Beating a mental health condition to become a barrister is possible
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.