Any pupillage candidate worth their salt knows they are in for a rocky ride. It is an undeniable fact that there is a chronic problem around supply exceeding demand, aggravated post-pandemic, as a number of chambers postponed recruitment cycles 2020/21. More candidates than ever are experiencing increased pressure, given the five-year time frame in which to qualify and secure pupillage.

Add in the fact that chambers, unlike law firms, aren’t traditionally set up with slick human resources departments to manage the application process – but rather rely upon the goodwill of their members to volunteer for a place on the pupillage committee – and you have the perfect storm for potential lack of transparency and consistency.

Back in my day (the 1995/96 pupillage round) you’d apply with covering letter and CV to each and every chambers known to man, woman and child in the hope that you might hear back from a very small percentage. Securing that elusive interview, never mind a successful pupillage offer, could often feel like your life’s work.

Things continue to improve. Today’s Pupillage Gateway allows for a more accessible, above-board process. Certain chambers are going out of their way to create a fairer process. For example, individual barristers at Kings Chambers and 23 Essex Street have offered specific feedback to those unsuccessful. The process at Bank House has benefitted from a major overhaul and now provides a very structured process, an information sheet about what to expect, and transparency in how the second written round and interview is marked. Detailed written feedback is offered to all applicants as a matter of course, and verbally for all those reaching the second round. Individual candidates’ personal circumstances are also taken account of where necessary.

The process is not for the faint-hearted: be prepared elsewhere for the possibility of rejection by silence. You may not hear back from some chambers at all. Equally, don’t expect any feedback about either your paper application or performance at interview. There have even been the occasional horror stories, like the erroneous interview offer withdrawn at the 11th hour, the night before it was due to take place.

Dealing with the emotional fallout

The emotional fallout is real. The process has been described as relentless, brutal even, as candidates’ resilience is repeatedly tested. Having said that, some reassurance can be gleaned from this, knowing that you are not alone. Even now, 25 years on, I recoil as I recall (as if it was yesterday) one instance where my degree results were not only dissected but shredded by senior practitioners. My 21-year-old, fresh-faced self was left reeling from the derision of apparently having a ‘drinker’s degree’.

It is important not to fall into the trap of believing that your own sense of self/happiness rests entirely upon the outcome: never overlook the already brilliant skills you have that brought you to the point of application.

This isn’t the forum in which to discuss what systematic improvements could be made to the pupillage process. Instead, the focus here is on helping applicants to optimistically embrace the process by equipping themselves with strategies to best handle and succeed within it. My obvious starting point is to encourage students to enter the process with eyes wide open.

Increasing the odds: find a mentor

There’s lots of advice out there about ‘grafting until you are blue in the face’ to get to where you want to be. Of course, a life at the Bar takes lots of dedicated hard work but hand in hand with an imperfect system comes an element of good fortune. This is where the most tenacious and creative thinkers gain that all-important edge, by creating their own luck. Just as networking is important when finally at the Bar, in business and many other aspects of life, as a would-be pupil creating your own network, you can gain some useful insights to support success.

Consider aligning yourself with a good mentor to guide, encourage and reassure you. Ideally, this would be someone with recent experience or insight into the application process, who can give you feedback to tweak any future application form and assist you in your approach/performance in interview.

If you don’t have a mentor readily at hand, think about how you can get one: you may wish to start by following people on social media to get a true flavour of life at the Bar. Often free offers of assistance on the pupillage application process are made on Twitter and LinkedIn, for example, and these are opportunities not to be missed.

Equally, there are many specialist associations you can join as a barrister in training, to connect with a supportive bunch willing to share experiences about the process, warts and all. If, having been unsuccessful, you think the chambers may offer some form of feedback, don’t shy away from asking for it – it’s rare but, when given, can be hugely insightful and informative for future learning and growth.

Honing the requisite skills

Aside from an element of luck, what skills can you acquire or develop, then, to successfully navigate the process? Alongside tenacity, you will need to dig deep on your resilience reserves:

  • Think of the times that you have coped well under pressure before and draw on the skills and strengths you used successfully then.
  • Reframe your approach:
    • Just as you might seek out a mentor or confidence coach to achieve optimum, peak state for your performance in interview, equally, challenge your thinking about the interview: it is a two-way process, as much about you interviewing chambers, as it is about chambers interviewing you. Is this the kind of place you want to spend the next 30+ years of your working life?
    • Accept the process as a choice that you are prepared to undertake, as opposed to endure. This is a brilliant technique for keeping a sense of control and proportion.
  • Remind yourself that the application process will feel like nothing compared to appearing in front of the most irritable, cantankerous tribunal: all good practice for the ultimate, and inevitable, bad day in court.

Successfully navigating the process also takes work on your mindset:

  • For the occasions when you feel yourself disappearing down the rabbit-hole of self-doubt, stop. Call out your inner critic. Ask yourself, of the things you are telling yourself, is this fact or feeling? As a would-be lawyer, doubtless you will be more than happy to seek out the evidence of your skills and strengths rather than focusing on the lies you are telling yourself.
  • Use positive affirmations to strengthen your resolve and eradicate negative thoughts, or at least the tendency to dwell on them and allow them to spiral out of control. These are positive phrases, in present tense, said repeatedly to describe a desired state of being as if happening now. Have a go with this favourite of mine: ‘If it is to be, it is up to me.’
  • Perspective is a wonderful thing to manage mindset. Think about the life experiences of others, perhaps your would-be clients, to put into perspective your own experiences of disappointment/rejection through the process.

Strategies to handle rejection

  • Just as you can reframe your approach to the application process, so too you can reframe ‘rejection’: ‘there is no failure, only learning’.
  • Attaining pupillage does not define you. Allow yourself a pity party with finality: once you have processed the disappointment, be quick to get back up and back to what you enjoy and do best. Do this by focusing on, and celebrating, all of your brilliantly unique (and cross-transferrable) skills and using your positive affirmations again for motivation.
  • Be self-aware: You may not meet the requisite standard now, so think how you can plug the gaps by obtaining feedback for future improvement.
  • Think about life at the Bar, and what pupillage may have brought. Be specific: what would you have been doing? What would you have? How would that make you think, feel and behave? With what values and beliefs would it have allowed you to stay aligned? Then think about all the other routes to achieving those same goals, albeit under a different title/job description.
  • Be realistic: many don’t ‘succeed’. Have pupillage as a goal with a measurable end point. Accept the possibility of not coming to the Bar… yet

Finally, to that end, keep going. Keep going until such time as you decide you’ve achieved success. No one else. Success as defined by you.