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Five things we wish we’d known before pupillage

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By Michael Levenstein and Cameron Stocks on

Words of wisdom from two Hardwicke pupil barristers ahead of application deadline day


There is no shortage of advice to prospective pupils about how best to answer pupillage applications, approach interview season and sell yourself to chambers. This article aims to cover the things we weren’t told before pupillage which we believe are just as important as the obvious ones like impressive academic credentials and relevant work experience such as mini-pupillages and mooting. We consider that each of these five points is as essential for the successful applicant.

1. Understanding what commercial awareness actually is

Everybody seems to be talking about it, but how many students can actually express it without slipping into clichés or impenetrable jargon? In our view, commercial awareness is ultimately about assessing your client’s priorities. Just as you are concerned about the legal outcome, they might be about the time, effort, stress and/or cost of litigation.

Clients come to you not to be impressed by clever legal argument but to find out their realistic prospects of success (and at the lowest possible cost) and whether there are practical alternatives to litigation. If you can deliver this advice in a practical and accessible way, you’re likely to gain repeat instructions in the future. For further information, take a look at two of Hardwicke’s members discussing this topic here and here.

2. Personalise your application

In addition to trying to make chambers interested in you, make sure you show why you’re interested in them. And we don’t mean by saying that you’ve wanted to practise offshore trusts law since the age of six.

Whenever possible, humanise your relationship to chambers. Expand upon any time spent on a mini-pupillage there beyond a nondescript line on your CV under ‘work experience’. Try to recall members of chambers who you shadowed and what it was about your time with them which makes you now want to spend your professional life there. If you happened to meet a member at one of the many events held throughout the year then make sure to note this in your application.

We’re not saying to grovel, but simply show those reading your application not simply why you should stand out to them, but why they stand out to you. Do this and you’re more likely to be remembered amidst the mountain of competition.

3. Never, ever lie!

Or even slightly exaggerate your credentials. Ever. Not only are you asking for trouble when you’re inevitably found out, but it’s just ethically wrong. Unfortunately it happens a lot more than it should and those doing it rarely get away with it.

The bar is a profession which prides itself on integrity and you’re not going to persuade an interview panel that you’re a worthy candidate if you exaggerate your application. If there happens to be a blip in your academic credentials, such as poor A-level results, be honest and provide explanations where possible. Start as you mean to go on and therefore present your achievements to interview panels with candour and without embellishment.

4. Keep an open mind

Pupillage is meant to be a learning experience and that means trying new things. Although it’s sensible to narrow your applications to perhaps one or two practice areas, just remember that everything you encounter will be brand new (you’re never taught how to draft an order at law school!).

Don’t shy away from non-specialist sets if you are less than sure about where your professional interest lies. Similarly, don’t pre-judge a chambers as a place you may not ‘fit in’ simply based on their online profile or hearsay. Assume that so long as you maintain an interest in its practice areas, it’s worth an application. And of course, once a pupil, follow the golden rule: say yes to everything on offer!

5. Reality-check

This job is hard, there’s no escaping it. As exciting as it appears when Martha Costello delivers a devastating cross-examination in the Old Bailey, such moments are few and far between for aspiring civil practitioners. Get used to long journeys out to far-flung county courts, especially when on your feet during second six and in early years of practice. And paperwork. Lots of paperwork.

Yet for all the hard work, this is quite simply one of the greatest careers available. Little compares to the thrill of standing up in court for the first time, conferencing with a grateful client after a successful hearing or finally managing to untangle a complicated advice. So far as we’re concerned, if you’re drawn to the cut-and-thrust of advocacy, the analysis of complex issues with often dramatic real-world consequences and the prospect of always learning something new then remember that the long road to the bar doesn’t last forever.

For further hints and tips, consult our online Q&A session here.

Applications for pupillage at Hardwicke close on Wednesday 4 May.

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