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
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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