There are eight top 30 chambers’ pupillage application deadlines in the next month (which we’ve listed in full below) — Alex Aldridge speaks to City University lecturer and barrister Andrew Worthley about how to approach the dreaded forms
Alex Aldridge: How scattergun should you be?
Andrew Worthley: There is no limit to how many chambers you can apply to outside the Pupillage Gateway application system. So, unscathed ego aside, there is potentially nothing to lose in making masses of applications.
Having said that, there’s no point in wasting time. When selecting a chambers, be realistic and consider if you fit the profile of its barristers. I’d recommend having a look at the CVs of the five most recent tenants — almost all are available on their websites. Focus on class of degree rather than obsessing about Oxbridge.
Aldridge: Where do you start when trying to explain why you want to be a barrister?
Worthley: It’s useful to distinguish between trigger and motivation. While there’s nothing wrong with your interest in studying law being triggered by To Kill a Mockingird, it’s a personal and lightweight factor that is not really of interest to chambers. In contrast, they’re very keen to gauge and understand your deeper and sustainable motivation to become a lawyer.
To explain this you obviously need to understand it yourself. And good candidates have built up this understanding over a period of time, through mini-pupillages, mooting, pro bono work and of course studying law and thinking about it. Out of that should emerge something that is very grounded and shows a capacity to practise as a barrister and really stick at what can be an extremely challenging profession.
Aldridge: What’s the best strategy to employ when answering long answer questions?
Worthley: Few students secure an interview because of a spectacular response to one of the longer application form questions, but lots rule themselves out with answers that either try too hard or not at all.
The reality is that chambers largely shortlist on the basis of academic criteria, good experience and evidence of advocacy ability. So a solid but slightly uninspiring response to a long answer question is easily preferable to a misguided attempt to be zany and memorable. Of course, the best response — and these are rare — is a beautifully crafted answer that manages to highlight a candidate’s more unusual qualities while conveying a self-aware professionalism that is appropriate for the bar.
Aldridge: Should you try to be funny?
Worthley: If you’re a funny person, that natural humour will come through in your application form in a subtle way without you having to go out of your way to crack gags. If you’re very bright, that intelligence will show itself without the need for overly showy language. Rather than devoting your energies to creating a caricature of yourself, channel them towards the substance of your responses … and obsessive proof reading. And remember, don’t brag. “Show, don’t tell” is a useful mantra when it comes to displaying your best attributes.
Aldridge: What if you don’t have any prizes?
Worthley: Pupils at leading chambers usually have been awarded a number of scholarship, prizes and other awards. For a few these come very easily, but a fair number fight hard to seek them out. I had one former student who was incredibly pro-active in locating bursaries and other funding opportunities that were unique to her position. She really thought outside the box. Among all the local authorities, schools and other organisations — plus of course the Inns of Court — there are a surprising amount of prizes you can get your hands on if you devote a few days to research.
Sometimes the name of the award is more useful than the relatively meagre financial contribution attached to it. But the fact you’ve managed to secure it says something about you to a chambers.
Aldridge: How do you tailor your answer to a specific chambers or practice area?
Worthley: From my own experience as a student, I didn’t, on reflection, really have a clear idea about what area I wanted to work in. Common law sets understand that mindset. So try to be persuasive without feeling that you have to deliver a dynamite response. It can be hard, after all, to know what type of barrister you want to be before you have ever practised law. However, it’s slightly different for the top commercial and public law chambers. They’re looking for a certain type of individual who, often through brilliant academic performance, has identified that they have an exceptional aptitude for the law and wants to practise at the highest level.
Aldridge: Should you try to explain your one bad module result?
Worthley: One downside of having consistently top academic results is a lack of experience at dealing with bad grades. This may be what leads some very good candidates to use the “additional information” section to write explanations about a lower than usual module mark which they have disclosed elsewhere on the form. By all means offer explanations for genuine mitigating circumstances — such as bereavement or serious illness — but avoid finickity grade justifications. You’ll come across as defensive, apologetic and unable to see the bigger picture. You got a starred first, move on.
The non-Pupillage Gateway chambers application deadlines that are coming up:
15 January — Wilberforce Chambers
16 January — Maitland Chambers
16 January — 4 Pump Court
23 January — South Square
30 January — XXIV Old Buildings
31 January — 7 Bedford Row
2 February — Serle Court
6 February — Quadrant