Chambers are businesses and need to ensure they, rather than their competitors, have the cream of the pupillage crop. While the City law firms regularly attend universities and spend hours selling their firms to students over a glass (or three) of champagne, the only time a potential pupil gets to see the difference between sets is at interview. The formal atmosphere can make it extremely difficult for candidates to know whether they are making the right decision.
Which sets to apply to?
Perhaps I should start at the beginning … which sets to apply to in the first place. I applied under the OLPAS system. 12 spaces on the application form may sound like a large number, but I looked in Legal 500 and saw that, in my particular area of law, 25 were recommended. Consulting their websites, while interesting, did not seem to offer much distinction between the top sets—all of whom listed a dazzling array of areas that I, as a pupil, would not be seeing much of. Most websites had a special section for prospective pupils, which was helpful in answering practical questions such as where pupils get sent in their second six, and whether travel expenses are covered. These sections usually included statistics on how many pupils had been taken on as tenants in the last few years—although I wasn’t sure whether to take a large number as a good omen or less work for newcomers. All listed their pupillage awards, which at the time I took to be an indication of the quality of work they gave their pupils, but now realise this is certainly not the case. Having done a couple of mini-pupillages and visiting the annual pupillage fair I knew some sets I definitely wanted to apply to, but ultimately choosing the rest was a bit of guesswork.
When completing my OLPAS form I found it very difficult to make sure my application ticked all the right boxes (academic record/mooting ability/pro-bono work—the list seems endless) whilst also trying to stand out from the crowd of people who would inevitably have exactly the same kind of experience as me. Trying to sound original is very difficult when faced with the question “why do you want to become a barrister?” – surely the vast majority of applicants are applying to their niche area of law for precisely the same reasons.
Within a few days of submitting the OLPAS form, I was invited for a first round interview. The timescale for being invited to interview varied greatly, though: I had completed a second round interview at one set by the time I was invited for a first round interview at another.
Facing the interviewing panel
I found it astonishing how varied the approach was between chambers – all presumably looking for similar attributes. Interview styles between chambers were very different – for example, some seemed to constantly interrupt me, while others left long silences after my answer, as though I was supposed to say more.
I really warmed to one set in particular because of the laid back approach that came across in the first interview – after a friendly chat (everything from my university life to Liverpool FC) I was waiting to knuckle down to the nitty gritty of the interview – but that was it. I think this was a tactical decision – I was more forthcoming with my answers, let my guard down a bit and the interviewers were given a more realistic impression of what I was like and whether I would fit into the ethos of the set. At the opposite end of the scale were the chambers with a fierce panel of eight barristers to grill the candidate. Questions were fired at the same time from different members of the panel. A question about changing the law regarding rape provoked strong disagreement and discussion even amongst the panel themselves.
It soon became apparent that there was no set way to prepare for the interviews: no two were the same. Before I went to the interviews I tried to anticipate questions they might ask. I re-read my OLPAS form so I had a ready supply of answers to general questions such as “why this area of law”. While I tried running through a “mock interview” with my flatmate this was certainly not anything akin to the tirade of questions I received in the many interviews comprising a panel of six or seven barristers. Obviously being clued up on current affairs and recent legal developments was a must as all chambers had at least one interview with a debate on a topic of recent interest. This seemed fair enough – I was quite glad that for the most part I didn’t have to engage in an in depth discussion on black letter law – which, although in the minority, some sets did require. At university I had a general interest in politics, if just in the way many students often put the world to rights during a late night conversation – and this level of knowledge seemed to suffice. It was a chance for the panel to see if I had the ability to talk round a subject and argue a point, whilst sticking to my guns, rather than testing how detailed my working knowledge of foreign policy was.
Questions such as “do non-custodial penalties work?” and “should lawyers be allowed to sit on juries?” meant having just finished finals and not having done the BVC, I didn’t feel at a disadvantage – as I did when I was asked to do a plea in mitigation or a bail application. I had never heard the words “plea in mitigation” before I was invited, over the phone, to a second interview and told this is what I would be doing.
Finding no help in text books, I turned to Google. The interview that sticks most in my memory was when I arrived one Saturday morning and was asked to present a business idea in the style of the BBC’s “Dragon’s Den” – certainly not what I was expecting. In three interviews I was asked what my favourite film was (Moulin Rouge, which raised an eyebrow or two), who would I most like to be stuck in a lift with (my best friend: went down like a lead balloon), and if I could pass one law what would it be (replace mandatory life sentences for murder with discretionary ones – not too controversial).
How chambers came across
When attending interviews, my primary concern was with how I was coming across to the chambers, not how they came across to me. However some sets certainly made an impact as the atmosphere in the waiting room was notably inviting as I could picture myself being one of the many people buzzing through reception catching up with each other after their day in court. Looking back, this may just have been the difference in the time of day I had interviews, but I certainly had the impression that those couple of sets were significantly more friendly than the others.
As the interviews went on I started to wonder whether maybe chambers are looking for something that cannot be articulated as a formal criterion on the application form – a certain “je ne sais quoi” as it were. For the fortunate few with more than one offer, choosing which to accept will be one of the most important decisions of a lifetime, a decision frequently based on little information, and the impression created at interview may therefore be the decisive factor. Chambers should recognise that while a combative interview style may be an effective way of distinguishing applicants – it is not just the interviewee who needs to put their best foot forward.