Making the Cut

As the pupillage interviewing season commences, a leading criminal set describes how it runs the recruitment process

Like most chambers, our junior tenants are almost always recruited from our own pupils. Over the last 15 years, we have taken on one or more of our pupils each year. The importance to us of pupillage selection is obvious and the responsibility falls on our Pupillage Committee.


 
We use what is now the Pupillage Portal Scheme (visit www.pupillages.com for further information). Each stage of the process (see “The Pupillage Portal Timetable” opposite)—marking application forms, interviewing and selecting a final list for offers—involves skills we have had to acquire through “learning on the job”. Fortunately, there is some help on hand: City University’s “Equality and Diversity: Interviewing and Selecting Pupils” course highlights any flaws in the recruitment processes in place and provides guidance on best practice. However, we are conscious that we are “amateurs” in the recruitment business, doing the best we can, while at the same time juggling work, court appearances, family and other commitments.

Everyone at the Bar is aware just how difficult it is to obtain pupillage. In an ideal world, all those who pass what from September 2010 will be known as the Bar Professional Training Course (“BPTC”) should be able to complete their qualification for the Bar. Every year we have to turn down about 80 per cent of the candidates on the basis of written applications alone. Say we have 400 applicants, that is 320 who do not get to first base. Those we reject may have missed the cut by 0.25 of a mark – amongst these will be many who have very good academic qualifications and who have achieved at least a “very competent” on the BPTC. We are very conscious of the impact on them of our decisions. For many this will be the first time in their lives they have “failed” at anything. Some will get interviews elsewhere but the majority will have to consider whether to reapply the next year, or even the year after that.


Marking the forms 

Applications are each marked by two people and the marks added together. If there is a wide divergence, the marks are moderated by a third person. Thankfully the application form this year has been modified, removing many of the repetitive questions and reducing, by 100 words, the maximum word count for most answers. Even so, the forms take days to read, re-read, assess and mark. This is a part of the process that cannot be hurried.


Interviews

Many of those we short list for interview and ultimately for offer, will also have interviews and offers from other similar sets (if nothing else, this tends to suggest we are on the right track with our selection process). For these candidates, the interview process provides them with an opportunity to make a more informed decision as to which offer to accept. We are very conscious that we too are being “interviewed”. 


We have two rounds of interview.

Two panels of three interviewers conduct short first round interviews of the 80 (20 per cent) who get to this stage. The candidates are given a list of about four different current legal topical issues from which to select one to “debate”. As most candidates claim to have debated and/or mooted their way through school, university and the BPTC, we find this is a good test of whether they can communicate concisely, confidently and persuasively and set out arguments clearly, logically and attractively.

While we have no fixed percentage to go through to the second round, it is generally about 24 candidates (30 per cent). A panel of five interviews the second round candidates and the interviews generally last just under 30 minutes.

They start with an advocacy exercise, followed by an ethical reasoning question. In the advocacy exercise we are looking for confirmation of what we saw in the first round and in the ethical reasoning question we are looking for sound judgment, supported by reasoned arguments. We are aware some candidates will have completed the BPTC while others will not have started. Often, the advocacy of those who are fresh from university shows more potential than those who have done the BPTC where the formulaic “box-ticking” approach the candidates have to adopt to pass their exams, seems to inhibit their performance, making it more difficult to assess their true potential. Again, surprisingly, the BPTC students sometimes find the ethical reasoning questions more difficult. We are not necessarily looking for the “right” answer – there may not be one  –  but we are looking at the candidates’ assessment of the situation and their proposals for dealing with it. Finally, there will be some general questions arising out of the application form and an opportunity for the candidates to ask us questions. In past years, we have been told some BPTC providers advise students not to ask questions – on grounds that it will annoy the panel since most chambers’ websites are very informative. Our view is, if you have a question, ask it. This is your chance to find out as much as you can about us. After all, you may choose to be with us for the rest of your career at the Bar.


The first-round offers

The final selection is easy – the marking system will list the candidates in order. There are three categories: (i) the top four will receive offers, (ii) about eight reserves, and (iii) those who will not receive an offer in that year, even if it means a pupillage place remains unfilled.  We know how frustrating it is to be in the reserve category – having to wait on other people who are in the fortunate position of having more than one offer. It is frustrating for us too. It is now August and the process has been running since early May ... Did someone mention holidays?

 

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