Time for change

Peter Smith reports on the challenges and opportunities of life after pupillage.

After the expense and effort of the academic and practical legal education, and with your heart set on a life of advocacy and self-employment, being rejected from chambers can be an incredibly disheartening experience.


To some extent barristers are already inured to rejection after multiple applications and interviews to win a pupillage. Thus the first thing to remember is that you have already done better, in statistical terms, than the vast majority. You have a world-class legal qualification and an education and skills that are transferable to any number of industries. So take a deep breath and investigate your options systematically. What follows is a checklist I and others found useful in thinking through and tackling unemployment.

Networking matters

Start with  your supervisors, clerks and members of your “old” chambers. Supervisors are usually most willing to call up friends in other chambers to ask if vacancies exist. This can translate  into calls to other sets and friendly solicitors. Clerks are perhaps the best connected, effectively acting as recruitment agents minus the fee. They can speak to other clerks, chambers’ managers and law firms and, if you ask nicely, will do so.

Think tactically when asking for feedback and references

In an era of feedback, find out why you were not taken on. Was it you, or the market? It is not your fault if chambers, particularly those doing publicly funded work, are reluctant to  share a decreasing pot even further.

Address the issue of references. What about the Silk for whom  you produced a good piece of work, and who consequently wrote a glowing report on your legal research and analysis skills?  Be selective and tactful. In every reference there is a balance to be struck between a good review of your competencies and an acknowledgement that you were ultimately not taken on. If you are going to apply for law firms you will need to demonstrate competencies such as your capacity to work as part of a team, not easily demonstrated as a pupil.

Try, try, try again

Apply for a third six pupillage. At the Civil Bar, consider applying for third sixes before a tenancy decision is made. As with lateral moves by tenants, the ‘new’ set should keep your application confidential. If your tenancy decision is late on in the year, consider asking for it to be moved forwards. The only information you need from your old set is a reference, and a request for that is often a sign of an impending offer.  Third sixes can be ludicrously competitive. You’ll meet the same faces at several different interviews, and it can be galling to think that you’re up against competition from other very good sets, as well as friends doing pupillage at the same time as you.

To get a third six, you will need a CV and covering letter. This must include information on the work you carried out in pupillage: who was it for, and what was it about? Mention different areas of law. The best covering letters read like skeleton arguments, with concise reasons as to why a space should be offered. At the same time, identify your weaknesses. I did no advocacy in my second six. To gain advocacy experience, I have been doing FRU cases, but if your pupillage has no advocacy in second six, see if you can do just one case a month. Alternatively, have a look at firms doing low-grade, high-volume advocacy.

Transferable skills

If  you trained in a niche area of work, you may want (or have) to move to another area of the law. For example, some personal injury sets offer fixed-term tenancies that attracts criminal and civil barristers alike, and commercial pupils often end up doing common law work. Doing a specialist pupillage can be turned to your advantage: it means you are adept at turning your hand to new areas of law, and can do so again.

Third six seasons normally run from June until November for the civil Bar; criminal third sixes are advertised all year round. If nothing comes up, your next best bet is with a law firm. Even criminal pupils can move into a corporate entity: look for regulatory work and white-collar crime. Never, ever be put off by the number of years of post-qualification experience (PQE) that a vacancy purports to seek. I reached third-round interviews at several law firms asking for 4+ years’ PQE. US firms will simply view you  as a lawyer (and a very good lawyer at that). They also pay well. I advise looking for general litigation roles, as they suit a pupil’s skills the best.

Third party agents

It may be best to apply to firms via either contacts or recruitment agents. Unlike chambers, CVs submitted online often end up with no or late responses. The brave might consider emailing partners directly, but I preferred the access afforded to agents, who have a relationship of trust with law firms.

Agents vary in quality. Some are former solicitors and even ex-barristers, who can point you in the right direction. You can find law recruiters easily on the internet, and there are lists at www.rollonfriday.com too. They want you to succeed (as they get a fee equivalent to a large slice of your first year salary). Recruiters are not good at accepting CVs through their own websites, so follow up with telephone calls until the relevant agent  has it. Agents will pass your CV on to other desks within their firm if necessary. Try to meet your agents face-to-face. If they know you will keep contacting them, they will keep pushing on your behalf. Always keep a track of which firms your CV is sent to.

Agents will set up interviews, normally with partners and HR managers. Expect two or three rounds with the first more informal. Even though some interviews may only be fishing expeditions by curious partners, never turn an interview or job opening down, and keep pestering HR, partners and recruitment agents in order to keep up the momentum. Be prepared to answer questions such as why you want to become a solicitor and why you chose the Bar in the first place. An interest in business may have developed over the course of pupillage, or perhaps you enjoy collaborative effort and an intimate client-facing relationship. Offer to do the Qualifying Lawyer Transfer Test as well.

Opportunity knocks

There are opportunities elsewhere. Unfortunately barristers unemployed today are particularly unlucky as there is a wide freeze on government lawyer recruitment and the supposed upturn in litigation has yet to stimulate a growth in chambers or litigation teams, especially at the newly-qualified level. Take a deep breath and have another go. Coping with protracted periods of unemployment is unpleasant, but perhaps pupillage is a better vaccination to this than other professions, due to the “feast or famine” nature of the work.

Peter Smith was recently a commercial pupil in London

Where can I find out about third sixes?

  • Bar Council website
  • Counsel magazine
  • Inn notice boards.
  • Chambers’ websites.
  • Ask friendly pupils, barristers and clerks.

What else could I do after pupillage?

  • Government Legal Service (nb current recruitment freeze).
  • FCO legal advisor.
  • Legal branches of the Armed Forces.
  • Judicial Assistant at Supreme Court or Court of Appeal (be wary of deadlines).
  • Legal teaching, research or further study.
  • Civil Service fast-track (n.b. yearly competition).
Category: 
Tags: