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‘The bar must do better at giving pupillage applicants feedback’

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BTC graduate and aspiring barrister Kieran Alker recounts his ‘frustrating’ experience and suggests a way to improve the process

Applying for pupillage has dominated my Januarys and Februarys for the past two years and I wanted to share one incredibly frustrating experience I have had following the latest round of applications/interviews. This is in the hope that the small suggestion I make below for improving the process for applicants (and, as I see it, raising the standards of the profession as a whole), will be considered.

Like so many others applicants, I failed to secure a pupillage this year which in itself is very frustrating and disheartening (to say the least). However, as is so often pointed out, resilience is key and rejections are a natural part of such a competitive process, so, it’s something you have to try and get used to.

Unlike previous years however, I did manage to secure a second-round interview at a chambers I liked, and I thought that both interviews went well. However, despite this, I found out that I had been unsuccessful at 3pm on 7 May by email, having stared obsessively at my phone all day, waiting to learn of the decision. No feedback was provided in this email — fine, so as most would expect I immediately replied, thanking the set for letting me know and asking the panel for some feedback.

I received no response to this email and therefore, sent a further email on 20 May, once again asking for feedback from the panel, and checking they had received my previous correspondence. On 25 May I then received a response which stated that the chambers could not offer any feedback, except to say that “2 of the applicants were a little better and they were successful”.

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I find this poor. Surely, the least chambers can do to support those battling incredible odds to try and enter a profession which is becoming harder and harder to enter every year, is to provide feedback to those who fall at the final hurdle. When you spend countless hours writing and reviewing applications, preparing for interviews, and then waiting anxiously to hear back from chambers, I feel that providing feedback to candidates that are unsuccessful at interview (particularly a second-round interview), should be a minimum requirement. This is also not taking into account the fact that the vast majority of applicants will have spent many hours applying for, and then working in jobs which they feel will make their pupillage applications stronger, i.e. we gear our entire lives around trying to secure one.

For me, this is the only second-round interview I have secured to date and therefore, the feedback I was expecting to receive would have been by far the most useful and as such was the most highly anticipated. The fact that a chambers (as in this case), can congratulate you for securing a second-round interview, and identify how incredibly competitive the process was, in the same email as refusing to provide feedback, to me is confusing and demonstrates a reluctance to help future colleagues in contradiction to the posts I see on social media platforms all the time from members of the profession.

I understand that members of chambers give up their very precious time to sift through applications and conduct interviews, but I do not consider it unreasonable for candidates to expect feedback when they have made it so far through the recruitment process. Nor do I think it would take an unreasonable amount of time to send the notes made by the panel (at the very least), to those who ask for them. Constructive feedback makes people feel like their time and effort have been valued and goes a long way to softening the blow of an otherwise harsh rejection email.

I feel strongly that the profession needs to change the way it operates and recruits because of the young talent it ultimately passes by, and I feel that making personalised feedback mandatory for candidates who have secured an interview, would be one very small way of changing it for the better.

Kieran Alker is a first class law graduate. He completed the bar course with BPP University last year and aspires to become a barrister.

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27 Comments

Barry

The issue surely is that it will create a slippery slope.

First applicants will want feedback and notes, then they will want guidance, then they will want to know exactly what they have to do to be successful next time. Which in effect means every candidate has to be compared to the standard of the winning candidate, then feedback given as to how they can surpass that exceptional individual.

This would open Chambers up to a huge liability, how long before candidates who weren’t successful dust off the old ‘discrimination’ nugget? “Well I did everything they said I should, but I didn’t get the role… it has to be because they are against me”.

How do you factor in personality, tone and attitude into feedback without deeply offending or upsetting someone. Have you people met the average ‘aspiring barrister’? They very often have serious attitude problems not to mention a sense of arrogance and entitlement, other times they just come across poorly in the interviews, how is Chambers supposed to feed that back without leaving themselves open to a s**t show?

The only feedback that could be given would be asinine and nothing a candidate who actually stands a chance at the bar couldn’t work out themselves. You need to have greater commercial interest, your extra curriculars weren’t as good as the other candidates, your academics were lacking.

Ultimately all that requiring feedback would do is waste time, hurt feelings and lead to a huge amount of bad PR from every aspirant who can’t handle rejection.

FFS

Pupillage isn’t employment.

How could an applicant bring a ‘discrimination’ claim in tribunal against a chambers organisation that doesn’t offer employment????

When has any pupillage applicant anywhere at any time ever successfully sued chambers because they weren’t picked???

Barry

Did i say bringing a case?

Maybe you should work on your reading comprehension.

Thanks to the likes of twitter entire firms or chambers can have their reputation damaged over night due to unfounded claims of discrimination.

If the calibre of applicants is anything akin to the standard you have set here, no wonder Chambers don’t think they are worth the effort of replying.

LOL

You, of course, are absolutely milking it as a commercial QC.

Pipe down.

Barry

Whut, I said I know a lot of barristers, didn’t say I was one. You know people in different roles are allowed to talk to other people right?

Unbarry

Don’t worry, from the content of your posts we were in in doubt on that point. You are much too basic.

Anon

Are you familiar with section 47 of the Equality Act 2010? I assume not.

There is at least one well known case of a pupil who brought a successful claim against chambers who withdrew an offer of pupillage (a case concerning disability). That individual has gone on to have a superb career at the bar.

Scounsel

This ^

I was once on a pupillage interview panel where a candidate who was clearly lacking in ability but had the arrogance and over-confidence to talk about “when” he got pupillage with us, not “if”.

I’m not sure feedback should go any further than stating the reasons why the candidate was not taken on, which can (legitimately) be, “there were many candidates of a high standard and we chose the best”.

Poor Argument

Many other sectors and companies provide feedback, from investment banking, to McDonalds. More relevantly, many commercial firms provide feedback – often in a proactive and useful fashion.

The slippery slope argument would work if it was apparent and noticeable in other industries. But it isn’t. And therefore it doesn’t.

Barry

How would you propose we evidence what may or may not be apparent and noticeable in other industries? You are making an assertion that an incremental growth in the length or quality of feedback requested hasn’t happened in other industries… how did you reach this conclusion? Did you consult every other industry to determine whether they have, in their private and I would assume confidential discussions with prospective hires, had any candidate that were not happy with the offered level of feedback and so went on to request more?

It is impressive to talk about poor arguments when you make a definitive statement that another persons hypothetical is not valid based on an assumption which could only possibly be validated were you to have access to documents and data that you cannot possibly have access to.

Former Pupil

McPupillage, anyone?

Just Anonymous

Firstly Kieran, I would congratulate you for making it to a second-round interview. That is impressive in itself, and in my view, anyone who gets that far is probably a serious and credible candidate for pupillage.

But here’s the problem.

All the other second-round candidates are serious and credible as well.

Quite frankly, the situation chambers are often faced with at that stage is that they have, say, twelve final round candidates, most of whom are very credible candidates (and would most likely be successful if taken on) and there are only, say, two spaces. Thus, ten extremely good candidates have to fail. No matter how objectively brilliant they are.

Thus, sometimes, there’s just nothing you can say other than, someone was just a tiny little bit better than you on the day.

So unless you did commit some glaring faux pas (and it sounds like you didn’t), you’re asking for substantive feedback which, quite frankly, probably doesn’t exist.

I understand the pain of seeking pupillage. I’ve gone through the exact same experience of waiting for that phone call which never comes. I know how horrible it is, and I feel very sad for all who go through that every year.

I wish you well in your future efforts to reach the Bar.

QCs Without 1sts LLP

Completely agree with you.

If barristers have the time to write 20,000 tweets, to speak at student events, to set up self-promoting brands/websites and to write articles for Counsel, they have the time to write feedback to interview applicants.

They don’t because of a lack of empathy and the fact the effort won’t personally benefit them.

Barry

I can’t speak to your experience, but i have found that the vast majority of barristers and their clerks, who are often part of the pupillage process, are in fact very very busy and don’t do the kind of self promotion you mention. Then again I am quite limited in that the majority of barristers I know are commercial and chancery, with a smattering of CPS.

There are definitely barristers who are self serving attention seekers, but they are not usually the decision makers on committees, in my experience.

Just Anonymous

My comment on this article appears to have been censored.

I don’t understand why.

The summary of said comment was that, while I have every sympathy with the author, the plain reality is that there probably isn’t any meaningful feedback that could be given. I’m sure he is probably an exceptional candidate, but someone else was slightly more exceptional on the day, and that is all there is to it.

it's not hard, chambers

I think that a good split would be the way law firms do it. You get some feedback if you get rejected at the assessment centre (i.e. the second round interview?). You don’t get feedback if you get rejected at an earlier stage in the process (e.g. the first round interview or the app sift). You get an email informing you of the outcome of your application either way.

Anonymous

Sitting on the other side of the fence, it is clear why many chambers cannot give feedback. Barristers give up a huge amount of their time to undergo training, sift applications, organise interviews, conduct the interviews and then work to improve the recruitment process for future years. All of this work is, of course, unpaid – and often results in barristers turning down work which they otherwise could have taken on. Chambers are not like law firms, they do not have large HR departments who can take on the bulk of the administrative work. I have sympathy for applicants, but they also need to understand the reality of the Bar and the recruitment process.

it's not hard, chambers

Many of the larger chambers have HR personnel.

More to the point: If barristers do spend all of this time that you claim they do on the application process, it would presumably take very little extra time to write a paragraph of feedback based on one’s interview notes.

The feedback doesn’t even need to be fully truthful or fit a certain format – just say what you liked, didn’t like and some vague nonsense about the “standards being very high this year”. It could be bullet pointed. It could be delayed by a month if the barrister is going through a particularly busy period. Giving feedback is fundamentally a very flexible process. Hell, even big law firms with several HR members take their sweet time in getting back to you about rejections.

There is also a point to be made about decency in all of this. The applicant has presumably wasted hours to get to interview. You can’t even spend 10 minutes on an email after you spent an hour and a half interviewing them and discussing what you thought about them with your colleagues?

anonymous

Without wishing to get into the rights and wrongs one thing I wouldn’t want applicants to take away from this is that chambers uniformly do not give feedback.

My chambers certainly does, (although we are in the privileged position of being a larger chambers with (i) a full time pupillage co-ordinator; and (ii) more members to share the workload of administrative tasks (of which the pupillage process is but one!))

Unlock the chamber

Well,

I disagree that applicants will want more detailed feedback.

Given applicant info is not stored on paper but rather some sort of database/computer system it shouldn’t be too hard to automate a “rejection email”. All applicants can be notified anonymously and simultaneously.

The root of the issue, to me, is that applicants may not enjoy twisting in the wind or commenting on anonymous boards to determine who has or hasn’t been moved forward.

it's not hard, chambers

As sad as it is, many law firms also struggle with automating their rejections and getting them out in time. There are also other issues with these portals e.g. what does being put on hold mean? and what should one infer from their application having its “review completed”?

For example, I don’t think I ever got rejected by Travers Smith, just put on hold. It’s been 5 years.

Anonymous

Rejection emails, fine. Feedback, no way. Just opens a whole can of worms. The sort of feedback would not offer any constructive comments that would help candidates so it hard to see what the value would be.

Anonycounsel

I certainly agree that chambers should tell candidates when they are unsuccessful. A pleasant email or telephone call thanking the candidate for applying and wishing them well for the future goes a very long way. Rejecting candidates by silence is ridiculous and a very bad advert for the bar. But going beyond this, I am not sure how useful detailed feedback would be. If the candidate performs well and is pipped to the post by a slightly better candidate there is no real point telling them. If the candidate performed badly, do you really want to tell them the truth? “You came across as arrogant and we were not sure whether you would be a good fit for chambers. Also you were really pissy with the receptionist.” There are some who would take this criticism on the chin and others who would go ballistic. There is also the resources point. You have to collate the feedback, discuss it, have the panel agree the format, and then send it to the candidate. If there are twenty candidates this is a lot of work.

Anonymous

We take on 5 pupils every year so the top 10 have a 50:50 chance of getting in.

We then offer one tenancy per year, so it’s dog eat dog.

Makes them stronger.

Why should be provide feedback to the losers?

Jim

In a year that I applied for pupillage, there was a magic circle set (i.e. one of the top commercial sets) that called unsuccessful applicants post-first round interview and gave oral feedback. Seriously impressive, and generous of the barrister who did it to take time out to do it.

Anon

I do worry about potential discrimination complaints. We’ve had applications from quite a few people whose written English was just too bad for them to be credible candidates. English isn’t my first language either and I’m sure I make mistakes sometimes, but you do have to meet a certain standard or you just won’t be able to produce the written work you’re expected to produce at the commercial/chancery Bar. Unfortunately, I’m genuinely not sure how you’d go about giving these applicants feedback without getting into trouble.

SavetheKrill

Some years ago, i attended a seminar presented for solicitors regarding employment of prospective and currently employed junior solicitors. The presenter was an expert himself in placement of legal professionals and a proprietor of a legal employment business. It wasn’t put as a criticism, rather as a helpful pointer as to how to keep young lawyers for a reasonable period. He related that it was important that employers keep in mind that most young lawyers were the beneficiaries of a high level of attention from parents and teachers throughout their lives. How could they achieve, without such input, the high marks required to get into law-school in the first place? I am, by the way, a now retired solicitor from Australia. Everyone is very busy, and more and more demands are made on practitioners’ time for no payment. What do lawyers know about this? Nothing. How stressful to write interview reports to the interviewees’ requirements.
Perhaps this young man’s proposal is an example of our presenter’s observations.

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