Advice

Junior barrister offers her top 15 tips to pupillage interview success

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Accept it’s a competition but don’t sweat the small stuff, says Red Lion Chambers’ Joanna Hardy

A junior barrister has taken to social media to offer some precious interview pointers to those seeking to follow in her footsteps.

Hot on the heels of her popular Twitter thread focusing on pupillage applications, Red Lion Chambers’ Joanna Hardy is back with yet more pearls of pupil-chasing wisdom, this time gearing her advice towards those lucky enough to make it through to the interview stage.

The thread, which with Hardy’s permission we have reproduced in full below, offers a range of helpful interview do’s and don’ts, along with a particularly unfortunate tale involving biscuits…

1. Accept this is a competition.

I hate to get all “showbiz mum” on you but — statistically speaking — you’ve probably got to be better than the next person who walks through the door. Whether that helps or not will depend on your personality. But it’s a fact and the landscape.

2. Don’t let the fact it is a competition make you behave like a silly billy.

Be nice to people. In the waiting area. In the prep room. Online. This is your squad. In five years time they might be your friends. Don’t intimidate. Don’t show off. Be kind.

I’ll never forget the guy who swaggered into one of the waiting rooms (wearing his school tie) and asked me which tenants I knew (none). It made me feel small and it was calculated to. Don’t be that person. If you are that person then change.

3. Look smart but be comfy.

Don’t wear new stuff you haven’t roadtested. This is not the day for the throbbing new shoe blister or the pale blue shirt sweat patch. Your lucky Christmas socks are a matter entirely for you but you will bear in mind that this job is 99% judgement.

4. Be early. So early.

A good test is to work out how long the journey would take if you had to walk there backwards through custard. Then set off about an hour before that. Don’t be crashing through the door late and sweating on other candidates. It’s impolite.

5. Listen to the question. Answer the question.

This is what my dad bellowed down the phone whenever I had an exam (and now whenever I go to the Court of Appeal). Don’t answer the question you wished they had asked. Judges tend to ask the awkward questions too. Get used to it.

6. After the question, take a second. Gather your thoughts.

Don’t spout the nonsense your brain formulated in a blind panic. Take a wee bit of time. A deafening silence for ten minutes might be a problem. A moment or two to formulate your answer shows confidence and will help.

7. Follow the rules.

This is basic. This job is about honesty and integrity. If the instructions for prep say “no internet” then don’t sit there on Google. Don’t tell your mates the questions. Don’t post them online. You’re — really — not helping anyone. Least of all yourself.

The Pupillage Gateway is now open: Find out more about life at the leading chambers across England and Wales by checking out Legal Cheek's 2020 Chambers Most List

8. If you need reasonable adjustments then please ask.

I cannot stress this enough. Chambers will help and work out the practical way for you to do your best. You only get a few shots at these interviews. Make them count.

In my experience, chambers understand that “reasonable adjustments” don’t start and end with access alone. Time of day. Exercise format. Prep time. Prep format. Location. Arrangements for seating/standing discussed in advance so you feel comfortable. Ask, ask, ask.

9. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Stop worrying about whether to shake hands or take your jacket off in the heatwave or sip the water or take a biscuit from the plate in the middle of the table. Just be sensible and do your thing.

Someone (WHO was it?) told me a TREMENDOUS story about interview biscuits. They’d been advised to eat one (shows confidence) but also not to eat one (shows arrogance). They walked into an interview, panicked and PUT A BISCUIT IN THEIR HANDBAG. Outstanding. Simply outstanding.

10. If you (really) don’t know the answer, say so.

Winging your opinion on the impeachment proceedings is one thing. Winging the definition of section 112 of a statute you’ve never heard of is quite another. If you’re snookered, say so. You’ll get points for candour, at least.

11. Prepare but don’t autocue.

If we ask you why you want to be a barrister, we are genuinely curious. Interviewers can spot from a mile the glazed, rehearsed, auto-cue style that comes only from reciting an answer 300 times in your bathroom mirror. Don’t be stale.

12. The answer to “Do you have any questions?” can be “No.”

You’ll deny it but there is a creeping tendency to disguise a brag as a question. The interview is over. Don’t sneak in a sales pitch as you exit. “What ARE your thoughts on the orphanage I single-handedly built…?”

13. Shake it off.

Don’t walk in the door struggling under the weight of the utter misery of it all. We know it’s hard. We know it’s, statistically, a long shot. But here we all are looking at each other. You might as well have a crack now. Put some welly into it.

14. Behave sensibly during the aftermath.

I know you want to send a follow up email. And another for luck. I know you want to CC in everyone on the interview panel, just in case. I know you want to call. But, honestly, unless it’s an emergency, resist.

15. Feedback is great. But remember why you want it.

Chambers have differing degrees and methods of feedback. I used to call our lot personally and chat it through. Try to secure constructive points to *help*. If you think a GDPR DEMAND email is the way to do it, then, hey ho.

Regular readers of Legal Cheek may recognise Hardy from her headline-grabbing practical pointers to improving retention of women at the criminal bar. Tweeting last year, she urged her male colleagues not to act like they were “on a stag-do” or “make repetitive jokes about breasts or skirts”.

The Pupillage Gateway is now open: Find out more about life at the leading chambers across England and Wales by checking out Legal Cheek's 2020 Chambers Most List

46 Comments

Worried

I’m a first year student thinking of entering the bar but that picture is worrying. How common is it for barristers to wear wigs in interviews? Will I need to wear one in the interview? What about around chambers? My skin is very sensitive, I’m worried it’ll be itchy and hot in the summer. Can anyone advise?

(18)(3)

Top Commercial Silk

I’d find a new career matey

(8)(2)

Worried

All may not be lost, I’ve just emailed Ede and Ravenscroft to see how much an extra soft merino wool version would be. If it’s too much, can I get a grant for this? I really don’t want to be a solicitor, I was the captain of my school’s debate team and I think it’d be a shame for my advocacy skills not to be used to help people.

(15)(2)

Top Q.C

Trust me when I say the profession would not miss you. Quit while you’re ahead kid.

(4)(6)

Worried

Oh, that’s depressing. I’m still waiting on the reply from Ede & Ravenscroft if that helps. Why do you think that, please? Would you mind, perhaps, if it’s not too much to ask, could I come to your chambers for a mini pupiledge so I could learn from you? I know you’re busy as an important QC but if you don’t ask, you don’t get, right?

Anonymous

Worried, at the beginning everyone borrows a wig from a close relative.

Worried

Ok, that’s helpful. I think my dad works with someone who used to be a barrister, he may be able to help. But can I ask, I know he’s not a close relative, so would they mind in chambers, or would it stop me getting the best human rights cases? I wouldn’t want the needy people to miss out on my representation because of a silly wig.

Anonymous

Human rights cases generally are not about the needy. It is usually about criminals, debt dodgers, scroungers and illegal immigrants making up stories so they can scrounge.

Nigel Coyne

Personality is key, you have to get on with those instructing you,take instructions but have your own views and don’t be afraid to express them, sensibly. In cases where a Chambers Solicitor asks for someone to represent their client, the Barristers’ Clerk has to determine if a particular Barrister will get on with those instructing them. Especially with the ley client, a good “bedside manner” helps to gain the confidence. NEVER go legalise to explain to the ley client, give plain answers. If you have contacts that can send you work,say so, most Barristers feel its a God given right for them to get work from Chambers. It isn’t. You have to be proactive, meet people at court, take them for lunch or where appropriate, drinks. Market yourself, concentrate on one aspect of law that you wish to pursue regularly (forget crime,no money in it these days). I’d consider immigration, especially these days. Also look at citizenship by investment programmes where you will deal with high net worth individuals. Look at wealth/asset management. It’s tough setting out as a Barrister and getting tougher. Be selective in the Chambers that you apply to,what packages are they offering pupils? Which area of the law are the Chambers particularly strong on? Ensure the areas they cover are what YOU want. Also,bare in mind that if a Barrister on the pupillage committee feels threatened by you( ie taking Chambers work from them) ,as in my experience it happened, then you have used the wrong approach. It’s tough but do your research, find out who is in the Chambers, who the Senior Clerk is, pupillage committees recommend to Chambers and then if you have impressed,you will be invited to meet the Head of Chambers and the Senior Clerk, not necessarily in that order. The Head of Chambers and Senior Clerk usually work closely together,if you have both on side, you will have a great opportunity to progress. Good luck. I was a Senior Barristers’ Clerk for nearly 30 years,it’s a great business with really interesting people,we interviewed many prospective pupils,those with personality shone through and they went on to be successful. One thing I used to do, with other Senior Clerks was to attend the Pegasus Bar after pupils had “dined” and I just watched how people behaved,many times I took details and passed them on to Chambers pupillage committee,who saw them on my recommendation. It may be different now but always be aware of who people are around you. You NEVER know who can help. Good luck!

(9)(5)

Worried

Thank you Mr Coyne, VERY helpful for me and others in my situation!!

(1)(1)

Anonymous

What’s a ‘ley client’?

(1)(0)

JDP

Something we’re not allowed to do, HR tells me.

SPAG POLICE

They spent 30 years spelling it that wey…

Lord Sumptions

We all wear wigs pretty much constantly in my chambers, but only a complete bell piece wears a legal wig in chambers.

(6)(1)

TheYoungPope

Strong troll for a Monday morning.

(10)(3)

Anon

A bit disrespectful, she has gone out of her way to provide these tips, for free, and you call her a “troll”? I detect misogyny.

(5)(9)

Lord Crackhouse

I detect profound retardation you plum

(7)(4)

Chancery Pupil Supervisor

Agree with all of these tips. I would also add that for questions about what you think on an issue (or one of those ‘who would you like to be from literature’ type questions) you should give the answer you want to give, not the answer you think the panel wants to hear. It is so obvious when the interviewee gives what they think is the *right answer*. After all, it is much easier to argue your position on an issue if you have thought it through and come to a conclusion yourself. You also run the risk that your assumption on what the panel thinks is the *right answer* is incorrect. Take Brexit for example, there are more Brexiteers at the Bar than one might think, but you need to be in Chambers and close friends with these people to find out. Set out your position, argue it out, accept any weaknesses and then come to a conclusion.

The exception to this is if you hold some truly extreme views – probably best leave those at home.

(9)(0)

Helpful Harry

16. Sound posh. Most judges are posh and prefer arguments from their own. Solicitors know it makes sense to instruct the posh.
17. Go to one of the better public schools. Most judges went to one of the better public schools, especially in the appeal Court. Solicitors know it makes sense to instruct counsel from the better schools.
18. Have an Oxbridge degree, preferably not one from a newer college.
19. Be related to a prominent silk or, ideally, a judge.

(32)(5)

Anonymous

20. Be White. There would be lots of Twitter abuse if members of the pupillage committee were to say that out loud. Remember, Twitter is EVERYTHING for barristers.

However, no one can actually do anything if you keep choosing White candidates over BAME ones with almost identical academics.

(34)(6)

Jaded

People get roasted for bringing this up, but it’s just true. The ingroup bias at the Bar is staggering. Over the years, I have seen so many upper middle class white kids get picked over their equally qualified, equally capable minority competitors.

Miss Hardy’s pieces of advice are also extremely trite. Be early? Look smart? I’d like to think anyone who has ever gone through any sort of recruitment process is aware that these are important. Then again, I imagine plenty of barristers never had jobs before pupillage.

(29)(4)

Concerned

A tenant in one of the top-earning London commercial sets went to art school for a few years after Oxbridge, but that fact is completely omitted from their online chambers CV.

Students are blinding encouraged by barristers from different eras to go into debt for pricey LLMs, Texan Death Row internships, BPTC fees and to waste years of their life in the FRU office. In reality, the Bar seems to value potato printing and paint splattering over any legal work experience simply if they like your face.

My heart breaks for those slogging it out and getting nowhere year after year of applications. You deserve better.

(24)(2)

Anon

Is it not possible that creativity and style are prized attributes at the commercial bar? Having a diverse range of interests also clearly makes someone a more desirable person to share a room/chambers with.

You make the mistake of suggesting that the simple fact that someone has completed an LLM, the BPTC or travelled to Texas for an internship makes them more worthy of pupillage. It doesn’t if having done those things does not make the applicant a better (prospective) member of your chambers, or if they cannot articulate the benefits derived from those activities in their application.

Anonymous

Pricey LLMs? Doesn’t everyone get them paid as a scholarship? Why would one pay for that?

Jaded

@4:28 – Absolutely. So often have I read about new entrants to the profession spending the preceding five years working as an art dealer, or in banking, or as an opera singer. I once met a barrister working out of a London set who had studied Music at Oxbridge before converting and setting up a clinical negligence practice.

LLMs and pro bono experience may result in 1 of the 10 applicants who have those accolades obtaining pupillage, but for the other 9 they’re money pits. It’s bad enough that young people finish their LLBs laden with Student Finance debt.

You’re better off forging a career doing something else first, then transferring any accrued skills and experience over. You’ll probably be much more financially stable at that stage, to boot.

Anonymous

21. Don’t be disabled. You will immediately be discriminated against in every way.

(6)(5)

Roger

This is getting quite tedious, Tim.

(5)(10)

Tim

Yes, and I’m sure MLK fighting racism was just as “tedious” to some.

Anonymous

Keep going, one day you will find someone sufficiently codependent to ignore your victim complex and they will actually give a fuck.

Tim

How about you keep your anti-disabled comments to yourself before you end up saying something you later regret?

Anonymous

No regrets. No tears, goodbye. Don’t you back.

Anonymous

Anti-disabled? Where?

Top QC

Can’t stress number 19 enough. That’s almost a prerequisite now. Take notes kiddies, if you aren’t related to a judge or a prominent silk you haven’t got a prayer.

(7)(2)

Damn right

It can definitely make up for not attending Oxbridge.

I know of at least one brother/sister duo at the Bar with a QC dad and many, many others with QCs or solicitors for parents.

Like writing a book on EXACTLY the same hackneyed ‘future predictions’ topic as your father. How very dare you suggest their position is down to anything other than ‘talent’ and ‘innate intelligence’, you jealous h8ters?

(11)(0)

Anonymous

If you really want good, constructive, tailored advice, following a rejection, whether at the paper stage or after an interview, write a letter to chambers requesting a copy of your personal data from them pursuant to Article 15 of the GDPR. If you’re lucky, they’ll send you a copy of their mark scheme and your score, as well as the notes panel members took in your interview.

I’ve done it multiple times over the years. I didn’t wind up on any blacklists.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

”I didn’t wind up on any blacklists.”

How would you know if you did?

(9)(1)

Anonymous

We just avoid storing them electronically nowadays.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

@5:04 – because I was offered interviews at those places the following year?

@5:36 – And? I received hand-written notes on a few occasions. I don’t think the admin staff who often handle the requests are as tactical as their barrister overlords.

(1)(2)

Anonymous

I think the fact you don’t have a pupiledge says it all, matey. Clearly the interview is to keep a potentially litigious type quiet in the hope some other moron gets lumbered with you.

Anonymous

@9:38 – And the final round interviews that followed? Somehow I doubt chambers would be willing to deprive another candidate of these opportunities for the pathetic reason you’ve given.

My method is far more useful than sending a whimpering email to chambers requesting feedback and only receiving a proverbial piss-stream of information in reply, or in most cases, a platitudinous remark, or no answer at all. Following the completion of a laborious application and attending an interview, feedback is a matter of courtesy, at least in other job sectors.

Anonymous

You don’t have a pupiledge. My point stands.

Anonymous

Judging by your spelling, you’re unemployed.

Harry

23. Get up early and stretch those genitals out, give them a really good stretch, because it’s going to be a very long day on the train (probably in standard) and you won’t have room or privacy to do it any other time. I was on a pupillage committee once and one chap came in looking fairly twitchy and I could see in his eyes he hadn’t given himself a good stretch that morning so I said to him, ‘so Mr X, how did you prepare for this interview?’ and he knew immediately what he’d done wrong. He stuttered so I raised my finger and shook it and said ‘no, a better question, what didn’t you do to prepare for this interview?’. He was visibly panicking, the poor lad, and he stood up and wailed and walked over to the door and before he even reached it his hand plunged deep into his trousers and, yes, he gave his genitals a massive stretch. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. He didn’t get in that year but got it the next.

(21)(2)

JDP

We should have a chat about a business to business link up, I see synergies between us.

(5)(0)

Client

Oh good lord. Why do we employ any of you?

(3)(0)

Not a criminal barrister

If you want to go to the criminal Bar, make sure you have a proper humblebrag to share with the panel.

I know one criminal hack who had a holiday job cleaning toilets who claims it got him his pupillage.

He probably earned more cleaning toilets than he does now, mind!

(3)(0)

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