Future pupil barrister Taz Aldeek offers up his top tips for those seeking a career at the bar
I spent five years in law school as a lost, aspiring lawyer trying to figure out which way I wanted my career to go. It seemed like it was assumed that we all wanted to become solicitors, without any mention of barristers. Still, I knew nothing about the real practicalities of either role, until I left law school and took a job as a paralegal at a law firm.
After graduating, I had almost given up on the idea of pursuing a career as a criminal lawyer; the overwhelming consensus was that you could barely make a living in criminal practice. So I returned to university to complete a master’s in corporate and commercial law and on the course, I met an aspiring barrister who encouraged me to attend a pupillage fair. The fair introduced me to the enchanting world of the bar, reigniting my passion to become a criminal lawyer. After university, I decided to volunteer at Manchester Crown Court and then set off to the US to intern at a death row office. In the process I discovered my calling — to become a barrister — and from this point I would spend another five years trying to crack the Rubik’s Cube of securing pupillage.
Like many I’m sure, my path to pupillage felt like finding my way through a dark, unsolvable maze without a map or compass. After applying for my first mini-pupillage, I distinctly remember receiving a letter back from chambers, warning me of the very low chances of securing pupillage (under 15%), with the overall tone of the letter implying that my time was better spent considering alternative careers. The letter served as a reminder that the competition is fierce and only the best survive. Merit aside, there was the issue of finance which I managed to overcome by winning a bar course scholarship from Lincoln’s Inn, fortunately this gave me the opportunity I needed to compete.
As a combat sports fan, I like to draw comparisons between the legal and combat world; in mixed martial arts what makes an undisputed champion is their ability to adapt and blend different styles of martial arts to expose and capitalise on weaknesses in their opponent’s game. Securing pupillage is similar in that being exceptional in one area, such as, intelligence or advocacy is not sufficient. You must leverage your strengths and identify your weakness in a way which allows you to put forward a uniquely persuasive sales pitch, leaving no doubt in the interviewing panel’s mind that you’re their next pupil.
After years of good and bad advice, redrafting my applications thousands of times, attending dozens of interviews and receiving a lifetime’s worth of rejections, I finally emerged on the other side of an extremely narrow bottleneck when I secured pupillage with the Crown Prosecution Service, starting in 2023. Looking back on a journey I started over a decade prior; this is the advice I would have given my younger self:
1. You have to be all in
Be honest with yourself at the outset and ask yourself whether you are willing to commit to the bar and develop the skills required to become successful. Belief is insufficient without execution, so once you’ve committed to pursuing pupillage you have to leave no stone unturned. You have to be emersed in the world of the bar to find your way through it.
2. Build connections and a network
Quality trumps quantity when it comes to connections. Investing in one or two quality connections will pay dividends when it comes to reviewing your applications and preparing you for the rigours of pupillage interviews.
3. Know the enemy and know yourself
Researching chambers’ websites to appreciate the standard of the competition welcomed is only half the battle. You also must reflect on your own application, compensate for deficiencies and understand the landscape to know where your application is most likely to succeed. Play the odds.
4. Timing is everything
After what felt like an amazing interview performance, I received a rejection. The barrister called me to say that the panel said they had no feedback to give as they couldn’t fault my performance — the truth was the competition was just better on the day. She said timing is everything and I just needed the winds to hit my sails at the right time to go through.
5. Befriend rejection
Over the years I ate so many rejections they became like the air I breathed. When it comes to rejections you have to leave your ego at the door and objectively analyse your performance by looking for any information which will enable you to develop. The difference between success and failure is in the margins.
6. Feedback is king
Keep a feedback log of your successes and failures to track your progress, hold yourself accountable and make key changes.
7. Want but don’t need
One of the best pieces of advice I got was from a barrister who said “your problem is that you want pupillage too much.” He was right in that it had become the epicentre of my world. This created excessive pressure, manifesting in tense performances. Shifting my mindset and letting go of this need for pupillage is eventually what let my true self come out at interview, freeing me from nerves and allowing me to perform at my best.
8. Perspective is power
Problems are opportunities to engineer solutions. To support aspiring lawyers on their journey to the legal profession, I set up a YouTube channel and website to serve as a legal, performance and wellbeing advocate, sharing the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. When times are tough, don’t forget that every rejection is one step closer to an offer.
Taz Aldeek is a law school graduate, Lincoln’s Inn scholar and future pupil barrister for the Crown Prosecution Service, living in Manchester. I’ve set up a YouTube channel to support aspiring lawyers and explore ways to optimise our performance and wellbeing, in pursuit of curating a healthier, happier and more successful life.