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11 things you need to do in a pupillage interview

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Want it enough but not too much, show EQ as well as IQ and follow convention, advises recently-qualified Hardwicke barrister Caoimhe McKearney as pupillage interview season kicks off

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1. Reconcile yourself with the idea that you may be unsuccessful

If you think your whole life depends on getting that pupillage, how can you relax? I think I got mine because I applied early while doing an LLM before the Bar Professional Training Contract (BPTC). I didn’t expect to be successful in those first interviews and looked on them as a practice run. So I was more relaxed than I’d otherwise have been.

But even if I was applying later I’d hopefully have kept in mind that this wasn’t my only shot at life. If you’ve been invited to one interview, there’s a good chance others will follow in the future. And at the end of the day, while the bar is great, it’s bloody hard work and there are plenty of other interesting, rewarding ways for clever graduates to make a living. Keep things in perspective and you’ll perform much better.

2. Remember the panel members may be nervous too

Chambers have to interview vast numbers of prospective barristers so that invariably means many will put some quite junior barristers on their panels. There may be at least one person who is doing the interviewing for the first time and they will be nervous too. Imagine being in their position worrying about asking appropriate questions in front of your senior in chambers. And draw strength from that.

3. Look and behave like a pupil

That means, for women, wearing a conservatively-cut dark suit and (ideally) a white shirt. For men, a white, blue or subtly-striped shirt is OK. This might sound ridiculously old-fashioned, and even sexist, but pupils do tend to dress conservatively. You want the panel to look at you and see someone who is ready to step straight into the role of a pupil. Then arrive in the timely manner of someone who has researched how to reach chambers on a Saturday (when pupillage interviews typically take place) when some of the entrances to the Inns of Court are closed.

4. Take your social cues from the interviewers

If they go to shake your hand, shake their hands. If they don’t there is no need to approach them and lean awkwardly over what is often quite a wide table. They’ll know your name; if you are told their names don’t feel that you have to use them.

5. Argue a bit, without being rude

Good academics speak for themselves — and that should give you confidence. But consider this: Oxbridge candidates have something more than that. They have enjoyed three years of very small tutorials twice a week where they are continuously put on the spot by a legal academic in front of other members of the group. It’s perfect practice for pupillage interviews.

One of the most important things I learnt from those tutorials was the value of arguing back a bit — but politely. Of course you should be prepared to modify your answers when your interviewers throw something new into the mix, but you should also be prepared to defend your view on a topic. Don’t just roll over at the slightest push.

6. Be prepared for the ‘What’s your favourite pizza topping question’

A surprisingly light, non-law related question features in most pupillage interviews. It is designed to throw candidates who are too focused on prepared answers. Lots freeze up. Can you respond coherently — but not brilliantly, by any means — rather than being left tongue-tied?

7. Structure your answers — especially when talking about yourself

You want your answers to sound considered. It’s easy when under pressure to fall into the trap of rambling, especially when you are talking about yourself and the things you’ve done. After all, that information is all very familiar to you. Step back. Think of three points that you’ll cover in response to a question and then deliver your answer within that structure. Of course, if you apply the ‘three things’ approach to every response you might come across as contrived and a bit weird. But it can be useful if used in moderation.

8. Use what you know about the set, but carefully

Obviously it’s very important to do your research thoroughly in advance of an interview, and you’ll no doubt have studied the chambers website carefully beforehand. But don’t feel you have to shoehorn absolutely everything you know about the set’s recent activities into your conversation. That approach can make you come across awkwardly — and as slightly desperate! Instead, look for natural moments to divulge such knowledge.

Of course, do be prepared to comment on a recent case which chambers has been involved in. All chambers will have case reports and newsflashes on their website, and it’s a common question.

9. Be honest about what you know — and more importantly, what you don’t

It’s not uncommon, when answering the problem questions that are often asked in second round interviews, that some of the finer legal points or case names will escape your memory. But chambers don’t expect you to be a walking encyclopaedia (that’s why we have libraries and Westlaw). Aim to identify as many of the general principles as you can, or at the very least identify what you think the issues are. If you then get stuck on the detail, it’s better to gently indicate your difficulties to the panel — who may then respond by giving you a helpful clue or some more information — rather than ploughing on in a panicky state of ignorance. This is especially true for GDL candidates, who may not yet have studied a particular area.

10. Remember the names of the barristers you did mini-pupillages with

If you’ve done a mini-pupillage at the set you’re interviewing for, you are very likely to be asked about your experience — that much is obvious. But be aware that you might also be asked about mini-pupillages you did at other sets — often purely due to barristers’ curiosity about their friends/rivals elsewhere. It looks bad if you can’t remember who you sat with and what you did. Keep a brief note from each mini-pupillage you do, and refresh your memory before each interview.

11. You definitely don’t have to have any questions for them

The ‘do you have any questions for us?’ question is asked as a matter of convention at the end of every pupillage interview. This one is a matter of debate. My own view is that there is no “winning” question you can ask. Either you ask something about the mechanics of pupillage which makes you look presumptuous, or you ask something about some detail from chambers’ website and you look boring. I just said, “No, I don’t think so”. I suppose if there’s something you’re really dying to know, then fire away. But rest assured you won’t be penalised if you don’t.

Caoimhe McKearney is a barrister at Hardwicke specialising in property, chancery and commercial law and has a developing practice in professional liability law.


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34 Comments

Anonymous

Disagree with the last point completely

Lol

Care to give a reason?

John H

Yes, totally. Suggests a lack of curiosity, and/or an inability to pick up (and follow up on) things that have been said to you – neither of which is a great quality in a lawyer.

Anonymous

Does it suggest that? Or does it suggest that you’ve done your research well?

Andrew

Having recently conducted pupillage interviews, I can assure you that there is almost nothing worse than candidates asking questions to which the answer is clearly set out on the website. The only thing slightly worse is candidates (often the ones who have performed badly in interview) asking several long questions and not getting the hint that it is really time to wrap up the interview and leave. In my opinion, first round interviews (at Chambers that do more than one round) are rarely the time to ask questions – save any burning questions for final rounds or post-offer discussions with Chambers. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with not having any questions!

Andrew

PS The above comment is subject to the caveat that I think it is absolutely fine in first round interviews to ask politely about the timetable for the next stage / when you are likely to hear if you have been successful.

Anonymous Barrister

I’ve also been conducting pupillage interviews and I agree with Andrew. I am not going to hold a lack of questions from the applicant against them. Any good advocate knows the value of not asking a question just for the sake of it.

Anonymous

Exactly my point. It doesn’t have to be completely disingenuous or for the sake of it- if you have any interest in the career/them, it shouldn’t stump you to ask a question to display curiosity.

I don’t believe it should be held against the candidate, but I would be concerned they had no interest in the role/timeline/interviewees.

Anonymous

Great detail.

A. Nonny-Mouse

Most of it seems pretty sound, though this line irked me somewhat:

“…there are plenty of other interesting, rewarding ways for clever graduates to make a living.”

Give me some concrete examples of what you can do with a BPTC qualification which will help ease my mind.

Not Amused

The gods help those who help themselves. A BPTC doesn’t preclude you from any job and there are lots of rewarding and high paid jobs – far too many kids want to be lawyers and much as I love my job, I still don’t understand why.

A. Nonny-Mouse

That was not very helpful.

Devan

Me me me

Anonymous

Which just shows that people should think very carefully before doing the BPTC before obtaining Pupillage. However it doesn’t alter the fact that there are many other interesting, rewarding careers out there other than the bar. The only one that the BPTC is particularly likely to help with, however, is being a solicitor…

Sir Viv

Most similar alternative career for those with BPTC who don’t get pupillage….. any career where you are self employed/starting up your own business. Simples.

Legal expertise and advocacy are simply commodities which you are selling.

The only difference is that you (sometimes) wear a wig and can neatly sum up your job to strangers very quickly.

Familybrief

Last point is absolutely right.
Interviewing is a wearying experience for any panel, especially when it is up against a tight schedule and at risk of over-running.

Anonymous

Bar Professional Training Contract? Haven’t read passed that bit. I was bitter that I haven’t had any interview offers, not I’m just bitter that someone got pupillage and didn’t even know what course they studied!

Anonymous

Your grasp of English might explain the absence of interview offers…

Not Amused

I think it’s a good and helpful article.

The last point is inherently tricky. I’ve spent years advising candidates to always say something. But that advice was more broad than the Bar – HR generally mark down candidates who do not have a question, often simply because they are trained to. Barristers are nothing like HR. So all I can say is that, I never had a question and I did OK.

I think the joy of being interviewed by a barrister is that it is probably the most honest interview you would ever have. There’s not really anything like the same level of duplicity that you might experience elsewhere in the world in general. Barristers are beautiful because they are honest. But honesty is not always kind. It does also mean that events such as the interviewer responding to a point by saying “that’s bloody stupid” do tend to crop up in a way in which they don’t in the more manicured land of HR.

Anonymous

That being said (re the Bar Professional Training Contract comment), having now actually read the article it’s very helpful. If I do ever get an interview I’ll be sure to take the advice on board!

botzarelli

I’ve rarely had something I’ve wanted to ask at the end in job interviews- better not to ask anything than to ask something dull that you obviously aren’t bothered about the answer to and the pertinence of which the interviewer will struggle to grasp.

windymiller

Great tips. It does illustrate that sets should think carefully about how they might create a more even playing field for non-Oxbridge candidates. If you have an interview process that lends itself perfectly to a teaching method delivered at only 2 universities, well….

Not Amused

Interestingly you do not seem to think that if an employer likes a teaching method used by two of several organisations that the other organisations ought to adopt that same method?

Instead you think that, while liking the teaching method used by only 2 institutions, we ought to somehow devise a test that compensates against our preference?

So instead of saying: “we have 50 institutions, only 2 of them are doing what we want, the other 48 need to up their game”, instead of that you think it is better to say “of our 50 institutions, 2 are out performing so as soon as we stop them doing well we will have 50 amazing institutions”

Equality of opportunity v equality of outcome.

VTESI

*sigh* That’s such a jerk response. It’s not outrageous to say that chambers should make more of an effort. Also this idea that all universities should up their game is nice but nonsense – it’s unlikely to happen, or rather, Chambers could improve their interview system far quicker and with less hassle than it would take for universities to do the same.

More importantly, there are a few university departments across London staffed with Oxbridge-educated/taught (+ Harvard) members, holding said small tutorials with their students, and yet the degree that these students achieve is valued as less than one from Oxbridge?! So unless you think that students should inform Chambers as to how they were taught (when it’s the same as Oxbridge) I don’t see how this problem will fix itself in the short to medium term.

Chambers should realise that its in their interest to look past Oxbridge, as there are many excellent candidates who did not study there. Again, I repeat my favourite adage from a barrister telling me that out of 150 applicants, the 6 they interviewed were Oxbridge yet only 1 was able to put together a coherent answer to a basic question.

Eric

You are missing the point.

Chambers should not give have an interview process which Oxbridge graduates are better trained to perform well at because that could lead to recruiting an Oxbridge graduate who is less talented and intelligent than a non-Oxbridge graduate because the Oxbridge graduate performs better in the interview. This is in chambers best interest if they want to recruit the best talent. Some chambers make you give a presentation or plea in mitigation etc – I think that is a bit more fair and less like an Oxbridge college tutorial thereby not giving anyone an unfair edge.

Quo Vadis

A plea in mitigation is hardly a better solution – being completely impossible for anyone applying from the GDL/LLB. Why should I have to learn BPTC content (as well as revise for June exams, pupillage interviews etc) on the off chance that a chambers can’t be bothered to check what course I am on?

Robbespiere

I once instructed Hardwicke to give me legal advice on a property matter. The advice they gave me was completely wrong. When I pointed this out to the chambers, surprisingly, they agreed that I did not have to pay anything for it.

Anonymous

Unless you’re going for the advice of a leading QC, I’m not sure that anything else is worth it for it for it’s own sake. Unless you need it to back up your own advice in your client’s eyes or the client specifically asks for it.

Juniors will, of course, disagree :p

Anonymous

I urge people who are thinking of trying for a pupillage to consider the Bar’s prospects in the longer term.

There will always be a small group of outstanding lawyers who will not want for specialist work and who combine the intellectual heft with good advocacy. But that group really will be tiny – something rather less than the number of QCs now. Other than these few, corralled into the highest earning areas of commercial practice, the Bar will disappear. Solicitors with rights of audience will take over.

If you get a pupillage this year at the age of, say, 25, you will be very unlikely to see out a career at the Bar until 55. The last generation of barristers in many areas of law is now at the Bar.

If law is the attraction look to the roll. If intellectual stimulation is the attraction pursue a life in academia or the better parts of the civil service.

Jeff

If the bar does disappear surely there will be provisions for good barristers to cross qualify without very much difficulty. Say in 20 years time, if the bar is in decline, I am sure many good barristers will find good jobs in-house within law firms or ABS.

What this means is that there is no reason to become a solicitor out of fear that the bar does not have a future. Do what you enjoy now – if in the future the market/profession changes, you have to adapt.

If the bar disappears. I think solicitors will struggle to compete with barristers who are moving across the profession. So if anything, it makes more sense to build a successful practice as a barrister even if the bar has no future.

In any event, demise of the bar has been predicted many times in the past, but the bar has continued to thrive and expand

Anonymous

Barristers have a role to play in our system – that role won’t change. Whether a lot of their work can be done by solicitors is another issue (I would say it can, subject to the solicitor having the right training and experience). So, given that barristers have a role to play, I don’t think they will fade away as you suggest.

Not Amused

Barrister v solicitor arguments are silly. They are the preserve of kids. That is because there is no real divide. I am a barrister and I earn well. If tomorrow we changed the world, I would be a solicitor, who earned well. The core of my being would not change.

The reality of life is not ideology. It is maths.

Right now, the rules governing recoverability of costs mean that litigation solicitors are not profitable. Within the most economically successful law firms we have the following: non-contentious makes a killing, arbitration bills respectably, litigation is under performing.

The rules surrounding costs are the biggest reason why litigation has the fewest NQ seats. The sole reason why litigation makes partners up on average 2/3 years PQE later than corporate. Arbitration papers over the cracks; but broadly speaking litigation is a loss leader in law.

So I remain a barrister. Not because I give two hoots either way. But because the maths works.

Not Very Amused

There you have it. God has spoken.

LJ Crookshanks

Amen.

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