‘Each application is a piece of written advocacy’, says Devereux Chambers barrister Charlie Hill, who shares his top tips as the portal reopens today
Applying for pupillage is tough at the best of times, but navigating the usual challenges in the midst of a global pandemic is not something many of us have had to contend with before.
The bar is by no means immune from the impact of COVID-19, and many sets may be reducing the number of pupillages available accordingly.
COVID-19 has also affected the day-to-day life of barristers and pupils, in ways previously not anticipated. I certainly did not expect to spend half of my pupillage at home, on Zoom, with a toddler running around my “office” (the bedroom) in the background! No doubt you will be facing similar difficulties in managing your university studies, work, or family commitments.
It is therefore more important than ever to take enough time to plan and prepare for your choice of chambers, written applications and interviews.
Where do I apply?
Choosing where to apply to can seem daunting, particularly where you may have had limited, if any, experience within that chambers. Before applying to Devereux Chambers I had never set foot in the door, let alone done a mini-pupillage there. In the COVID-19 era, many of the usual opportunities have likely been restricted. So do not despair if you haven’t got hundreds of mini-pupillages.
Be practical in your approach; draw up a long list and use all available resources to narrow that list down further. Begin by focusing on what area of law you hope to pursue. I had a previous career in medicine, and was looking to use that experience in the fields of personal injury and clinical negligence. But I also wanted a broader exposure, and the opportunity to practise in a variety of areas.
Use the Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners rankings to find out which sets practise in which areas. Beware of chambers websites, which can often include very wide areas of expertise. Where possible, speak to barristers at that set about their core work. The pupillage seats are usually a good indicator of what those core areas may be.
Think about location; do you have family commitments or economic restrictions that mean pupillage in London would be difficult? I had a baby on the way, and knew we would need to be close to family for that extra support. Second six and early tenancy may involve a lot of travel, with early starts and late returns. If you want to be back for bath time, you need to plan accordingly!
Where possible, make every effort to try and speak to barristers at each set. Whilst the physical building and facilities may seem enticing, each chambers is, at its core, the people who work there. Attend every virtual pupillage fair or remote open day you can, and ask about life in chambers. The barristers and staff you speak to will hopefully be your future colleagues, so make sure it feels like the sort of environment you want to be a part of. I remember speaking to a barrister at Devereux at an open evening event, who was so kind, enthusiastic and welcoming that it completely solidified my decision to apply. She ended up being my supervisor a couple of years later.
Think about the structure of pupillage. Each chambers should set out on its website and/or in the pupillage advert a detailed structure of the year; which seats you may be taking and how you will be assessed. A more heavily assessed pupillage may seem intimidating, but is likely to be more objective when it comes to a tenancy decision. I certainly had a much better idea of how I was progressing with assessments through the year, and was able to use the regular feedback to my advantage and develop my skills to ensure I remained on track.
Finally, be realistic in your ultimate choices. Think honestly about your qualifications and experiences. If you do not think you are the next Lady Hale, or you think you could possibly be with another year of experience and preparation, it might be sensible to avoid applying to the top ranked sets this year.
Each application is a piece of written advocacy; you need to persuade the reader to invite you to interview.
Use all the available resources to ensure each application is hitting the right points. Scour the chambers websites for pupillage criteria and blogs with advice from previous pupils. Focus each application on the qualities and experiences they are expressly looking for. Briefly address those criteria, and support them with evidence.
Proof read your application, and read it again. Then give it to someone else to read. I cannot tell you how many times I found mistakes in mine. Don’t give anyone an excuse to cast your application aside.
Whilst you may have spent hours honing your answers, the reader will often have only a few minutes before moving on to the next application in the pile. Answers that are clear, concise, and supported by evidence will give you the best chance of landing in the right pile.
All experience is useful experience. If you have a previous career, showcase it, warts and all. Tell them about why it will help make you an excellent advocate. Be honest about why you are changing career, and prepare to be asked why this new career choice is likely to be any better than your last.
If you are lucky enough to get an interview, take heart in that achievement in and of itself. Someone thinks you might have what it takes and that is something to take forward to future applications, even if you do not succeed at interview this year. That comes from someone who was offered pupillage by the same chambers second time around, a year after failing at the interview stage.
Interviews are a mix of terrifying and exciting, and usually the former. Preparing as best as you can will help settle your nerves on the day. Think about the questions you are likely to be asked, and use your experiences to mould concise and memorable answers.
Think about the potential problems with virtual interviews. Remote advocacy is generally new to everyone, so practise at home with Zoom calls to your friends. Work out where the webcam is, and make sure you are looking at it when you speak. There is nothing more disconcerting than a conversation with someone who appears to be looking over your shoulder. Be prepared for an all-out technical malfunction. Take those posters down from your wall, and tidy the room in the background. It can, from experience, be very revealing when the virtual background fails!
Critically, think long and hard about the reality of life at the bar. Be honest about what challenges you are likely to face, and the nature of self-employment, particularly in this COVID-19 era. Bar school is generally poor preparation for the practicalities of pupillage and early tenancy. You will usually have to rely on your common sense, initiative and resilience to get you through, rather than your academic prowess. Those qualities are best found outside of the classroom, and certainly won’t be gained on mini-pupillage or marshalling. Make sure you use your extra-curricular experiences to demonstrate those qualities.
Finally, remember to be human. Be honest if you don’t know the answers, and set out how you might approach the problem. Be realistic about your weaknesses. You are applying to work both for and with the barristers who will be interviewing you. If you are self-aware, kind and engaging, that will go a long way.
Dealing with rejection
I don’t know anyone who has not faced rejection at both the application and interview stage. It is part of the process, so try not to let it get you down. You have had enough to cope with this year! Embrace it, learn from it, and keep plugging away. I was only successful as a result of the experiences and rejections I went through in earlier years’ applications.
Best of luck to you all.
Charlie joined Devereux Chambers as a tenant in 2020 following the successful completion of his pupillage. Charlie graduated from the University of Oxford in medicine in 2012. He practised for six years as a doctor in the NHS prior to retraining as a barrister.
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