You’ve Either Got It Or You Haven’t: The ‘Personality X Factor’ That’s Needed To Land a Pupillage

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Orwell prize short-listed blogger Amanda Bancroft, a former barrister, on what differentiates the wannabes from those who make it into practice at the Bar

What is it that determines that some people get pupillage, and some don’t?

I said a couple of weeks ago on the Legal Cheek podcast that I found of the five or six people who fall into the have-pupillage group I know, they all shared attributes; similarly so, of the don’t-have-pupillage group, they have shared attributes which are distinct from the have group.

Having been asked to elucidate, I have to admit I am struggling. What gets you pupillage really is a personality X factor – indeed, leaving aside those few barristers that you can’t help but look at in utter bewilderment and wonder how on earth they got to the Bar, you will find that most barristers are similar people, and those who fall into the have-pupillage group share a commonality with them.

So, cutting through the waffle, what is it?

Barristers are odd folk to be honest. They have to enjoy their own company – they certainly spend a great deal of time in it.

The Bar is at many times a lonely place, or at least, a place you spend a lot of time alone. For every hour you spend in court, there is at least another hour, somewhere, spent alone working, either on papers, doing prep, or researching.

Alongside that, they have to enjoy, or at least have the ability to appear to enjoy, the company of others. It is a trite old line that people buy people, but they do, and to be successful, solicitors have to buy you, as do clients, clerks, court staff, judges and, should you do such work, juries. That is a huge and diverse range of people you have to appeal to.

Barristers have to have the ability to be the legal equivalent of the infantry mixed with a super-hero. They are literally the front-line: taking the judicial bullets, dodging the witness about to turn bandit, being the ‘face’ – hopefully the convincing face – of a case.

On top of all of that, they need brains the size of planets, and I don’t mean in terms of being able to get a first class degree or a very high VC – that is a given. The fact management element of the job cannot be under-estimated. When you have a ten bundle case and the judge wants to know something ‘NOW Mr Smyth’, you better know where that document or fact is within those 1000s of pages. And you can rest assured, all eyes in that court room, especially the eyes of your lay and professional client, are on you.

Finally, there is the confidence. The confidence to know when you need to stand up to a judge and put them right, and the confidence to know when to sit down and shut the hell up, because the hole you are digging is a grave for your client.

So when looking at students and their applications chambers are looking for all of the above, expressed on paper. What they are not looking for is you falling over yourself to scream at them, especially if doing it to them on Twitter when they are trying to chill out: ‘Look at me, give me attention; no, more attention, I like arguing and I can be very LOUD so I will make an excellent barrister’ – because actually, that person won’t.

Barristers, while being expert advocates, know that the best thing for the client is to keep them as far away from a court room as possible, because frankly a case getting to trial (outside of crime) is a failure. In terms of crime, negotiation still goes on, and that screamy attention seeking person is still not relevant, because they will piss off the judge and the jury.

What they are also not looking for is a person who bends over backwards to quote law at them – and I have had full case citations given to me when drunk in a pub by a student. I know you know the law. I know the law. But asking ‘is this how this case applies to this’ suggests to me that you not only know the law, you are thinking how to apply it, and you are interested in furthering your knowledge – that is far more impressive.

So what is that X factor? I would say it is a package. Being quietly self assured, confident but not screamy or arrogant, knowledgeable but knowing there is much to learn, having a keenness but not pushiness. And certainly not citing cases at me when I am pissed.

Amanda Bancroft is a former practising barrister who blogs at Beneath the Wig and tweets at @_millymoo. She is shortlisted for the Orwell Prize 2012 in the blogging category.