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How to get through pupillage interviews if you are prone to anxiety

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Beating a mental health condition to become a barrister is possible

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Pupillage interviews are notoriously uncomfortable. Being grilled on your latest failure or your greatest success, alongside recalling the salient facts of Prest v Petrodel and then arguing for and against legal reform of the European Union is no easy feat. These interviews are nerve-wracking for any budding pupil.

Supplement that with a mental health condition and interviews can be particularly tough and, at times, a tormenting task.

I’m sure I stopped breathing in one interview. I froze completely, staring at the table, unable to answer a simple question. I could not remember, despite hours of preparation, the word “mortgage”. It was the final round of a cracking set and I was so close, I could taste it. Unfortunately, I could also taste my lunch coming back into my mouth, my hands were trembling and my face had reddened. I was so in my head space, analysing every item of land law that I could recollect, I forgot I was not speaking. After that long in silence, I was curtly provided with the answer. The panel wrapped up swiftly and I did not hear from them again. I sat on a bench outside Temple Tube station for several hours, completely numb after vomiting into a sink at Middle Temple Library.

During that period, I had been diagnosed with severe generalised anxiety, characterised by crippling physical symptoms of worry and panic.

As a result, it was no surprise that I struggled with converting my first rounds into second round interviews and second rounds into offers. Like many applicants, I was good on paper and decent at advocacy, yet the pupillage process was a nightmare of its very own.

Nevertheless, the medical treatment I had and the techniques I learnt (which I still use now as a practising barrister) I can share now with who might find themselves in a similar predicament.

1. Breathing

We are taught how to talk on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), but not always how to breathe. Breathing well means you will think and speak well. Find a breathing technique that works for you and your body.

My personal suggestion is if you’re in a fuzz, breathe in and count for two-three-four, then release and count for two-three-four about ten times. It helps if you keep your eyes closed and focus on your breathing.

If you get a particularly difficult question in interview, nobody will notice if you take a deep (quiet) breath before answering. Those three seconds will help your brain de-cloud. For maximum impact, speak on the outbreath.

2. Grounding

If you feel yourself losing grip leading up to an interview (or perhaps afterwards), this grounding technique may be effective.

Go through this in order: tell yourself five things that you can see, four you can hear, three you can feel, two you can smell, one you can taste. Slowly you should feel yourself coming back to the present moment and your breathing will become more level. Repeat it more than once for maximum calmness. Ground yourself too with art, music, sport, religion — whatever makes you feel human again.

During the interview, place your two feet firmly on the floor. Sit up straight, so that you are able to take a full breath without tension. Practice grounding and balancing yourself in this position on the train and at your kitchen table.

Before you start, pour a glass of water, and sip from it when you need to. Find a comfortable place for your arms and hands. I had my forearms on the table with my hands clasped down in front of me. I could use my hands to talk, but I didn’t fidget as much as I wanted to.

3. Music

Find. Your. Jam. Think about what music pumps you up or calms you down or makes you happy. You are far better listening to Kanye West’s ‘Touch the Sky’ before an interview than professor Quistclose’s latest podcast on trusts Law.

Create a playlist of your favourite tunes and play them as you walk to the interview. Then when you’re done afterwards, plug in your headphones and escape for a bit.

I got the dream offer from the last set I interviewed at. I had been to two on the same day, and by this one, I was utterly worn out, but surprisingly calm because I just wanted it all to end. I strode around in the gardens near chambers before going in, listening to music rather than re-reading my gateway form and recent case law for the umpteenth time.

Much of this game is won and lost on personality. I think because I let my guard down and was normal for an hour in that interview, I got the offer. Best advice? Calm the heck down, listen to something unrelated to law and just be yourself.

4. Time out

Get off The Student Room threads. Or if you cannot resist, limit yourself to one hour a day online by using Chrome Web Nanny or other site-blockers.

Same goes with refreshing your emails. You either get an email or you don’t. There’s no in between that comes simply from reloading your browser 57 times in ten minutes, or hanging out of the window in the Lake District trying to get 3G.

Get outside when you can. Many of you will have exams and interviews and even a job and kids all at once. That half an hour Family Guy episode or walk to the shops without your phone will do you the world of good, I promise.

5. Talk about it

If the worry is eating you up, tell someone. Go for a walk and call a friend, even just to talk about something other than the Bar. Talk to the family dog or priest or Grandma.

Not everyone realises that pupillage interviews aren’t like normal interviews. It feels like the whole world is at stake — the gravity of it all needs to be recognised by colleagues, friends and family. The other important thing is that they will ground you, and keep things in perspective.

6. Own it

Don’t forget that being anxious has its purpose — it reminds us that this is a big deal. We need that adrenaline to quickly remember the components of a tort, to keep us alert and on our toes. It is okay to be nervous. It means you care. It will make you a good barrister. So feel the fear and do it anyway.

If it is getting really overwhelming, though, do think about talking to your GP and/or to a mental health organisation. It is their job to help and they can point you in the right direction if you need treatment.

Mind UK has a fantastic text message service which will answer your questions about what to do. For more immediate help, of course, do contact the Samaritans.

Other little tips include opting for a cup of tea to warm the voice, which works better than cold water, having some semblance of sugary food beforehand so you don’t get a head rush walking up the stairs to your interview, accepting that you will have some horror stories to tell such as falling over in heels as you leave the interview, wearing a comfortable suit, and not feeling obliged to wear heels either. And remember, your interview panel will have been there before. Trembling hands and all.

Travelling Bird is a civil pupil barrister from London.

25 Comments

another pupil

So much in this article that I can relate to – thanks for sharing your experience. It is true that pupillage interviews aren’t like other interviews, and it is so easy to be anxious and exhausted by a series of life-or-death half an hour slots in your week. Hopefully this year’s interviewees will benefit by your advice, and the knowledge that they aren’t the first person to throw up in a sink in Middle Temple library…

(15)(1)

Anonymous

I stopped reading the article when I read this: “We are taught how to talk on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)”.

Lets be honest, we are not taught anything on the BPTC

(4)(0)

Anonymous

This is good advice.

(4)(0)

Boh Dear

In one interview I poured myself a glass of water but accidentally overfilled it, resulting in some spillage. I quickly quipped “Sorry, I always give 110%”.

I was offered pupillage on the spot.

(35)(2)

HHJ JR

booooo. Come up with your own jokes as opposed to ripping them off the interweb

(0)(4)

Lord Dyson

In one interview I was so nervous I let out a huge cloud of ass wind. Once the stench hit the interviewing panel, they promptly asked if that was me. I blamed it entirely on the horridly obese barrister sitting opposite.

I was offered a pupillage several days later, he was sacked.

(17)(10)

Anonymous

That obese barrister’s name?

Albert Einstein.

(1)(1)

Stallone

Thanks for the joke bro, saved my life.

(0)(3)

Beta blockers

I resorted to taking beta-blockers after my 13th interview in a row. From then I got final rounds up to my 22nd interview. Got two offers and two reserves. It is really bad. The final rounds I got before always said “you lacked confidence because you were so nervous”. I couldn’t help it. I’ve been in court hundreds of times and work with clients but it was a natural thing. Drugs was the answer haha! Although it was getting easier before I took them.

(4)(1)

Anonymous

Beta blockers got me through my driving test on my fifth try.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Great advice.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

All good advice. Except 3. Do not listen to music close to an interview. It may well stick in your head and dominate your thoughts, ear worm style.

And always remember that however much you want that pupillage, and the tenancy you hope will follow, it’s just a job and your interviewers are merely people doing that job.

These are not Supermen and Wonder Women in front of you. They’re just lawyers who did what you are doing and who understand what it’s like. Talk to them as normal human beings. Listen carefully to what you’re asked and pause before answering. Be confident, never arrogant. But on no account be overawed.

(5)(1)

Anonymous

Whether music works is a personal thing. On the walk to my successful interview I listened the The World’s Greatest by R Kelly. As I left I put on Bat out of Hell by Meat Loaf. Now in practice for several years I still use both to psych up/down before/after difficult trials. Anyone old enough to remember Ally McBeal knows you need a theme song.

(6)(0)

Criminal bod

I can relate to all of this so much. It was only on my third year of trying, when I was thinking of giving up and had let my guard down and just chatted normally during my interview, that I was offered pupillage. I would also add: don’t get involved in chatting with other candidates in the waiting area if you can avoid it. It’s where they’re warming up to sell themselves and I found it so intimidating to hear all about how brilliant they are and all the stuff they’d done. Believe, the more you have the easier it gets – and it’s absolutely right that they want to see your personality so let it show through!

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Tena Pants Maxi

(1)(3)

Anonymous

cuntymcanonymouscuntface

(0)(0)

Gus the Snedger

Why abuse yourself so?

Self harm is such an awful thing!

(1)(0)

Anxious Barrister

Excellent article, and well done to Legal Cheek for publishing it.

I have been at the Bar for many years now and I’ve come to see that I’m quite good at it. But at pupillage interviews and during the early years I felt like a massive fraud as I had depended on medication for anxiety since university. I used to think that a “proper” barrister wouldn’t need medication and was terrified that my chambers would find out.

A GP writing me a prescription once suggested, just moments after meeting me for the first time, that if I needed medication maybe I should think about being a legal assistant or solicitor instead. I have worked unbelievably hard to get here, so that was a slap in the face.

I realise now that mental illness is extremely common at the Bar. I think it is more prevalent than in society in general, because it is full of high achievers who put themselves under a lot of pressure.

I still take beta blockers before an especially stressful trial. I have always managed to perform in court. I used to think that if people knew I needed to take beta blockers before trial, they’d think I shouldn’t be a barrister. But I have an actress friend who takes them for stage fright. Nobody would say she shouldn’t be an actress.

(13)(0)

Same same but same

Legend! I started to take them and thought exactly the same.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

My tongue was prone to drying up in interviews. It felt like a furry eel slapping around a dank cave. When I spoke it sounded like an amorous St. Bernard was licking his chops under the table.

Knowing that everybody knew how dry my tongue was only made it worse.

I tried to solve the problem by coating my mouth with vaseline. It coagulated in large clumps that were expelled every time I said a word with an ‘s’ in it.

(8)(3)

Anonymous

A lot of these tips can also apply to people with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. Thanks for sharing and I like the emphasis on learning to breathe properly.

(0)(1)

Lord Harley of Counsel

I have my own signature tune which plays as I enter the courtroom.

Simply the Best.

(3)(1)

Glad

Just want to say and I’m so impressed and glad for all of these really supportive and understanding comments. When I clicked on this article, knowing Legal Cheek, I was expecting an onslaught of ‘YOU’LL NEVER GET PUPILLAGE IF YOU HAVE ANXIETY’ etc. You definitely can, and it’s nice to see a conversation about pupillage actually be supportive and constructive!

(8)(0)

Glad

Just wanted to say that** sorry

(1)(0)

Same same but same

Lol questioning yourself with the sorry. Brilliant article. I had the same. They’re amazing wee tablets. Dates will go better now also haha

(2)(0)

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