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Six ways to maximise your chances of landing a pupillage

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By The Careers Team on

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Legal Cheek Careers headed down to The City Law School Gray’s Inn campus last week to enjoy a pupillage breakfast with barristers from leading civil and commercial chambers 2 Temple Gardens.

Put on by Clare Brown — who combines part-time lecturing on City’s Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) with her human rights practice at 2TG — the session provided students not only with cappuccinos and pain au chocolats, but also a host of insider tips on navigating the notoriously tough pupillage application process.

Brown was joined by 2TG pupillage committee chief Paul Downes QC, and barristers Luka Krsljanin, Helen Ball and Bruce Gardiner. Here are the highlights of what they had to say.

1. Oxbridge bias is exaggerated

The bar’s famous penchant for the Oxbridge-educated — which is backed up by stats showing 79% of rookie barristers at top sets to have studied at either Oxford or Cambridge — is undisputed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a bias in favour of this famous pair of institutions. Rather, many argue that the bar is biased in favour of academic top performers, a disproportionate number of whom end up at Oxbridge. told the students:

We don’t give any credit for what university applicants attend. But we do give credit to what result they attained and what A-Levels they have. That five year record of what they have achieved academically is very important to us.

Downes’ colleagues added that recent recruits to chambers had attended Warwick, Nottingham and UCL.

2. Application forms can be a numbers game

There were differing views from the barristers on the panel on the importance of the infamous ‘Why do you want to be a barrister?’ question that features on most application forms. Bruce Gardiner told the audience that memorable responses featuring interesting personal stories had the capacity to sway him and other decision makers. But Downes — who oversees the wider process and doesn’t review each form — questioned how much of an impact students could realistically have in answering this question.

Beyond the safe areas of expressing enthusiasm for the self-employed nature of the job and the opportunity to be a full-time advocate, it can be a tricky question to articulate a response to, it was suggested. Downes revealed that he had been attracted to the bar in part by reading the Rumpole books, and admitted being unsure if today this would be a worthwhile piece of information to include on a form or not.

3. It’s OK to explain academic shortcomings

In the super high-achieving top end of the bar, any overall university result below a first is seen as slightly disappointing. How to handle the delicate issue of that strong 2:1 you achieved from a leading university?

“It doesn’t do any harm to justify any slight academic shortcomings,” the panel agreed, adding that they had recently recruited some excellent pupils with lowly 2:1s.

4. All bets are off at interview stage

Some people have “stellar academics which are off the Richter Scale” yet “are just OK at interview”, reported the barristers. Others are in the solid if unspectacular category on paper and perhaps only narrowly make the cut — before wowing at interview with their combination of charm and ability to practically apply their intelligence.

Explained Downes:

By the time you reach interview CVs are much less important. All bets are off. How you perform during the assessment makes all the difference.

5. Have a ‘can do’ attitude to problem questions

It was interesting to see the younger barristers on the panel — who between them possess a glittering array of academic prizes on their sparkling online CVs — still shudder at the mention of pupillage interview problem questions.

It’s easy to panic,” confided Helen Ball, “and just spend a lot of time thinking ‘Oh my God!’ when you read the question. So somehow you need to find a way not to panic.

Luka Krsljanin agreed, telling hopefuls to fight the urge to begin working on your answer without reading the question in full. He continued:

Read it and re-read it. Only then, when you fully understand it, should you start. At the same time, be careful to manage your time well.

Meanwhile, Downes impressed the importance of adopting a ‘can do’ attitude in such moments of pressure:

This is the problem, you’ve got to solve it. If it’s complicated, draw diagrams to help you get your head round it. That’s what you’ve got to do. Find a way to solve it.

6. Speak to practising barristers before you do an interview

As the pupillage breakfast illustrated, there are major ties between academic institutions and the bar, with Clare Brown using her dual role at 2TG and City to put the session on. Brown does one-to-one advice sessions with students throughout the year to help them at the application and interview stage. She explained:

It’s important to bridge the gap between the bar course and chambers, and the students who take advantage of this resource place themselves in a stronger position to secure pupillage.


We are at the City Law School pupillage breakfast with 2 Temple Gardens in London this morning

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