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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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