‘If At First You Don’t Succeed, Just Give Up’

Accepting you’re not going to get a pupillage can take more courage than blindly persisting with your barrister dream, writes Gemma Amran

This year was going to be a different. I could feel it.

I had been working in EU criminal justice policy at the European Commission in Brussels for the last year. After three years of applying for pupillage, having achieved accolades from my Inn and during my legal studies, interned at human rights NGOs and at the UN, done mini-pupillages, volunteered at legal advice centres and worked for legal charities, surely this was my time…

My road to pupillage began in 2006. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and felt the law tug at me. I was always keen on human rights: I remember thinking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the best thing since sliced bread when I first came across it at the age of 14. Eight years on, I decided that I wanted to work in this field – and for me the best way to do so was to become a barrister.

I conjured up romantic fantasies of me standing up in court, fighting fearlessly for my client. It was not just the courtroom drama which excited me. People who I found inspiring, like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were once lawyers, and look at what they did for human rights.

This year, I had arrogantly convinced myself that my favourite human rights chambers would at least give me an interview (two of them had done so in the past) and that I would finally nail it. I felt at my most confident. But it wasn’t to be. Still, after submitting 15 pupillage applications, I at least managed to get one interview at another set.

I realised I had nothing left to lose. For this single interview I dared to be different. I answered questions true to my convictions rather than saying what I thought the panel would like to hear. I even wore a smart red dress rather than a sombre suit. Although the panel did not entirely agree with my arguments, I felt that they at least respected my judgement. For what it’s worth, they complimented me on wearing something other than black. I came out of that interview proud of myself.

I didn’t get the pupillage.

Along with the knocks of failure comes clarity. After over 40 pupillage applications and five previous interviews, I have started to accept the possibility that I may not become a practising barrister. My road to pupillage may be coming to an end but that does not mean that my dreams of living a fulfilling life end with it.

There is quite a lot out there about barristers successfully changing direction in their legal careers or leaving the law altogether. However, there is very little on those who never practised in the first place. I know they exist – I am one of them – and I know they are not in the minority. I would like to know what they are doing now and whether they are pursuing enjoyable careers, whether within the legal field or outside? Hopefully, for people in my position our chances to have great careers do not end just because we did not get pupillage.

I was once told, “If at first you don’t succeed, just give up”. In an age where we are indoctrinated to keep trying, to keep persisting and to keep fighting, this mantra is hard to swallow. Yet sometimes, it takes more courage to give up and move on than to hold on to something which perhaps was never meant to be – and which could be preventing me from following my true path.

Gemma Amran is a national agency desk officer at the department of education and culture of the European Commission

14 Responses to “‘If At First You Don’t Succeed, Just Give Up’”

  1. chris johnston

    Gemma I know other people will benefit from reading this. Your passion for human rights which comes across in this post will be fulfilled outside the courtroom and I’ve no doubt you will have equal or more impact. Convention says that to achieve success in a certain field you have to travel the well-worn road in professions like becoming a barrister. Today, the digital age of the internet has created a level playing field where simple ideas and talents can have a far reaching impact. I was amazed that the initiative of a US film maker by creating one video online about human rights got the attention of 100,000 million people and created an new global movement. So thanks for being brave and choosing a different path as other people are relying on it!

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    • spodcrotch

      Is that the film maker that was subsequently arrested for running around naked in public and masturbating after taking PCP?

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  2. Ailbhe

    Great article. It really drives home the unfairness of it all, how you have so much experience and education behind you but still no pupillage. Sometimes the best thing you can do is give up and leave it all behind you, especially when you’ve tried your hardest. You can’t say you gave up because you didn’t succeed on your first try, you gave it your best shot and found that it wasn’t for you. When I had exams in school, our childminder always told me “do your best because that’s the best you can do”, and it’s very true. You can never reproach yourself when you’ve done your best, even if you don’t succeed.

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    • nibbler

      “unfairness”

      No, other people were better. Nothing unfair about that.

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      • Barrister - non practising

        No shades of grey for you then nibbler. I think it is all far more complex than that. How do you define ‘better’? – academically? experience? social class? age? energy? extrovert? In a 10 minute interview it is difficult to determine who is the ‘best’. So many excellent candidates go through bvc – sorry -bptc – at huge financial cost but then have to compete for a relatively small number of places.

        Trouble is legal education suggests to us that this (or solicitor) is the only legal path – other career paths do not have the same gravitas and no-one really flags them up for law students. If they did we might not see such a desperate quest by so many for so few places.

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  3. Dave

    There is giving up then there is giving up.

    I would advise no one to give up after one or two goes, unless they truly decided that the Bar wasn’t for them. You need an enormous amount of luck to get a pupillage (and chambers often seem to interview exactly the same boring and wrong candidates) but there isn’t any substitute to hard work.

    Having said that, it seems you have found a worthy calling. I would advise everyone seeking pupillage to do similar. The key in my opinion is to have a real career to fall back on as soon as you finish the BPTC, and not to do a variety of paralegalling and non-jobs just to boost your CV.

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  4. Jonny Cotton

    This is easily the best article on Legal Cheek. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment.

    As an aspiring pupillage-hunter, it is very easy to become sucked into a world of where you are only focused on securing pupillage. You neglect your friends, your family and your health – your quality of life suffers. This can lead to a total loss of perspective. But – being a barrister is not the only way you can make a difference; nor is it the high-status, highly-paid job many think it is. It is not even the only opportunity to be an advocate in court.

    I am starting pupillage soon – it was difficult to achieve and I often thought about giving up. I kept going because I did not want to admit that I might fail – with all of the investment (emotional and financial) that can go into becoming a barrister, the last thing I wanted to do was let my family down who had been so supportive. It would have taken true courage to say: “enough”. I have friends who have made that decision and are now becoming social workers, teachers and nurses – jobs that are much more socially worthwhile than the average barrister’s career. I respect these friends – and they are happier with their choices.

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  5. hmostyn [s(outhern)poof]

    Or alternatively you could try coming to the NY Bar like OccupyTheEgo is planning to.

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  6. Tazanna

    A lovely post, Gemma – you have my respect for the bravery both of making your decision and of writing this, neither of which can have been easy for you. I’m more or less in the same position as you are – working in human rights having interned myself into penniless stupor, although I’m still hunting pupillage. But it’s occurred to me – and it sounds like this absolutely applies to you too – that I’m in a fortunate and privileged position because while I filled up my CV with the intent of dazzling chambers into submission, in the end I’ve also coincidentally filled my CV with achievements that will also impress others.

    I may never be a barrister but I found to my surprise that I had established myself in another field almost by accident – it sounds like you have too. If you have been successful in breaking into the human rights/international community – also not an easy path – it may mean the gods are simply showing you that you have serious skills and talents, but that they are suited to something other than the Bar. Take them and run with it in those different directions! Credit yourself with all you’ve achieved, and enjoy the achievement that your road to pupillage has not left you in a non-job or a position that for whatever reason you didn’t want.

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  7. Gemma

    I would really like to thank you for your comments, even the “constructive” one (!).
    Writing this piece was difficult but I knew that it had to be done. I have gotten some fantastic feedback and I am so glad that people can relate to it. I will certainly take on board your comments and I hope to “run with it” as Tazanna has said so well.

    For those of you still on your pupillage journey, the very very best of luck. But if it doesn’t work out, it really is ok.

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  8. Natacha

    “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail”, Ralph Emerson.

    I don’t know if I have given up on the bar but in my pursuit of the elusive pupillage I found myself doing other work that I loved and I am happy. Having represented asylum seekers in the lowest courts and worked in one of the highest ones: the European Court of Human Rights, I found myself working for the UN in a conflict zone. I still believe I help people and all my legal training goes to good use. Gemma Amran has made an excellent point in her article but having known those who succeeded after a half a decade of trying I would say if this is your dream, go for it. You may find along the way that it wasn’t your dream at all and that is OK too. All the amazing experience you have gained along the way is not lost, it is part of who you are and the building blocks of who you will be.

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  9. GILLIAN

    I just want to say thank you Gemma. I am half way through part time GDL. I have been trying to decide whether I should go for the bar. With so little places for pupillages, I knew there must be so many that have not obtained it. But you do not hear from them,it is good to hear a slice of reality!!

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  10. ffytyrty

    A very poignant article. Remember that life is not all honky dory at the bar. There are a number of senior barristers and judges who are just not up to scratch. Additionally, those who are given pupillage through nepotism including University attendance nepotism ultimately reveal their inadequacies further down the line.

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