It’s that time again

It is that time again, just before the new year, when the Pupillage Gateway overflows with pupillage openings. At times like this many an old and new face are preparing their applications hoping to succeed in this round. For those with such fine aspirations this article will be useful, and for those still considering it this may prove to be a good glimpse at what to expect.

To that affect, this article will cover the top 7 tips to get through the paper sift and improve your chances of getting into the golden interview pile. If you know it is certain you will get to interview, then you might want to read about how to nail any legal interview. This article by the way is in reverse order.

7.  Do know yourself

Before embarking upon any type of career it is important to know yourself. So if you kept a journal or diary this might help, otherwise take a look in the mirror or ask close friends about your interests, and how they see you. Then look at your profile and actions from a distance to try and form an idea of the person you are.

You need to have this third person perspective in order to understand how the prospective employer, in this case chambers or in house legal departments will view you. It might also help you to learn where you wish to specialise, as whilst most people claim ‘they can do anything’ or ‘will do anything’ that has never been the case and if most people are average, then you are more than likely the same.

The reality is that how you have lived your life and your own interests will be able to inform you to some extent on the areas you wish to specialise in, and this in turn will help you when it comes to tailoring yourself to the prospective employer. Remember, a barrister to be successful needs to know how to tailor to their audience – you are not expected to lie to yourself or others, but that does not mean you should do yourself a disservice.

By way of an example:

Lets say Adam Smith (famous economist) wanted to be a barrister, lets say he was applying to One Essex (a big commercial chambers). If he said in his application:

“I am a writer, have also worked in industry and really want to be a criminal barrister at OEC because I have always had a strong sense of justice and ever since I was a child I thought for the rights of others. That is why I want to be a criminal barrister.”

Now, anyone with a little knowledge of Smiths works will know he is regarded as the father of modern economics and of capitalism. It is likely right he would be applying to One Essex Chambers if his intention was to practice commercial law. However, OEC is not well known for its criminal work, and if it has a name for it, it is overshadowed by more criminal pure sets. Suffice to say, whilst Adam might have gotten through the check of one of his fans, anyone who does not know his works would say ‘Adam is applying to the wrong set’ or ‘did not do his research’ and his application would be in the bin.

Had Adam wrote:

“I wish to become a commercial barrister at OEC because I have done a number of minipupillages at commercial sets including OEC, Essex Chambers and Blackstones. During these experiences I got a glimpse of what life is like for the commercial barrister, and I feel it is for me. In particular, I found that my experiences at OEC resonated with me, as the focus was more on international law then Essex Chambers or Blackstone Chambers, I know this to also be the case in reality when comparing the chambers rankings on legal 500 for international work and the number of prominent cases they have participated in this year compared to their peers. I also found the culture at OEC to match quite well with my own. That being a well known author of books on international capitalism such as the ‘wealth of nations’ and OEC having a number of prominent writer in the field of international commercial law, often times our topics crossover and this has enabled me to have good insight into OECs work.

Now, I would say the above is still not the most persuasive paragraph for pupillage, but I would say it is more persuasive then the first example. The reason for that is it gives a reason for having an interest in OECs work, it acknowledges comparison to its rivals demonstrating some research was done, it provides for experiences although they were not elaborated on and it explains some of the authors unique selling points. It also makes plain he wishes to be a commercial barrister which is much closer to the specialism of chambers. Now, the application could have been improved in a number of ways, which all boil down to a greater tailoring to the audience.

6. Do the preparation

The pupillage gateway makes applications available to apply to in January, however, in early December chambers are able to advertise themselves on the portal alongside their ‘unique’ questions. I say ‘unique’ in air quotes as often times there will be three generic questions dressed up as something else, those are: ‘why this career’, ‘why us’, ‘why you’. All three questions will need a tailored response to the set.

Now, these questions, like the sets industry, rarely change year to year, so for the applicant they could well have been working on an answer to these questions for the entire year or more. What do I mean by preparing for it years in advance? Well, lets say you knew roughly what they were looking for, or understood the industry well enough to know, then in theory you could have been doing certain things over the years to ensure you would have the experiences in place to make the best answers. This kind of preparing is different to the kind often advocated by pupillage application advisors, indeed for them preparation is as simple as starting on the application long before it is due, and as soon as it is available.

I agree with that simple logic, as the best work is that not done under pressure. If you are able to continually refine the application, then use as much time as you are able. Some see it as sacrificing a Christmas or part of the summer to do it, but in reality, most people have the time to do preparation and much like the idea of compound development, a little everyday can go a long way.  By working on your application in time it will become drastically improved. My earlier point is to look into the company to find out where your skills might be lacking and to discover ways to make improvements to ensure you have the best answers on paper.

5. Do your research

Now you know that the best application is one which is tailored to the audience, and you have ensured you have the time and experience to make it a good application; the next step is to find the right audience. Think of this like a musician, if a classical music composer were to try and sell his concert tickets to heavy metal rock fans, he might struggle, but in front of an audience of classical music fans he would be much more successful. The same is true of your own application, in deciding who you will apply for, you want to pick chambers where your experiences will be worth something to them. The more you have in common, the better your application should be in their eyes.

Once you have done the research to find broadly those chambers were your skills are relevant, the next stage is to narrow down the pool to those which you have experience in their niches, as this will be important to selling your USP to them. From there, it depends on the individual as to how in depth they wish to go for the chambers. I find it is more effective to research what a chamber does and to align your talents and culture to that and only give express mention of reading it in interviews, as opposed to in the application.

What I do is rank order the chambers by relevance to my own experiences. These can be as ‘Venn Diagram’ or just a simple list of groupings. What might also be as important as recognising what you have in common with the set, is recognising what you do not have in common. As the reader might be considering whether the person fits fully in with the culture.

As an example, let’s say the applicant wants to go into family law, they might have a lot in common with 5 practising chambers. Which would normally mean those 5 are grouped together, but you might then check and find 2 of them are pure family and 3 of them have a mixture of family, regulation and crime. Family might even be their secondary work. In those situations, you will need to tailor your application effectively for each and you might chose to spend more time on the pure family sets as that is more what you are into. Yet, without doing the research you would not know that, nor what they are seeking in a pupil.

4. Do get professional advice

I would assume by this point you have prepared an application, or at least done the research to know who you want to apply for. At this point, a little bit of extra guidance will go a long way in helping to tailor the application. The best advisors will be those in the know about the industry or the recruitment process at the specific chambers, unfortunately in having multiple barristers carry out the paper sift this means even with chambers giving guidance it can fall by the way side of individual barristers opinions. In addition, what is said publicly, is not always the reality underneath. By speaking to different chambers you will learn which say what they mean, and which behind closed doors, practice something else entirely.

The best approach might well be to just get on with it, and discreetly raise the issue with the right authorities. It will also help to take on board whatever feedback is given, in terms of making a better tailored application. The professional advice I often get is in terms of practice areas, what they think of extra circulars and how education/practical experience is considered.

Another option is to pay for someone to draft your CV and cover letter for you. Personally, I take the view this is an option available to those who can afford it and the variance in quality means it might not always be worth it. Yet, if you can find the right person for the job, it might well be a good idea to have them prepare the application. As it saves you time that could be better spent elsewhere, some chambers might be upset by such a statement as they view the application as a form of ‘test’ in persuasive writing. Yet, ultimately you are trying to get to the interview, it is not unlawful to hire professionals and they are not lying about your skills, just assisting you in putting yourself in the best light.

3. Do enhance yourself realistically

Something to consider when it comes to preparing the application is whether you are giving yourself enough credit or too much credit. What I often find is that there is a balance, and it is not a fine one, but more a moving post from employer to employer. When setting out your skills you want to avoid lying about your current abilities, and if you must lie then ensure they are a reality before the interview as most people will be tested on the more outlandish statements.

It is quite common, especially within modern society to adopt one of two states, either a modest to a fault stance wherein a person is practically pessimistic in their talents or ‘overly confident’, better known as fake. A pessimist, unless truly impressive to the extent a reader might give them a shot, will 9/10 times, have their application tossed. A fake by comparison has far greater chances of beating the paper sift. Why do I say a fake has far greater odds? Put simply, every chambers seems to have an overwhelming number of stories of ‘fakes’ that made it through, but no pessimistic tales.

What makes someone a fake? Put simply they tout lies as truths, the bigger the lie, the bigger the fake and more unrealistic they are. This is where the balance comes into play, as a truly exceptional candidate might also come across as a fake, especially if to the reader their excellence seems to lack correlation to their experiences.

For example, let’s say we have someone whose academic record is not the most stellar and they managed to get a minipupillage at a commercial set which lasted a month. Within that sentence we have a number of anomalies that the applicant themselves might not notice. Firstly, low academics but a place at a commercial chamber, on average most commercial sets require high academics so it would be doubted how the person got the place. Second, the time period, if a set is known for short minipupillages, then it does not make sense how they secured an unusually long one and it too would be doubted. As such, to address this the writer needs to provide an explanation.

This is a bit of a finesse point, but if you are an exception it will improve your application, but you need to be able to explain those exceptions in order for the readers disbelief to be addressed, otherwise you are weakening your application. Do not take the experiences out, as they are a USP, they just need better explanations in order to fit the narrative.

2. Do spelling, grammar and readability checks

Make sure your work is flawless, I know that in practice barristers make mistakes, but it could be argued that this is because they are under tight schedules to perform preluding checking time. In comparison, you as the writer of the application have all the time in the world to get it right. The English language is the tool that you use to subdue the interviewer, so you need to ensure it is being used effectively.

I have heard countless tales of applications thrown for a single word or letter being out of place. Give yourself better odds then that. You can do one method which is to have professionals, colleagues and friends look over the application. Another option is to pay for a proofreader or editor which again carries an expense, but if you have the right people it might be worth the trouble.

1. Do build a Narrative

The last bit of guidance is the most important, to build a narrative towards you becoming a barrister. Building a narrative is important not just in the experiences you chose to undertake, or the academics you follow but also in how you come across. The reader is seeing you for the first time, to avail their concerns it is important that you hit the mark for them in every way which you can.

If you have all the experience for the role, then that should all be demonstrated even if you chose to list it in different ways. You might wish to rank order your experiences to explain why you have focused on some over others, but have them in the background, so that the reader knows you did progress from them. Understand that reputation is very important in building a narrative, so the names you mention may well hold more sway then you realise.

I had it explained to me once that you can have many useful experiences but if they are tailored to different points and miss the overarching theme. What you create from this chaos is an application that lacks focus. You want to be at all times focusing the reader towards a set narrative that will get you to the interview, and from there, the job.


To conclude, this article is some of my thoughts of the process from having undergone it, having been involved in recruitment and from canvassing opinions from a diverse range of employed and self employed AETOs. As you are at the end, you have an interest in the bar or see the transferable value of this article. As that is the case, I recommend you read some of the other articles on become a barrister or listen to our podcasts.

About the author

Cameron Haden is the director and owner of Aspiring Barristers Ltd, he was called to the Bar at Middle Temple in 2019, has worked for a number of multinational corporations, government bodies and academia. He is also the author of ‘investing in potential’, runs a mediation service and has experience working internationally in the Asian and European legal markets.