Applying the ‘so what?’ test

Aaron Mayers

Pupillage applications are fundamentally about demonstrating that you have: (i) the skills, qualities and the potential to succeed at your chosen chambers; and (ii) a good understanding of chambers’ business model and how to make your practice a success.

It is therefore imperative to bear these two objectives in mind when answering competency-based questions about your skills and qualities. Looking back at the drafts of my pupillage applications, there is an evident distinction between my earlier attempts, and the later applications which secured numerous interviews. In my latter applications, every answer passed the ‘so what’ test.

Name-dropping and merely listing examples of various accomplishments is not enough. Every example of a skill or quality that you provide should be explicitly tethered to one of chambers’ mark scheme competencies. You can also go one step further and state how you envisage the said skill or quality will assist you at the Bar on a day-to-day basis.

It is helpful to put yourself in the position of the application marker. They know nothing about you. Avoid leaving it to them to read in between the lines and interpret the implied relevance of your anecdotes. Instead, ask yourself whether the answer you have provided passes the ‘so what’ test.

  • You’ve completed an internship at a prestigious firm where you read through contracts and attended client meetings – so what?
  • You’ve won a mooting competition and you were ranked as the highest scoring individual mooter – so what?

The pupillage application form is not an opportunity to copy and paste your CV. Take full advantage of the opportunity to fulfil both of the objectives at i) and ii) above and extract the full value from your accomplishments and experiences by articulating precisely how they increase your value as a prospective pupil. 

From paper sift to interview

Joel Semakula

Start early. Pupillage applications often take longer than expected. Leave time for research, the processing of comments from reviewers and redrafting.

Tailor your application. There are a number of ways to get specific information: mini pupillages, open days, chambers’ websites, twitter, and free publications such as the Chambers & Partners Student Guide. Be precise, concise and make sure the practice areas in which you express such passion truly reflect that set’s key areas of focus.

Quality over quantity. There is no magic number of applications. Each one should be the best it can be. Submit enough to ensure you are giving yourself a real chance at success in the process.

Non-legal experience is just as important as your legal experience. It is often a differentiating factor. Do not just list experience. Articulate the skills gained that will make you a more effective barrister.

Brevity. Use simple sentences, clear language and even bullet points, where appropriate. Busy barristers read these applications taking time out of their paid practice. Make it easy for them to get the information they need, score you highly and invite you back.

From interview to offer

Inner Temple produces a helpful list of potential questions for a pupillage interview (see: Work your way through it – you will inevitably be asked one or more of these questions.

Pick three things that you want to make sure the panel know about you by end of the interview. Have these on your mind as you walk into the room and work them into the interview (naturally), where possible. One of my things was my experience doing live comedy.

Problem/debate questions. These are often a real opportunity to shine. As part of my preparation, I created structured plans that would help me tackle any problem question in my key practice areas. Once in the room, I focused on structure as well as content – structure is where most candidates fall down.

Ask clarifying questions. The panel wants you to succeed, which you will not if you do not understand the question. So just ask if you need to.

Keep a note. As somebody who went through this process more than once, I found it helpful to write down the questions I was asked immediately after the interview. It helped me reflect on how I would answer the same question if asked again and aided my preparation the following year. 

Good luck! 

Your first piece of written advocacy

Holly Challenger

Be yourself in your application forms and let some of your personality come through. Don’t just write answers that you think chambers want to hear. It may get you an interview, but it will be obvious at interview if your answers were not genuine.

Panels are very likely to ask you questions about your application form at some point during the interview, so make sure that you can expand on what you’ve written.

The person reading your application will have many others to read, so make it easy for them and write clearly. A good piece of advice I received was that your written application is the first piece of ‘written advocacy’ that chambers will see from you. Consider the format of your application and be concise where you can. For some questions, bullet points or numbering your points might be more appropriate than writing in long paragraphs.

When preparing for interviews, make sure that you can answer questions such as ‘why this area of law’ and ‘why have you applied to this chambers’. But as well as those predictable questions, you are likely to be asked questions for which you have not prepared. How you respond to those questions is important. If you need a minute to think about it, ask for one. The panel will want to see how you cope under pressure as that is part of the job of a barrister.

Knowledge of your chosen area of law is also essential as you are likely to encounter a legal problem question at some point. Keep up to date on recent developments and have an opinion that you can justify. The panel might not agree with you, but they will be interested in your reasons. 

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Leah Redden

My interview with Browne Jacobson LLP was my first pupillage interview, and with that came a lot of nerves so I knew that I needed to prepare as much as possible. That is why my key tip is preparation.

I was asked to prepare an application to strike out proceedings, which was provided to me seven days before my interview. Having been given this in advance, I knew this was an opportunity for me to demonstrate my preparation and organisational skills to the panel. Although I had some experience in civil applications, having worked as a county court advocate, I had not actually completed an application to strike out.

I felt the best approach for the legal scenario was to ensure I understood all of the surrounding law before approaching the hard facts. This safeguarded against any unexpected issues or questions that could crop up during the exercise and meant that when I was asked a question surrounding the law in the interview I was able to answer with confidence and demonstrate my advocacy skills and ability to ‘think on my feet’.

We then moved to the ‘interview’ section where the panel had the opportunity to get to know me. Again, I had prepared for the questions I thought might be asked, but also held in my mind that I may be asked questions I had not prepared for – which I was. Prior to the interview I gave myself a small pep talk and I told myself, whatever you do, remain calm and be yourself. I think this is very important as this allows you to display your confidence but also give the panel an idea of who they will be working alongside as this will be of great importance.