Your journey to pupillage
I studied classics as an undergraduate. I had no thought of becoming a lawyer. After university I took the GDL, and intended to use the legal training to find work in an international non-profit. During the GDL I did two mini-pupillages and got to the semi-finals of a moot, and realised that I wanted to make a career at the Bar.
I then worked intensively to get my CV up to scratch. I knew the Bar was competitive and I did not have much relevant experience. I joined FRU and represented claimants in their social security appeals. I undertook several mini-pupillages to explore what type of practice I wanted, and which chambers would be a good fit for me. I was interested in the rights of individuals, and in particular workers’ rights, so I began looking at employment and human rights practices. I interned at the Bar Pro Bono Unit (now Advocate). I got funding from my Inn, Middle Temple, to spend 4 months working on death row appeal cases at the Arizona Capital Representation Project. In the meantime, I worked on political media campaigns, which helped me think about different forms of persuasion and advocacy. I got a scholarship from Middle Temple to study the BPTC and then worked as a paralegal for 6 months.
I enjoyed the pupillage interview process at Cloisters more than at any other set. There were two interview rounds. In the first round, I was given a story in which a set of fictional characters faced a problem, and I had a set of fictional rules that governed the possible outcomes. I had 30 minutes to read and think about the problem, and 15 minutes to explain my solution to two interviewers. The interview required no legal knowledge or previous experience, but only a willingness to solve a practical problem using the rules available. For the last couple of years, this interview has been a timed written assessment instead of in person.
10 applicants went through to the second round. I was sent two problem questions by email two weeks in advance. These were both complex fictional scenarios to which I had to apply (real) law. They were deliberately difficult, touching on emerging parts of law and requiring sensitive judgment calls. I researched and prepared my answers in the evenings and over the weekend. I then had a 30-minute interview with a panel of interviewers. I had 20 minutes to explain my answers to the problem questions, and the panel intervened with questions and challenges. After 20 minutes, I was asked a ‘surprise’ final question and had 10 minutes to answer it. The question was loosely based on a current affairs topic. I had never thought about the issue before, and had to reason out the answer from first principles. I remember that the panel was extremely friendly. It felt like they wanted to draw the best out of me.
At no point in the interview process did the panel show any interest in my personal background or experience. At written application stage, the mark scheme boosts applicants to interview who have faced socio-economic and/or personal disadvantage coming to the Bar. By interview stage, the focus is on finding clear, calm, incisive thinkers and advocates.
The pupillage experience
During the GDL and BPTC, I kept up to date with the big workers’ rights cases that were going through the higher courts, and noticed that advocates from Cloisters were often representing those cases. I realised that if I wanted to become a leader in employment law, this was the place to go. I also joined the mentorship program at my Inn and was assigned a mentor who was a barrister at Cloisters. She was relatively junior at the time, but already did the kind of work I aspire to. I went to see her in the Court of Appeal, led by another Cloisters barrister, discussing the statutory interpretation of a section of the Equality Act. I wanted to copy her career! She was also very friendly and down to earth. When I visited Cloisters with her, I found this was true across the board: people were kind and unpretentious. On top of that, several people at Cloisters practise equality law because they believe in its utility for achieving social good. This aligned with my values.
Cloisters normally takes two pupils. I rapidly made friends with my co-pupil. There was no competition between us. Cloisters only recruits as many pupils as it has space for tenants, so everyone was willing both of us to succeed.
Tenancy decisions at Cloisters are made on the basis of four formal assessments: drafting, advocacy, research, and an assessed interview (with a problem question sent in advance). I sat these assessments in my second six. I was really grateful that the tenancy decision was based on formal assessments rather than on my work during the year. It meant that I could spend the first half of the pupillage year focussing on learning, rather than performing, knowing that any mistakes would not count towards the tenancy decision.
The first six months of my pupillage were roughly divided into two seats. I spent the first 3 months on employment law with one supervisor. This was mostly court-based but I also learned the basics of drafting, advising, and conducting conferences. I also sat in on internal investigations for large organisations. It was a very fast-paced seat. My second seat was split between 6 weeks under a personal injury supervisor and 6 weeks with a clinical negligence supervisor. It is not always split like this: my co-pupil spent her equivalent seat working on the Grenfell Inquiry instead. My second seat was significantly more paper-based, with longer cases involving experts and large quantum schedules. I found I was much more interested in clinical negligence than I had expected I would be, and have retained a clinical negligence practice as a tenant. Supervisors at Cloisters are quite protective of their pupils during first six: you are not allowed to work outside office hours, and you don’t work for anyone other than your supervisor without your supervisor’s agreement. This allows you to absorb huge amounts of new information without getting overwhelmed.
The start of my second six coincided with the first Coronavirus national lockdown in 2020, so I had an atypical experience. Nobody knew exactly how it would look, but there were new employment law issues arising as a result of the pandemic and courts continued remotely. As a result, it was an interesting but strange time to learn the job. My second six was split again between three months in employment and three months in personal injury, but I was beginning to pick up my own cases too and was juggling my time between supervised work and my own work. I also did some work as a junior led by senior members of chambers. On top of this, I had tenancy assessments to sit, so my second six was an exercise in time management as much as anything else.
Second six was a useful transition between pupillage and tenancy. I had some of my own cases, but I also had a supervisor that I could call for help every time I got stuck. I have been a tenant for two years now, and I still regularly call my old supervisors.
The transition from pupil to tenant
The main difference I noticed when I first became a tenant was that my diary suddenly became extremely full. I had picked up a few cases during second six, but nothing like the work that came in when I began tenancy. Much of the work was new ground for me and it was hard to predict how long anything would take. It was an overwhelming first year, and I turned to my old pupil supervisors, and other junior tenants, regularly for support and guidance. I found myself learning on the job extremely quickly. Luckily, Cloisters is full of experts in exactly the type of work I received, so there was always someone to call. People in chambers are very generous with their time.
What is your practice like now?
I have been a tenant for two years now. My practice is mostly employment law, but I also practice in other types of discrimination law (education and access to services) and clinical negligence, and I have done a small amount of inquest work.
A great pleasure of the job is how varied it is. I am in court a lot, which I really enjoy, and regularly conduct long and complex discrimination trials. But I also conduct internal investigations and have a healthy paper practice, which can fit around court hearings. Almost every piece of work contains something new, and I am still absorbing new information rapidly. Each week has a different rhythm to it. Sometimes the work can be very intense, both emotionally – because clients face upsetting situations – and because of the pressure of court. But there is balance: when a case settles or you have a long piece of paperwork to draft, you can settle into a quiet routine. Although I am still very junior, there is huge satisfaction in knowing that I am building up a specialist body of expertise which is truly useful to my clients. There is no feeling like winning for a client you’ve been fighting for.
What is the culture of chambers?
My colleagues are great. I respect and admire them as barristers – and often wonder how I managed to get a place among them – but I also like them as people. They take their work seriously, but they are not self-important. It’s a lovely culture. We also have a very active WhatsApp support group among the junior-juniors. I routinely ask my most stupid questions on that group. When we are all about, we take each other for lunch and coffees and drinks.
Chambers is in Temple – it’s nice to feel right in the thick of it – and we share rooms. The layout is such that 2 or 3 rooms are clustered around a kitchenette, so you end up with little ‘pods’ where people wander in and out of each other’s rooms and bring each other cups of tea. We then have one floor for the clerks and one floor with meeting rooms and a big kitchen. We eat lunch together once a week in the meeting rooms or, when the weather is nice, in the garden.
We have a small team of clerks, and all the clerks work with all the barristers, so we all know each other quite well. This way of working was a deliberate choice (rather than everyone being assigned an individual clerk) because it allows an even spread of work. Cloisters members try quite hard to be transparent among us about who is getting what work, and making sure that everyone who is available for a new instruction is put forward, to eliminate unconscious bias. The clerks are really friendly and they really know what they are doing.
We also have a small business support team who keep us running smoothly as a collective. Chambers has just recruited its first COO, which we think will create lots of new capacity for decisions to be made about Cloisters as a business!
Top tips for those wanting to become a barrister/secure a pupillage at your chambers
Top tips for filling out the application form:
• Cloisters marks pupillage applications using a mark scheme, and we publish the mark scheme on our website. Read the mark scheme!
• Read the mark scheme well in advance of writing your application, and spend some time thinking about how to maximise your marks. If you realise that you haven’t yet got the experience / expertise to get the best marks, go out and get that experience. It is more likely, however, that you do have relevant experience, and you just need to think about how to present it so that it meets the marking criteria.
• Remember that your pupillage application is a piece of written advocacy. This is a chance to show us that you are a good advocate.
• There is no need to go into detail about what happened during mini pupillages. We care far more about your achievements than things you have watched other people do.
Top tips for interviews:
• There is no legal knowledge required for the first round interview, so don’t feel the need to revise any law. There is also no need to revise your CV: there won’t be any personal questions.
• However, you can prepare for your first interview by practising answering questions analytically and clearly. Set yourself a few problem scenarios, or ask yourself some difficult philosophical questions. Then practice answering them in a structured and sensible way. The way you present your answer to a question will give the interview panel an idea of your advocacy style.• If you get something wrong in an interview, don’t worry, and don’t back yourself into a corner maintaining an untenable position. Correct yourself and move on.
• This may sound impossible, but try to enjoy the process. Solving problems is fun, and it’s also the main part of the job!
• Think Critically. Look at your application form and think about what your weaknesses are. Use mentoring schemes like those run by the Inns or COMBAR’s scheme, to get some frank feedback on your application. Then work to fill the gaps and improve the weak points.