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Call for pupillage candidates to get more emotional support

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Junior barrister Malvika Jaganmohan urges chambers to ditch ‘rejection by silence’ as she reflects on her own personal battles in candid blog post

A junior barrister has penned a heartfelt account of her mental health struggles when applying for pupillage, calling for candidates to get more support.

Malvika Jaganmohan says that the bar authorities should be offering “emotional support” for wannabe barristers who find themselves unable to cope during the gruelling pupillage process.

The family barrister writes on her Stiff Upper Lip blog that her pupillage quest was “pretty soul-destroying” and “one of the worst years of my life to date in terms of my mental health”.

Although she was ultimately successful, the post — which comes with a trigger warning — reveals that she attempted suicide during her second six.

Fellow applicants may relate to her feeling of “being constantly intellectually bludgeoned by people who are far cleverer than me” and the stress of trying to balance interviews with study and exams.

Jaganmohan, now based out of St Ives Chambers in Birmingham, says that she would “fixate on certain things and catastrophise to the umpteenth degree” during “a year of not feeling quite good enough”.

“By and large”, she writes, “there is little to no support for pupillage candidates in managing their mental health around the application period”.

The LSE law grad also spoke to other pupillage applicants with similar experiences, some of whom reported that they felt unable to tell prospective chambers about mental health conditions.

Belle (not her real name) says that she didn’t mention the impact that an eating disorder had on her grades because “she had been advised not to draw attention to the ‘weaknesses’ in her application or to put anything in the ‘excuses box'”.

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Another said that “there is plenty of talk about wellbeing at the bar, but I see nothing but talk”.

While “Alison” took aim at the lack of feedback from chambers, pointing out that “in dating – ghosting is frowned upon and reasons for the break up always make it easier to overcome. It is the same for pupillage”.

Jaganmohan calls for an end to “rejecting by silence”, saying that even busy chambers should manage to cobble together a sensitive rejection email template.

She also thinks there “needs to be some element of emotional support/skill-building for pupillage candidates”. This could be offered through the Inns of Court or Bar Professional Training Course providers, and would “teach applicants how to cope with failure and how to mitigate the impact on their sense of self-worth of not getting pupillage”.

Another possibility is small groups organised by specialist bar organisations such as Young Legal Aid Lawyers, giving pupillage candidates a “safe space” to “debrief” during application season.

The blog post, snappily titled We need to talk about mental health and pupillage applications, has kicked off discussion on social media.

Sarah Forshaw QC was a little sceptical, noting that “the reality is that we deal (in criminal law and other areas) with cases that are all-absorbing and truly disturbing. The job requires an ability to handle it all without personal melt-down.”

But Dinah Rose QC, a former deputy High Court judge, said that “taking a macho approach to mental health is damaging”, saying that she “recovered from a major episode of stress” in 2004. That didn’t stop her going on to take silk two years later.

Jaganmohan told Legal Cheek that she was concerned about people conflating “having a mental health condition or suffering from periods of mental ill-health with a candidate’s ability to cope with the job”.

“If someone suffers from a mental health condition, that shouldn’t be taken as an indication of their suitability to become a barrister”, she added. “It troubles me that some seem to have missed that point”.

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20 Comments

gazza

Rejection by silence is a scandal! Discovering you’ve not received a second round interview from some chippy Oxbridge-type on an internet message board is a particularly low point.

(30)(60)

Anonymous

Should have gone to Oxbridge then.

(46)(24)

Larry

Too many snowflakes these days. Man up.

(29)(22)

Tentative advice

If you have already started the Bar course, then you are a member of an Inn and have access to their mentoring schemes and pupillage application advice clinics. People should use this as much as possible.

If you apply for a pupillage before starting the Bar course, then technically you still have no link to the profession (and you are not officially part of the profession until you are called to the Bar and, incidentally, become subject to BSB oversight). I can’t see the Bar Council or other entities spending money to help people taking a punt when the vast majority have very low chance of success.

Applying for pupillage generates very real stress for everybody, including the strongest candidates. However, I fear that the experience is particularly bad for those people who have been misled by their academic institution and/or Bar course provider. These institutions need to be brutally honest to the people who do not stand a chance of getting pupillage because they do not have the requisite academics and/or evidence of intellect.

There also needs to be better guidance for candidates who may be strong from an academic perspective, but who have not got enough experience under their belt to make their applications stand out. Many candidates would do well to delay one or two years, stuff their CVs with as much relevant experience as possible, and then go at it full throttle. Too many people give it a punt with average CVs, don’t get far, become very dispirited, and the cycle repeats. These candidates would be saved a lot of heartache/ stress/loss of confidence if they were aware from the outset just how good their application needs to be (e.g. that a First from a good uni is, for many sets, merely the baseline).

(44)(1)

Bun that

But sadly ‘experience’ and endless volunteering or internships don’t automatically lead to pupillage.

I’ve known people with 20 FRU cases and three jobs to cover rent in London get nowhere, whilst people living with their parents during the GDL/BPTC and who never earned money before walked into commercial pupillages with Oxbridge Firsts.

Don’t waste your life endlessly volunteering and trying to meet a subjective CV ‘standard’ that doesn’t exist.

(21)(0)

Realist

Is it as simple as:

“Anyone applying for commercial or chancery pupillages without an Oxbridge First is delusional. Find another career.”

(16)(3)

Truth

No. I got one.

(2)(0)

Anon

If you’re going to reject someone, the very least you can do is write them an email. They deserve to know whether or not they’ve made it, not left to wonder nervously until too long has passed for there to be any doubt

(32)(2)

Anonymous

There are two issues here.

First is rejection by silence. That seems wrong. Presumably the number of applications and the costs of replying to them all is the issue. Adding more costs onto struggling sets is counterproductive. While the glib answer is to stop “rejection by silence”, a more balanced approach might be to require sets to indicate a date by which those who get past a stage will be contacted, so that applicants know they have not progressed.

As to the second issue, there is a wide range of available resources already in place. Publicity for them might be the issue, and education providers might be best placed to engage with that.

But, pupillage is really no different from a lot of job application processes, for many you have to get used to a lot of rejections. There is no way around it. Be thankful that despite all the doom and gloom predictions the Bar is more recession/depression proof than most areas of the economy.

(11)(1)

Confused

“If someone suffers from a mental health condition, that shouldn’t be taken as an indication of their suitability to become a barrister”

‘A mental health condition’ is a pretty broad brush.

Having a ‘health condition’ won’t stop you becoming a footballer, but if that ‘health condition’ is arthritis of the knees, it’s probably a show stopper.

Having a mental health condition shouldn’t be a barrier to the bar, but if you’re suffering from lifelong PTSD for some horrific abuse and are triggered by any reference to horrible behaviour, then a career in Crime (and probably Family) should be off limits.

I can’t help but think that if your mental heath is decimated by the search for pupillage – which is challenging – you might also struggle when you realise that you are self-employed for the rest of your career and that also carries with it a great deal of additional stress.

Lots of people with mental health conditions can become barristers (some probably help).

The fact is, you have to be fairly robust to 1. Get the job. 2. Do the job.

(29)(2)

Anon

After 3 years of getting nowhere with pupillage applications, I set up my own business.

I’ve visited 40 countries since 2014, lost 2 stone in weight and have never felt so fit and happy.

All my friends at the Bar are on strong anti-anxiety medication. I don’t think they will ever come off it. One admitted that she’d rather kill herself than admit to ‘failure’ after trying so hard to get into the profession.

You literally couldn’t pay me enough to take up a pupillage.

(29)(8)

Jasmine

What business? Can I work for you? I would be willing to do anything.

(3)(0)

Labrador

Are you implying that you would give the boss a blow job?

(2)(2)

Anon

Malvika is absolutely right to say that, if someone suffers from a mental health condition, it shouldn’t indicate that person’s suitability for the Bar. It is right that the macho culture at the Bar (and within many other professional jobs) has a deleterious effect on mental health. This is something that I have seen improve over the last few years but there is undoubtedly room for further improvement, particularly for very junior barristers and how they are clerked.

That said, a lack of emotional resilience is not the same as a mental health condition. The blog post seems to conflate the two. It suggests that BPTC providers should be providing emotional resilience training. No, they shouldn’t. Emotional resilience is something a candidate needs to have before coming anywhere near the training and application process. The Bar is not a safe or sanitised space – it is the real world, often a shitty world, for which candidates and practitioners need a degree of natural hardness.

A 2nd 6 pupil who is not emotionally resilient is going to have an awful time, and I can’t see that being coddled and cosseted on the BPTC or during pupillage is going to help. Even the most supportive Chambers can’t protect a barrister from being abused by a lay-client, or shouted at by a judge.

(15)(0)

Enforcer

If you are suffering from a Mental Health condition and finding the search for pupillage overwhelming then I would respectfully suggest that you are not in a position to suffer the years of stress at a much higher level of representing clients in what can be life changing situations.

A lot of the problems are, I think, due to the fact that those who have made it to the BVC have always been at the top of the class. The brightest kid in school. I was. Then I arrived into the world of the Bar and realised for the first time that I wasn’t any more. There were people there who made me feel like a the class clown. It’s a gut wrenching realisation that you’re no longer the top of the class. In fact you’re near the bottom.

I was fortunate. I was called in 93 and got tenancy in 1995. A combination of luck, good people skills and a solid knowledge of the basics of Law got me through. But I am not going to pretend that without the help of drinking buddies already in chambers as tenants I would have made it anyway. I wouldn’t have. That sort of thing doesn’t happen now and rightly so, of course.

If you’re suffering get help. Please I beg you. No career is worth dying for and if the Bar isn’t making you happy then be assured that you will be welcomed as a golden child into any other career path which you pursue. The qualification as a barrister opens doors like no other.

For some, the pain and suffering is worth it. For others it simply isn’t and never will be. You won’t serve your clients’ best interests by faking it.

Peace.

(16)(1)

AA

“The qualification as a barrister opens doors like no other.”

Personally I’d take the MBA from Harvard Business School any time, but well done for standing BPP and UOL’s corner…

(1)(0)

Anonymous

As if anyone with an MBA from Harvard would deign to ever want to apply for pupillage.

And by God, don’t barristers know it.

(0)(0)

Benny Goodman

Mental health problems come in all shapes and sizes. A complete inability to deal with stressful situations in general would obviously rule out the Bar. But the experience of applying for pupillage and pupillage itself tests even the most robust, and those with (for example) self-esteem or anxiety related difficulties could find the processes unbearable – at least without some support. But support need not be professional – everyone, particularly those who are more vulnerable, should try and find a person or persons that they trust, with whom they are not ‘competing’, to talk to during the application and pupillage process.

(2)(0)

Annoyed QC

Rejection by silence is wrong and simply just not acceptable.

But neither is the idea that the bar/ chambers needs to provide nursemaid care for the less robust through the hard knocks life deals us, or to fund counselling for failure. I can’t afford any more expenses. Thanks.

The bar isn’t a place for the feint of heart or those who think getting into chambers was ever easy.
The process has always been tough and is so for a reason.
Thanks for the application but on this occasion I am sorry you weren’t good enough.

(6)(1)

Solicitor

*faint of heart

(0)(0)

Comments are closed.

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