On the first day of Bar school, during our welcome talk, the head of the course stood in front of the fresh-faced cohort and said: ‘The vast majority of you will never be practising barristers in this jurisdiction.’ Make what you will about the timing of the statement, but it proved to be true and, if you assembled everyone starting the Bar course now into one virtual room and made the statement, it would be no less accurate. Anybody embarking on the quest for a pupillage should be aware of the statistics and the inherent difficulties. There is a much wider question about the system and whether or how it might be changed. That is not the focus of this article.

As a pupil supervisor who has trained two pupils in the last few years, as somebody who has participated in multiple pupillage selection processes, and who works with students in this space a lot, the focus of this article is on the things which I think might help you. As with almost any advice, there will be some barristers who disagree. This isn’t the holy grail or even a road map. It is an anecdotal account of the type of things which I have found make a difference.

The written application – do’s and don’ts

Your written application is your skeleton argument. It is what the ‘judge’ will see before the hearing, before, in this analogy, deciding whether your case merits an oral hearing. That means it needs to be: clear, compelling and concise. Below are five tips which I believe are useful.

#1: Answer the question

Applicants frequently forget to answer the question, choosing instead to answer their own question(s) or rambling through some vaguely related themes. Read the question and understand what they are actually asking you. What is it getting at? It sounds so simple but it really makes a difference when people do it.

#2: Use bullet points

Imagine you are marking 150 forms. Each time you click one open, you are confronted with blocks of text, all answering the same questions. Psychologically, if you see at least one or two of those answers break up the blocks by using bullet points, you are going to appreciate it. I’m not saying don’t use prose at all, because you need to demonstrate you can write well. Instead, I advocate a blend of prose and bullet points. In the illustration below, I’ve tried to demonstrate why certain answers don’t require prose, or excessive elaboration. For instance, I know what ‘intellectual challenge’ means, you don’t need to explain it. Put another way, 200 words is a maximum, not a target.

Q: Why do you want to be an Astronaut? (200 words)

A career as an astronaut appeals to me because I believe it will offer:

  • Daily physical and mental challenge;
  • An outlet for my scientific background;
  • The pursuit of both individual and team goals; and
  • The opportunity to travel to space.
#3: Speeling and grammers?

The job you are seeking will almost certainly require you to draft legal pleadings and advice for clients. To do that effectively, you need to be able to write well. That does not mean you need to use big words or sound clever. At its core it means that what you write should make sense and be presentable as a piece of written English. There is no real excuse in that sort of environment for poor spelling or grammar. If your application is littered with those sort of errors, it tells me, given that what I am reading is supposed to reflect your considered effort, that you either aren’t good enough or you don’t care enough. I can promise you other applicants will communicate their candidacy without those errors. That isn’t impressive, it is simply what is expected. So I would suggest you write it all out. Read it. Put it away for a day or two then re-read it. After that, ask somebody else to read it. Finally, before you submit it… check it again.

#4: Avoid clichés

Starry-eyed sentiments about the Bar being a way of life and your strong belief in ‘justice’ do not land, in my view (and on the whole), very well. What is impressive about a candidate’s application is that they have committed a decent amount of time to understanding the job they are applying for.

Work experience (including virtual) in chambers and law firms, pro-bono work, mooting and debating will provide a grounding and give you some insight into the type of work involved. Being a barrister is not as simple as putting on some quirky dress and going to ‘stand up’ for the little guy in court. Recently, when sitting as part of a panel for Bar course scholarships with Gray’s Inn, I saw my fellow panellists respond to that sort of answer with questions around the cab rank rule and ‘let’s imagine you had to act for the other side in that situation’. Use your experience and insight to inform your answers, not espouse simple notions which, although inspiring, are a little grandiose – certainly at entry level.

#5 Do your research

There is so much information available online; please use it. Firstly, my view is that you should be looking at the most junior tenants in chambers, say the last five or six joiners. Are their profiles, in terms of academic and extracurricular attainment, broadly similar. If so, that will generally be an indication of the type of background they take on for tenancy. Now, are those profiles comparable to yours? That, for me, is a solid way to begin approaching whether or not to apply there. Second, look closely at the type of work chambers does and, finally, their recent/ significant cases. Do these correspond with the work you want to do, with the experience you have and the direction you want your career to go in? If so, make that known on the application with specific examples from what you have read.

The interviews – do’s and don’ts

The first thing it is important to remember, on being invited for interview, is that you are there on merit. At least one person, probably more, has read your application and seen enough, on paper, to satisfy themselves that you have the credentials to be a pupil barrister. Internalise that reality and use it to feed the confidence you need to project when actually sitting through the interview. Here are some of my top tips for interview:

#1 Do not try to sound like a barrister

Almost everybody has a formal or court voice; that makes sense, but some applicants feel the need to use odd phraseology which they think sounds ‘barristerial’ or ‘clever’. Most of the time it just sounds odd. Answer every question posed clearly, using normal language. I was always told to imagine I was speaking to a slightly hard of hearing war veteran at a garden party; respectful and clear.

#2 This is your interview

You have the opportunity to control how this goes. As the only person in the room with answers, you can control the tempo and even guide where the next questions go, based on how you answer. So if you are asked a question which you would like a moment to reflect on, say ‘could I just have a moment to consider that, please?’ Thirty seconds will feel like an eternity but it will give you time to collect your thoughts, and convey that you are not inclined to knee-jerk answers or to panic. Similarly, saying you ‘don’t know’ is also a legitimate answer, rather than needlessly waffling through and stabbing in the dark. Any barrister who does that (and there have been many over the years) will soon decide against it. If faced with a competency question you don’t know the answer to, perhaps try something like ‘I’m not clear on what the exact answer would be, however, thinking it through, I would suggest…’

#3 Know your application

You simply have to. Inside out and back to front. Anything in there – be it a grade, a subject, an achievement, a musical instrument, a language, some work experience, a mentor you’ve mentioned – it is all fair game for questions. You cannot be surprised if somebody on a panel says, ‘tell me about why you spent time in a commercial law firm but are applying for a family pupillage’ or ‘oh, you spent time with Jane Bloggs, she is an old friend – what is the difference between her practice and what we do here?’ Answers to questions like this must come easily and should be delivered with confidence.

#4 Understand the advocacy exercise

Most advocacy exercises are designed to test how your prioritise your arguments, how you deliver them and, possibly, how you withstand interjections. Whether it is pre-prepared or given to you 15 minutes before hand, try to understand the key aspects of the facts before you. Work out what your best arguments are and lead with those. Have the confidence not to make points which are weak, simply because they can be made. When questioned, answer the points raised immediately. Do not defer them or ignore them, judges don’t appreciate that and neither will a panel. Stand your ground but do not be dogmatic. If there are sensible and appropriate concessions to be made, demonstrate that you are pragmatic enough as an advocate to recognise that by making them.

#5 Try to demonstrate who you are

Most pupillages are offered with a view to tenancy. That means that, if successful, you could be working around these people for many years to come. When it gets to the business end of the selection process, panels are often deciding between candidates who can all do the job. Cultural fit and alignment can sometimes tip the balance. Humour is a delicate thing in interview but personality should be less so. These are human beings and it helps if they like you, or see you as likeable. ‘Clients will like her’ or ‘juries will respond to him’ are comments I’ve heard over the years. Talking in an effusive and engaging manner throughout will allow those parts of your personality to shine through.

Finally, let me say this: the attainment of pupillage is not a sprint (for most). It is a marathon. You are very likely to fail multiple times and there is no shame in that, provided you are learning each time. Chambers don’t always give feedback, so it is on you, through introspection, like a barrister on their own at court, to work out what is going wrong and improve. The Inns of Court have fantastic education departments and should be your first port of call for additional help.

Good luck! 

With over 39,000 followers on LinkedIn, as well as having created the platform’s dedicated pupillage page where he has consolidated resources for applicants, Sahar has collaborated with a cross section of barristers, including leading counsel, to produce several insightful YouTube video series covering a variety of tips for the process. The Fake Street Chambers series, in particular, is unique in allowing viewers to watch a mock pupillage interview and actually hear the panel’s deliberations afterwards. He is currently working with a range of other barristers and future pupils on a new video series that will specifically look at what separated successful candidates from those who didn’t receive offers in the 2021 pupillage window.