, as do some charities, such as the Just Rights Moot.


Part 3: The Mock Interview


I traipsed back to my old uni for this. Not only did it feel odd to be back there (it's like going back to school, only weirder) but I was there for an unpleasant experience: an interview.

I have never enjoyed these – the idea of 'selling myself' does not, I think and hope, come naturally to any Englishman whose natural inclination is towards self-deprecation. Anyway, as I made my way to the interview room I had the great pleasure of bumping into one of my former lecturers. We discussed why I was there and the pupillage process. He was kind enough to tell me he thought I deserved and was good enough for pupillage.

I don't put this nugget of information into this piece to boast (okay... a little, maybe) but to point out another issue with interviews. I may agree with my former teacher, I may not – the point is how to convince those across the table from you, who haven't had the dubious pleasure of trying to teach you for a year and only have ten minutes to form an impression of you, that you are good enough, They've 'seen' you on paper and reckon that, on you are possibly good enough – how can you use this short period of time to confirm their suspicions?

What surprised me most was how nervous I was prior to the interview. Last summer I was generally all right – I suspect that my nerves this time were because my interviewers and I had discussed my faults at our meeting last week and so I was expected to be torn apart!

I mentioned in my first piece a few hints to contain these nerves. Did I utilise any of them in my mock interview? No, they all went out the window. It's not a problem, there are still six or seven months to practice them...

However, I felt I dealt with all the questions okay. I wasn't expecting to receive glowing feedback and indignation that I hadn't been offered a pupillage yet, but I was expecting to be told that it had been all right.

“You're too negative about yourself.”  

It turns out that I use, subconsciously, a negative vocabulary. For example, I used the word “odd” to describe my reason for wanting to come to the Bar. My interviewer made a good point concerning this: even if those taking the pupillage interview do not register my use of such terminology, it will subconsciously nudge them towards thinking I would be a bad choice.

She recommended neuro-linguistic programming, by which your brain is trained to think differently. Doing this, she suggested, I would be able retrain my vocabulary about myself so that it was more positive. It would also, she suggested, increase my belief in my ability. Unfortunately, sessions cost about £100 an hour. Let's hope just practising not using such language is as effective!

Her other particularly useful piece of advice was that there are three things you, as an interviewee, must establish in the interview in order to really make the most of it:


  1. Why do you want to do this area of law? This is where I fall down. It's not that I don't love crime and have reasons for wanting to practice in this field, but rather that articulating them in a manner that doesn't make me sound like a total hippie is something of a challenge.

    I'll explain. My reasons for wanting to come to Bar are twofold, to a large extent. Firstly – I love advocacy (or, as other charitable people have put it: I like the sound of my own voice). Any chance to have a bit of a talk with people listening appeals to me hugely – I have done almost everything that allows this. The Bar allows me to make a career out of it!

    My second reason is where I come dangerously close to sounding like a tree-hugger. I like the idea of helping people.

    There. I said it. If I explain the background to why I think this is a legitimate reason for wanting to come to the Bar I may then be able to articulate my desire more clearly. During my first mini-pupillage I shadowed a barrister on a TOLATA case, in which he was representing the defendant. He won the case for the client, who was so relieved that she no only thanked and hugged the barrister but me as well, on the complete misconception that I had had something to do with it.

    This outpouring of relief, emotion and gratitude left a mark on me. The idea that I could use skills that I possessed to assist those who were under immense stress and pressure was a attraction of such a career for me. Does that make things clearer? I have had been fortunate with my education and am lucky enough to possess a good skill set. I would like to be able to use that to help others.

    The trouble is saying 'helping others' sounds a bit wishy-washy. I need to find a way of bringing this legitimate reason out without sounding like a raving lefty.

    I am further inhibited by my interview personae in this section. In interviews I try and make sure I consider everything, I talk slowly and choose my words carefully. This does not lend itself well to enthusiasm. It certainly doesn't help that this natural reticence is exacerbated by nerves and that this is generally the first question that an interviewer will ask and is, therefore, asked when anyone is at their most nervous. I can't offer immediate solutions to these problems – but an awareness of them brought about by such practice has to be the first step to solving them. I suppose just practising to get rid of them is a start.

    Are there any ways of ensuring that you do well under this heading? Well, being sure of yourself is a good start. Be certain of your reasons for wanting to practice in whatever field. Is a sob story a good reason for wanting to come to the Bar? The general feeling seems to be no. It may be a springboard for wanting to come, and it may provide background information, but it shouldn't be the whole reason on its own.

    A good tip I was given to ensure that you are clear on your reasons was: write down every one you have, then try to expand on them. If you have a selection of four or five then you can use the one you think is most effective for a certain set. What else can be done? I suppose the other thing is to go for it. You know why you want to be there – just tell them. If you've thought through your reasons they will be solid, and if they're solid they should be convincing. All you need to do now is convey them in the right way.

  2. Why would you be good at this type of work. This is where the dreaded 'selling' really comes in. Fortunately, you have something of a head-start here. Those interviewing you have already read your form and think they have spotted the makings of a decent barrister. Now you just need to remind them of why those reasons are so good and that they are better than anyone else who is being interviewed.

    Draw on your experiences. The questions will be designed to allow you do this. So if they ask for your experience dealing with clients and you've done various bits of pro bono – go nuts telling them about it. Say what it involved, why you did it and, probably most importantly of all, what you got out of it – basically how it prepared you for pupillage and, indeed, tenancy.

    The same goes for everything, really. What did you gain from your mini pupillages? Your work experience? Your mooting? Everything has to display your suitability for pupillage. However, this section of the interview goes beyond a massive self-sale. Your interviewers will also try to test you to see if you actually will be good at the type of work they do. This could happen in a variety of ways. Yesterday – and on a number of real pupillage interviews – I was given an advocacy exercise. Often it involves being asked about current affairs. In the past, I've been asked about secret courts, prisoners' voting rights and the make-up of the judiciary. They were all topical issues at the time, so this is where making sure you are up to date on topical issues will help.

    Beyond that there is not much to be suggested by way of preparation. What your interviewers are looking for is the ability to talk about the law in a way appropriate to practice: clearly, accurately and with understanding. It doesn't matter whether they agree with you or not as long as you argue your view well.

  3. Why you would be a good members of chambers? This is a tricky one. Really there's nothing that I can say about this that you don't already know about behaving in polite society! Don't do what one interviewee I heard of did: turn up to every interviewee in a wig and gown. She was baffled as to why she wasn't getting any further.

    There is one thing to do pre-interview which should be of help: research the chambers. You'll have a pretty good idea if you'll fit in or not if you've really looked into how they operate. If you think you're their kind of person, then chances are then they will too.

    Otherwise, just don't be an arse.


These features first appeared in our newsletters in winter 2012/13.