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How to turn pupillage interview failure into success

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By James Welsh on

Daring to be honest can be a turning point


James Welsh, 9 Bedford Row barrister and director of BPP’s Bar Professional Training Course — whose London centre has the highest pupillage success rate in the country — recalls how he got a place in chambers.

In the 1990s, before the Pupillage Gateway application system was introduced, you could apply to as many chambers as you wanted. So I applied to a lot.

I had 30 unsuccessful interviews in a row. Then, in interview number 31, I decided to reveal my true motivation for wanting to come to the bar.

As an undergraduate politics student I had been to court as a defendant in a private prosecution for careless driving. It was brought by a man whose son had been tragically killed in a ‘hit and run’ accident. I learned at trial that he had reported a number of drivers on that road to the police.

The police had no interest in pursuing the matter, but criminal proceedings were brought by him against me privately. I had little option than to defend myself. Given the stigma attached to litigants-in-person, and the fact that I’d been accused of crime, I had assumed that this would be an awful thing to reveal to chambers.

But at the very least, the case set me apart. I had something different to say and a tangible experience to talk about. The moment that I still remember clearly is when the man prosecuting me said something in the witness box that I immediately knew I could show was demonstrably wrong. I did and I won. I learnt how winning feels.

Fortunately, someone urged me to tell this story in interview. People seemed to find it interesting. They joked with me. I got seven offers in a row.

Having that genuine taste of what is good about this job and why you want to do it — and then being able to express it — sets a candidate apart. Rather than speaking in bland clichés, one should try to re-live an insightful moment in an urgent and passionate way.

Some students gain such moments doing pro bono work. Others gain them vicariously through barristers when they are doing mini-pupillages. The hunt for a moment of interest which you can describe in a way that helps to define you is a critical quest for those hoping to impress.


1. Do mock interviews

As human beings, we process a lot on a sub-conscious level. Students may have very good and valid reasons for choosing a career at the bar. Likewise, they have cogent evidence of their aptitude. However, explaining these consciously and out loud is more of a challenge than people realise. Many have the key to their own success within them but don’t fully realise how to express what they need to in an attractive way.

If you do a mock interview with someone used to recruiting, you can gain advice as to where you score in terms of your ability to appear genuine, perceptive and credible; as opposed to naïve or clichéd. In addition to the barristers we have on the staff at BPP, we have a former senior clerk on our mock interview panel who is very astute in bringing real world wisdom to an application.

2. Demonstrate resilience as well as enthusiasm

A shortcoming that often comes up is resilience. If you are on the front line of litigation, the days when you win are very exciting. But it’s absolutely horrible when you lose. The students who are capable of conveying their passion for the job are often not good at demonstrating that they have the emotional and intellectual equipment to deal with disappointment. Chambers want people who can learn from their mistakes and don’t become disillusioned when times are difficult.

3. Commercial awareness is not just for solicitors

The other factor that can be overlooked among prospective barristers is commercial awareness, which is incorrectly often assumed to only be a desirable characteristic for solicitors. Barristers should not think of their world as a ‘bubble’ which clients enter. It can often look that way from the outside. Ideally, barristers provide a service akin to a consultancy. You join the client’s team — not the other way around. You need to understand your client’s business and fit into their world as seamlessly as you can.

4. Influence the interview with your application form responses

The description of mini-pupillages on application forms often goes no further than listing what activities have happened in the applicant’s presence. If you put a gold fish in a room, it would have observed the same things. What chambers want to know is how candidates respond to their experiences. That can be hard to express on paper succinctly. But some form of analysis as conveyed in lines like ‘A very revealing incident occurred that taught me…’ can help frame the questions that await you in interview.

5. Know chambers’ place in the market

Most chambers have a general idea of their own identity, knowing this, and being a ‘fit’ is important. But rarely do they look to recruit endless clones of themselves.

The elite commercial sets come closest to ‘cloning’, as they tend to engage in work where only one asset is really of benefit — brains. They tend to recruit early to identify the cleverest.

Much more often chambers actively want people who will bring different dimensions to them, so being different can help. Knowing that there is an oversupply of talent, they tend not to gamble on people who haven’t been trained. So they will assess students during or — most commonly — after the BPTC.

Each chambers makes various claims on its website about the work that they cover, and the strength of the teams in those areas. Some representations are more accurate than others. It helps to really understand the business direction of chambers, and the real inside track can be found among the network of clerks. It is worth cultivating contacts in the clerking world for this purpose.

James Welsh is a barrister at 9 Bedford Row and director of BPP’s Bar Professional Training Course.

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