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9 things not to do in a pupillage interview (if you’re an interviewer)

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An anonymous bar wannabe draws on his recent pupillage interview experience to deliver some lessons to chambers.

Penry-Jones#

All applicants are deeply grateful to barristers for offering pupillages in the first place, and even more so for offering them an interview.

In that respect, we don’t mind a bit of light joshing of the type provided in last month’s ’11 things not to do in a pupillage interview’ article by Hardwicke barrister Colm Nugent, which actually made excellent reading for would be interviewees.

But while most chambers have efficient processes and ask smart questions, there are also some basic interview lessons that some learned counsel could do with learning. Here is what interviewers should not do…

1. Ask about my ‘interests’

Here’s the truth. My interests are:

1. Lounging around watching Game of Thrones/New Girl

2. Lounging around playing Fifa

3. Getting drunk in different bars

4. Going to parties

5. Mindlessly scrolling through social media.

I’m not going to tell you about any of this in a pupillage interview. Don’t make me lie and pretend I love arty films. Or the theatre. I don’t.

If you’re not assigning any marks for this question, then don’t ask it. If you are assigning marks and judging applicants by what they choose to do in their spare time: what the hell is wrong with you?

If you want people who are a “good fit” for chambers, and by that you mean “people who share my background and interests”, then you are the reason the bar has problems with diversity. (There’s an excellent blog by Michael Reed of the Free Representation Unit (FRU), which explores this topic in more detail.)

2. Ask stupid current affairs questions

Making applicants answer random questions on current affairs examines nothing but 1) luck and 2) whether applicants have been memorising bits of the news instead of learning things that actually might help them in practice.

It’s quite hard to answer questions about Tulisa’s court case, or Luis Suarez’s biting, if you didn’t follow those stories. The same goes for questions about Andy Coulson and Rolf Harris. Is it sensible to boot talented candidates out of an interview because they haven’t memorised every criminal offence that has happened recently?


It’s not possible to “think on your feet” and display brilliance in advocacy if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Asking people to do this is a waste of their time, and yours.

I thought learning all I could about recent Supreme Court decisions concerning the Human Rights Act would be the best way to prepare for an interview at a chambers that specialises in human rights. Clearly I should have spent more time on Mail Online and less on BAILII.

3. Ask pre-BPTC students about BPTC topics

Does your chambers refuse to consider applicants who haven’t taken the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)? Of course it doesn’t. So don’t kick them out of your interview because they haven’t learned the finer points of the Bar Code of Conduct, covered extensively on the BPTC but not at undergraduate law or on the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).

There’s no point saying you’ll “take into account” that they haven’t studied it. That’s like asking someone about their opinion on the final episode of Game of Thrones while knowing that they haven’t watched it. It’s hard to speak cogently if you’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.


If you don’t want pre BPTC students, fine — but don’t solicit applications from them and then reject them because they can’t keep up with students who have done the BPTC.

4. Ask about my ‘worst qualities’

Consider whether this approach would be fruitful in cross examining a claimant on behalf of the defence:

“Ms Claimant, can you explain what you think is the most powerful argument to show that your application to this court deserves to fail and my client, the respondent, deserves to win”?

Ever tried this? Probably not.

In asking “what are your worst qualities”, you’re asking someone to argue against their own case in a stressful situation which will determine a significant aspect of their future. No-one is going to give you real answer. At best you’re wasting your time. At worst you’re encouraging dishonesty.

On asking prospective pupil about their worst qualities, they’re likely to tell you:

“I work too hard”; or “I get too involved and determined to win”; or “I have such a fantastic eye for detail that I’ll often spend lots of time being incredibly thorough”.

Prospective pupils are less likely to admit:

“I’m a lascivious philanderer who will leave a trail of heartbreak and resentment wherever I go”; or “I’m a naturally lazy person who dislikes hard work and have, thus far, got away with it by bluffing my way through situations like this”; or “I’m prone to random outbursts of violence when I don’t get my way”.

Unless your chambers is seeking to recruit embryonic barristers on the basis of their ability to deceive a panel under pressure, miss this question out.

5. Select an all male panel

Seriously. Don’t. What could give a louder message about diversity in your chambers than failing to be able to find any women to sit on the panel?!

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6. CC all applicants into an email offering interviews

Several chambers have done this. It’s just weird. If you can’t be bothered to learn how to use Mail Merge, try BCCing.

7. Reject by silence

Barristers are busy. You’re doing us a favour by interviewing us in the first place. We get it. But if an applicant has made it all the way to your chambers and spoken to you for 15 minutes, at least have the courtesy to actively reject them if you don’t want to take them on.

It makes good business sense to be polite to applicants. The person sitting in front of you might be your opponent in court one day — or an instructing solicitor. Rejecting by silence is just rude. If you can’t manage your application process well enough to send a “thanks but no thanks” email, it hardly suggests your chambers is a slick, well-oiled operation capable of handling complex litigation.

8. Keep rejected second round candidates in the dark

No chambers is allowed to give offers of pupillage before 1 August. But all are allowed to reject candidates whenever they like. If you know you’re not going to give someone a pupillage or a reserve place, then put their mind at ease and let them know. Why leave them in suspense?

9. Play cutesy handshaking tricks

Barristers don’t shake hands. But sometimes they do. But sometimes they don’t. If you’re the sort of set that doesn’t shake hands — then stay behind the table and don’t stand up as if you’re about to shake my hand. If you’re the sort of set that does — then all interviewers should shake hands with the applicant. Don’t let applicants leave the interview in semi-handshaking limbo. AWKWARD.

In conclusion: the hunt for pupillage is a bit like a mix between the Hunger Games, Tinder and University Challenge.

If in doubt, try to imagine yourself in our position.

David N
PREVIOUSLY:

11 things not to do in a pupillage interview [Legal Cheek]