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Top tips on how to secure pupillage courtesy of a pupil supervisor

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By Rhys Duncan on

‘It’s a marathon not a sprint’, says Gatehouse Chambers barrister Phillip Patterson

After a busy morning of preparing for an upcoming hearing, Phillip Patterson, who practices predominantly in the commercial and insolvency fields, begins our interview by recounting his reasons for joining the bar 15 years ago.

“People ask me this all the time, but I genuinely don’t know the answer! When I was at the end of my second year at university, it was natural that those of us studying law either chose to pursue the bar or go down the solicitor route. So, I did a vacation scheme and a few mini-pupillages and off the back of that I made the decision to go for the bar. It really wasn’t something that I spent a great amount of time deliberating over before I reached that point in my studies,” he recounts.

Reflecting on this, he continues: “Ultimately, the work I saw on those minis looked a lot more like what I wanted to spend the next 40 years doing, and that really made the decision for me.” Unlike those who are set on the bar from an early age, Phillip found that his journey and decision-making were far more incremental, and based upon developing experience, rather than any elaborate long-term plan.

“As for why I went into the commercial and insolvency field,” he continues, “I found at university that I was far stronger in the law of obligation topics such as contract, tort and trusts rather than, for example, crime. Again, when I did minis, I found it easier to engage with and appreciate the work of the commercial practitioners that I was shadowing, compared to barristers in other practices.”

The insolvency sphere, now a significant portion of Phillip’s practice, was a far more coincidental happening. “At the time I did pupillage, it was right after the financial crash, and so commercial chancery work, which that chambers specialised in, was very, very heavily overlayed by insolvency and civil fraud issues that tend to arise when the economy is receding.”

After four years spent on the Al-Sweady Public Inquiry, and another few years at a mixed commercial and public law set, Phillip moved across to Gatehouse Chambers. “At the time I moved, my old chambers was placing less of an emphasis on the commercial and insolvency work that I wanted to do, whereas this was an area that Gatehouse was rapidly developing and expanding into. For me, this was a great opportunity to market the work that I was really wanting to do, and receive as much backing from chambers as possible. That is, of course, all within a great culture and environment.”

This final remark on culture segues into Phillip’s first tip for pupillage applications, coming before even writing a word or filling in a single form – chambers selection. “Every chambers is quite different, particularly in terms of culture. As it happens, I’ve enjoyed every chambers I’ve been at, but for most people, there are certain environments they work best in and look for.”

The application deadline for pupillage at Gatehouse Chambers is 7 February 2024

“The culture of a set is something you can learn through mini-pupillages and speaking to people and networking. Generally, people are very honest and open about what their chambers is like if you ask them. I would also say that mini-pupillages tend to show you the highlights of the job and chambers always try to show their best side to mini-pupils – keeping that in mind, it’s really worth asking searching questions about issues which matter to you rather than taking what you see at face value.”

“It’s also about being understanding your own personality and thinking about what would suit you best. Whatever the practice areas are that you’re interested in, you can probably find a chambers that reflects the culture and style of the working environment you want. From my experience, it’s certainly not the case anymore that all sets in a given field have the same practice style and culture as perhaps they did historically.”

After candidates have drawn up a shortlist of attractive options, Phillip, who has acted as a pupil supervisor, has some advice on making those initial paper applications.

“It’s a bit like cooking a complex recipe, leave yourself plenty of time! Approach each application with enough time to do it justice from scratch because each chambers is looking for something slightly different. The questions are designed to discover generic applications, which will, evidently, make candidates much less successful.”

It’s safe to say, copy and pasting is certainly off the cards.

As for what to write, there are no gimmicks or magic silver bullets to secure an interview spot. “It’s not so much a case of standing out, but being strong across the board in all the areas that chambers are looking for. The key is to tick as many of the boxes as you can through experience, academics, and voluntary work, as the application process has a broad range of criteria, so, even if you have something truly exceptional, the most it would do is give you an excellent score on one category,” he points out.

This requirement of excellence across the board, combined with the high calibre of applications, does mean that applying when your application is not ready will “inevitably” mean you’re unsuccessful with a lot of the applications. It may be the case, the commercial barrister continues, that some applicants will need longer to prepare and build up the necessary skills and experience than others.

For those fortunate enough to secure an interview spot, Phillip has some helpful points to note. “The best thing you can do to prepare for the interview (other than know what’s in your application!), is to relax. When you’re relaxed, you’re comfortable and can give the best account of yourself to the interviewers.” Having sat on both sides of the interviewing panel, Phillip says the process is looking to allow candidates to be honest and perform at their best. “There are no tricks and nobody is trying to ruin your day!” he (reassuringly) clarifies.

That said, it’s best to do at least a little reading and research before stepping into chambers. “Know what is in the news, that’s a really key thing for interview preparation”, is another piece of advice from Phillip — he notes how questions on current affairs are a staple in many first-round interviews. What’s also important is that candidates are prepared to answer sensibly why they want to go to a chambers or particular practice area.

Beyond that, “listen carefully to what you’re asked. Each chambers will give a lot of thought to the questions they’re asking and the detail of those questions, so it’s imperative that you listen carefully and answer the specific question. Different chambers”, he continues, “may ask similar questions but with a different emphasis, and you need to address the individual focus of the question you’re being asked,” Phillip explains.

He also emphasises that throughout this whole process, budding barristers need to be prepared to weather a few disappointments. Those who apply for pupillage “come from an incredibly competitive group, and I’m always astonished by the strength and depth of all of the applications that come in. You have to accept that you’re in an incredibly competitive field throughout the process.” The journey to qualification is a marathon not a sprint, and it may take longer for some to build up the experience and merit points that sets are looking for in the applications, he points out.

Offering some light at the end of the tunnel, however, Phillip ends our conversation with a welcome reminder that, in the end, it will all be worth it. “We understand how difficult the application process is for all candidates, but it is worth it! It’s worth all of the effort and the stress and I would never put anyone off doing it”, he reassures.

Join us on the afternoon of Wednesday 24 January for a virtual pupillage application masterclass in partnership with The University of Law, and featuring barristers from from leading sets Gatehouse, Henderson, Landmark and Radcliffe Chambers. Apply now.

The application deadline for pupillage at Gatehouse Chambers is 7 February 2024

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