Running the pupillage gauntlet
10 January 2013 | By Rachel Tandy
If you applied for pupillages last year but were unsuccessful, you may be feeling dejected. But with the pupillage portal opening soon, now is the time to improve your prospects. Henderson Chambers’ Rachel Tandy looks at how to get back on the horse.
My first year of pupillage-hunting was disappointing. I did eleven applications and made it as far as four first round interviews before crashing and burning. The most frustrating thing about losing out was that I thought I had it covered. Academia, mooting, mini-pupillages, commercial experience, and interesting extra-curricular activities were all boxes I had ticked and ticked again. When I rang up chambers to ask for feedback, the most common response was “well, you were good… but everyone’s good. Lots of people were better.”
I spent a week feeling sorry for myself, then decided to make a few changes. It turns out they paid off – the following year I was the proud recipient of not one but four pupillage offers. How did I do it? I’ll be the first to admit that there’s no set route or formula, and some of it was probably down to luck. But here are a few of the things I learnt along the way:
Be concise. Some chambers read four hundred applications just like yours. They don’t want to see clichés (the word ‘passion’ in particular fills many of them with hatred). They want solid, tangible reasons why they should choose you over the three hundred and ninety nine other people who are waxing lyrical about their chambers. Decide what these reasons are, use bullet points to list them, and get rid of anything else.
Have a spreadsheet. I know this sounds ridiculous, but after you’ve hammered out twenty five applications (and believe me, you will) it’s easy to forget where you’ve applied or why you wanted to go to this particular set. List areas of law, numbers of pupils, whether you’ve done any work experience there, what interesting cases they’ve done, when application deadlines are and so on.
Do every application, no matter how rubbish or last minute you think it is. I once wrote the world’s worst covering letter, scribbled down in fifteen minutes at the end of a hectic exam week in which I had not slept. I almost didn’t bother to do it, but I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I was right – this set was the first to offer me pupillage.
Seek out and relish criticism. I showed my application forms and letters to my dad, my careers service, my tutors, and a few friends who are barristers and who know what sitting on a pupillage committee feels like. I asked for their honest advice, took on board what they said, and tweaked my applications accordingly. Comparing them to my previous naive attempts made me feel like I was at a one-woman cringe party.
For the interviews themselves
Pre-empt what questions you’ll be asked. You will definitely be grilled on what makes you so special (although it’s likely to be phrased in a slightly more friendly manner), why you want to come to the bar, why these chambers, what qualities a good barrister needs, and so on. There will also be some questions that naturally arise from your CV. For example, I transferred to law from another career, and had also written an article on a criminal law topic when I was applying to civil sets; I knew an interviewer would be likely to want to know why I had done those things. Finally, it is possible there will be some personality questions, which can range from the straightforward ‘what are your biggest strengths/weaknesses?’ to the completely bonkers ‘if you were to liken yourself to a cartoon character, who would it be?’ (believe it or not, I know a set that has asked this in the past). You need to think about all of these questions, and decide what answers you would give – not in your head, but on paper, in bullet point format, for you to learn and have on the tip of your tongue when asked.
Bone up. A lot of first round interviews will involve a legal problem question, but they won’t necessarily tell you that before you turn up. Even if you are pre-warned, some chambers ban the use of notes or mobile phones to help you formulate your answer. I put together ‘cheat sheets’ on the basics, assembled from my law school notes and – shock, horror – actually learnt them. Massive effort? Yes. Worth it? Definitely.
A controversial one – dress like you mean business. In my first year of interviews, I went girly, with long loose hair, a full face of make-up, sky-high heels and closely fitted skirt suits. I thought I looked great. In retrospect, I looked like a bimbo. The second time around I thought I’d try an experiment: trouser suit, low heels, hair scraped back, a lot less makeup. I was still groomed and un-mumsy, but the point was, the way I looked (good or bad) wasn’t distracting anyone from what was coming out of my mouth – and that’s how it should be.
Do well on the BPTC. I’m sorry, but anyone who says that no-one cares what mark you get is talking total rubbish. I was asked what my results were in almost every single interview I had, even if I had listed them on my application already.
For your self-esteem
Take rejection on the chin. Most of the places I applied gave me an outright ‘no’ without a second glance. It’s a numbers game – there aren’t enough pupillages to go around, and the majority of applicants go home disappointed. You’ve got a lot of company in the rejection pile, so don’t let it get you down. Just try to work out what it is that you need to fix to get that all-important ‘yes’ the next time around.
Don’t believe the hype. You get all sorts at law school, but I came across a lot of people who were all mouth and no trousers. These people spent a lot of time talking themselves up and intimidating many of their peers (including me) in the process. Come August, none of them had managed to nail down a pupillage, because interviewers recognise that the best candidates are the ones who don’t need to shout about themselves. Most of the people I know who got offers are the type who can just shut up and get on with it, safe in the knowledge that the quality of their work speaks for itself. Make yourself one of these and don’t take any notice of anyone else.
Find a friend who you’re not in competition with. This sounds like an odd thing to say, but the pupillage gauntlet is a surprisingly lonely process. As much as you might like to think you and your mates will all support each other, when it comes to the crunch, you’re likely to find yourselves reluctant to share what’s on your application forms, or to discuss the content of interviews. So make sure you find someone – a friend who’s already got tenancy or is a solicitor, your mentor, even your mum or someone you went to school with – whose ear you can chew off without resentment.
Believe that you can be adaptable. After my first year of rejections, I thought I was one of those people who looked OK on paper, but was rubbish at interviews. Now I’ve proved that isn’t the case, albeit after some practice, some tough feedback, and a lot of prep. Don’t be tempted to pigeonhole yourself – no matter how hard it is to force a change, it will be worth it if it means you get what you want in the long run.
The ones that got away
My friends and I have faced a fair few rejections in our time. I’m not sure, but I think it may have had something to do with these absolute howlers we’ve wheeled out:
Voluntarily starting a conversation about how you might make a petrol bomb out of a kettle
Discussing intimate fungal infections
Accidentally tipping off an interviewer about a chambers party he wasn’t invited to
Joking about having kidnapped a judge and hidden him in a cupboard