I’ve not met anyone who found the pupillage application process easy. Even the most brilliant candidates agonise over their applications and worry about how best to prepare for that curveball interview question. So, how do you maximise the chances of success? Even before that, how do you pick the right area of law?
The good news is there are increasingly sources of information out there available to all, whether you come from a long line of legal minds or are the first in your family to even think about a career in law.
With social media allowing almost anyone direct access to politicians, celebrities and other influential people, you could always take a look at barristers who are active to get a sense of the work they do, especially during the tough pupillage period and the busy early years of practice.
The problem is, of the handful of people who do identify as pupils and junior tenants on Twitter in their own name, no one talks much about their day-to-day experience. Client confidentiality and worries about securing work in the future get in the way. Pupils I’ve spoken to, in particular, see their position as just too precarious to take the risk during the 12-month probation period.
Those who do talk openly about life at the Bar are anonymous and predominantly in criminal practice (see @CriminalPupil and @OOTPupils). They paint a stark picture of the early years at the Bar, regularly updating on their lack of sleep and intense workload. There is less advice on how to tackle the challenges faced and if you don’t want to work in crime, it is entertaining and occasionally horrifying, but not of much assistance.
Fortunately, this January saw the launch of two new, purpose-built tools for aspiring pupils: the website Pupillage and How to Get it and The Pupillage Podcast, funded by Middle Temple.
Pupillage and How to Get It takes its name from the blog started in the early Nineties by Simon Myerson QC of St Pauls Chambers when he was a junior tenant. ‘I was getting in the first few years of the website about 400 emails a year, so my guess is there was a huge appetite,’ Myerson tells me, adding ‘I don’t think there was anything else out there so people were desperate for information.’
The blog fell out of use when Myerson took silk in 2003 and stopped being involved in the pupillage process. Then Beheshteh Engineer got in touch in the summer of 2018, just before starting her own pupillage, with the idea for turning the blog into a fully-fledged guide on the application process. Over the course of just a few months the site was relaunched, with the help of a small army of barristers and law graduates writing and checking the more than 22,000 words of advice.
"Just before starting her own pupillage, Beheshteh Engineer got the idea for turning Simon Myerson QC’s blog into a fully-fledged guide... Over the course of just a few months Pupillage and How to Get It was relaunched, with the help of a small army of barristers and law graduates."
One of the most attractive things about the new incarnation is that it doesn’t sugar the pill. Right at the start it gets into the statistics: there are around 430 pupillage places and 3,500 applicants each year, according to the authors. That means approximately 1 in 8 applicants secure a pupillage each year. The message is: take it seriously and work hard. It’s exactly this kind of blunt realism that you don’t get from the BPTC providers or chambers’ websites, which tend to, understandably, focus on trying to persuade you to apply.
The site takes the application process all the way back to basics. Future barristers are encouraged to start thinking about building their CV early. ‘My journey to pupillage started the summer before GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law),’ says Engineer who, when we meet, is already part-way through the second six-months of her pupillage. ‘It was a three-or-four-year campaign in reality. Lots of candidates don’t realise they need to do that.’
‘There are plenty of outstanding candidates who could become brilliant barristers who simply haven’t been told what’s expected of them,’ she adds. ‘They can’t be expected to know this just by osmosis or sheer luck as to who helps them.’
This idea of opening up the Bar to those without the knowledge or connections that are traditionally associated with successful applicants is also at the heart of The Pupillage Podcast. Its hosts, Beatrice Collier and Georgina Wolfe, both tenants at 5 Essex Court and members of Middle Temple, have managed to get an amazingly diverse range of interviewees from judges and silks, to junior barristers fresh out of pupillage.
Collier says both she and Wolfe were big podcast fans themselves. ‘We felt that with podcasts you can just pop your headphones on and listen wherever you are, whatever you’re doing and that would improve access to people who otherwise it might be very difficult (for applicants) to speak to.’
Wolfe agrees that the medium is crucial to widening the appeal. ‘We hoped that the podcast would give listeners the sense that they were listening in to a conversation and that was a conversation they either felt part of or felt that they could be part of,’ she told me.
The relaxed format produces some real gems. My personal highlight is the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge in the episode about life ‘on circuit’ where he reveals his own struggle to secure tenancy. His advice if you want to be a barrister is to keep trying, even when you face setbacks because, ‘you have to be able to live with yourself,’ and know that you did everything you could to succeed.
"The Pupillage Podcast hosts, Middle Temple’s Beatrice Collier and Georgina Wolfe, have managed to get an amazingly diverse range of interviewees from judges and silks, to junior barristers fresh out of pupillage… The relaxed format produces some real gems."
Both hosts hope that they can find a way to reach people who worry a career at the Bar might not be for them. ‘I think it is absolutely fundamental that the Bar is comprised of people from all different walks of life, from all different corners of the country, from all different backgrounds and that we reflect the population that we serve,’ explains Wolfe.
There are episodes looking at the different areas of practice and the realities of life as a criminal, family or mixed civil practitioner. The diversity of life at the Bar really comes through. ‘Hearing other barristers talk about their lives and practices, I learnt a huge amount,’ says Collier, ‘and it did make me think that I ought to have known that when I started doing applications, rather than 15 years later.’ In the upcoming second series Collier and Wolfe plan to cover an even greater range.
It is certainly the most enjoyable pupillage research I have done. While the format doesn’t allow for the same detailed examples of how to answer application questions, the podcast does give you the opportunity to hear what the people reading your form really think. And you can benefit from hearing about the successes and failures of many generations at the Bar. It would take you months, if not years, of networking to get this same advice yourself.
Where does all this leave prospective applicants looking for the best advice on how to secure that elusive pupillage? What everyone seems to agree on is look to as many sources of information as possible. Talk to any barrister you can. And above all: it’s never too early to start working on that perfect application.
Adam Smith @adamtimsmith worked in journalism at the BBC and ITV News for eight years, focusing on Westminster politics, followed by a year at legal human rights charity Reprieve. He is now a pupil at a London chambers.