So how do you actually get a pupillage?
Many websites exist that provide information about chambers or the Bar in general but there is little information out there on how you get to be one of the lucky few who actually gets to do the job.
The aim of this section therefore, is to collect together advice from individuals with first hand experience of what it takes to make a successful application for pupillage, having either sat on pupillage committees or having secured pupillage within the past 5 years.
Lack of open access to reliable information and advice disadvantages the less well-connected applicant the most. We hope that in providing a store of practical application advice available to all we will help ensure that the Bar remains a career accessible to anyone with the requisite talent and motivation.
Again, it is important to note that statements of advice and viewpoints expressed on this site are those of the authors alone and are not endorsed by any chambers or institution associated with the Bar. The site is intended merely to assist pupillage applicants and the authors take no responsibility for the consequences of following any advice given.
The Application Process
Just over half of chambers use OLPAS (the Online Pupillage Application System), which is a standardised online application form similar to the UCAS forms used for university applications. Each applicant is allowed to apply to a maximum of 12 chambers each year through the system.
There is no limit to the number of ‘Non-OLPAS’ chambers that can be applied for. These chambers tend to provide their own application form through their websites. Less commonly a chambers will simply require a CV and cover letter.
When to apply
Most chambers recruit for pupillage a year in advance, meaning that if you apply in April 2011, you will begin your pupillage in September 2012.
This means that most applicants will first apply to chambers in the year in which they begin the BPTC (i.e. during the final year of a law degree or GDL). Unsuccessful applicants are able to reapply each year for as long as their BPTC qualification remains valid. If a pupillage is secured after finishing the BPTC, however, there will be a ‘gap year’ to fill between getting the pupillage and actually starting.
The OLPAS application form normally opens at the end of March and closes at the end of April while non-OLPAS chambers hold their application processes throughout the year.
Choosing a Practice Area
Choosing your area of practice is not only about deciding what kind of work you would like to do during your career. The area you choose will also have a bearing of your chance of getting a pupillage.
What suits you?
The activities of a barrister vary wildly depending on the type of law he or she practices. The amount of advocacy, opinion writing, client contact and work with senior barristers you do will all vary with practice area, as will the type of clients you will work with and the amount of money you will earn. Are you dead set on lots of advocacy or are you happier preparing written submissions and opinions in chambers? Are you happier working with hardened criminals or hedge fund managers? How important is money to you? These are all questions you should consider when choosing your practice area.
Which area will give you the best shot at pupillage?
You may have had a particular idea of what type of law you wanted to practice from the start. If this is the case, it is worth at least considering whether this area of law will give you the best chance of securing a pupillage.
Say you believe your primary interest to be human rights law. The best way to find out if you are in fact dead set on this area is to ask yourself a question: would you rather end up as a personal injury barrister or a solicitor working solely on human rights cases? If it’s the latter then you have already chosen your area. If it’s the former then your interest in being a barrister outweighs your interest in the area and as such you should at least consider which area is most likely to get you pupillage.
Why is that? Well firstly the obvious: without pupillage you won’t be a barrister at all. Secondly, few barristers will end up doing exactly what they intended to do when they applied for pupillage. The job or the market will push you in its own way and either you will end up branching into other areas of law covered by chambers or, over time, you can build your own practice as you wish even switching between chambers as appropriate.
This is in no way to suggest that you should profess an interest in an area of law for which you have no interest at all, simply that if you are flexible in your legal interests it is worth being aware that your chances of securing pupillage may be higher if you pursue one interest rather than another.
- Start from what you have: When developing your CV for pupillage applications you will be looking to collect evidence of your skills and your interests (See Developing your CV). Thus when choosing your area of law, it is worth starting by looking at the evidence you have already accrued through your education and work experience. Does it naturally point to a particular area of law? If you worked in journalism then you experiences may be particularly attractive to a media law set. Previous work in government would be particularly valued by a public law set. If you have a science background, then IP or construction might be good. As much as possible you want your past experience and career choices to be working for you rather than against you. Further, you want to avoid the situation where you are having to repeatedly explain why you are not pursuing an area of law that seems most suited to your background.
- Factor in your academic background: consider your academic credentials and consider where you fit in on the scale of academic requirements. Chancery and commercial chambers will generally look for the highest academic standards while family and crime may be less concerned with academics than others. (For more on academics see Choosing a Chambers).
- Consider where your other strengths lie: Different practice areas place varying levels of importance on the key skills of a barrister (see Developing your CV). If you feel you are a real ‘people person’, then you might be likely to impress chambers where there is a lot of contact with a wide-range of lay clients (such as employment, criminal or family chambers). If your written advocacy is your trump card, then commercial, chancery work might suit.
To further assist in your choice, we have put together a collection of very brief overviews of some of the different practice areas at the Bar:
Choosing a Chambers
Much of our aim in creating an easily searchable Pupillage Directory is to help candidates choose a chambers which suits them. Although you can apply to as many non-OLPAS chambers as you wish, you are only able to apply to 12 OLPAS chambers per year.
Making a good choice about where to apply means considering both where you would be most happy and where your chances of getting pupillage are the highest.
Mini-pupillages are an essential element of your application form. They demonstrate your commitment to the Bar and to your chosen area of law while also providing you with the rich understanding of practice necessary to perform well at interview.
Beyond this, they are a unique chance to show a chambers what you can do. Perform well on a mini and your chances of pupillage go up considerably, if for no other reason than it is less of a risk for chambers to take on someone they have seen perform well than to take a chance on someone they first hear of when their pupillage application comes in.
How many minis?
The only absolute rule is that you MUST do at least one or two. Minis are widely available and if you have not done any at all a pupillage or scholarship committee will likely bin your application.
Beyond that, opinions vary as to how many minis are necessary. Ideally you should aim to do two or three minis in your chosen field. If you started out doing two minis at criminal sets then later decided to turn to commercial law, do not include your crime minis on your form. Chambers will want to see commitment to their area of law.
Remember that you don’t necessarily have to do a full week mini. If you have a lot of time pressure, Chambers will invariably allow you to come in for just a day or two.
When to do them?
If you are doing multiple minis, schedule your top choice chambers last, as you will be able to use your experience of the others to perform at your best when it matters most to you.
If a target chambers have a rolling recruitment policy, get your application in early in the academic year, around September or October, to ensure that your form doesn’t get buried in the rush. This will also allow you greater choice of dates for you mini-pupillage. Those weeks that fall during academic vacations are always over-subscribed and, particularly if you are on the BPTC, you will not be allowed to miss many classes in order to complete minis during term time.
How to perform well
Don’t be afraid to stand out, to express opinions and to ask questions. The only way your mini-pupil supervisor will be able to assess your potential as a barrister is if they hear you discussing the law with them, so don’t be tempted to speak only when spoken to. If you have a difficult legal issue in a FRU case you are working on or if you have read a recent judgment that you found interesting and is related to your mini-pupillage supervisors area of work then don’t be afraid to bring it up. Lunch breaks are often a good time for this kind of thing.
Equally important, however, is knowing when to keep quiet. You should never speak up in front of a client for example. If you have a point to make about something that is going on in court or at a conference, wait until you and your barrister are alone to raise it.
One of your main jobs during a mini-pupillage is to show that you are someone that chambers would enjoy working with. You cannot underestimate the importance of this factor. Very often there will be a number of candidates that have the requisite quality of application but it will be the person that is the most agreeable to have around that will get in. There is a functional reason for this of course – namely that charming, friendly, charismatic, interesting and interested people will go down well with clients – but beyond that, chambers simply want to recruit people who will be great to have as colleagues. The security of tenure at the Bar is greater than most other professions and it is not uncommon for a barrister to stay with the same chambers from pupillage to retirement. As such, chambers will be keen to recruit pupils that can rub along well with the other members and hopefully form lasting friendships.
The most important piece of work you will ever do…
If you are given any work to do – either as part of a formal assessment or just informally by a member of chambers – understand that this is your chance to shine. You need to work on it as if it is an exam for pupillage. They won’t be expecting your work to be legally flawless or perfectly drafted. Above all they will be looking for your ideas – can you get to the root of the problem and come up with some reasoned answers. Intellectual spark is far more important at this stage than any legal niceties. Having said that, if you are handing anything in, check and double-check for spelling mistakes.
Even if your mini isn’t formally assessed, ask your barrister to look over some papers and treat that as your own mini assessment. Read the papers carefully and come back to him or her with some views on the case or at least some insightful questions
Your application form - be it the OLPAS form or a chambers-specific form - is extremely important. On the basis of the forms alone, anywhere from 60-90% of applicants will be rejected. If you are one of the lucky ones to get through, the form will also constitute the raw material upon which much of your interview will be based.
CV and Cover Letters
Much of the advice about completing Application Forms is relevant to completing a pupillage CV so start there. There is also a plethora of general career resources on how to write and format CVs available on the web or through careers advisors Here we just focus on a few points relevant to pupillage CVs in particular.
What to include:
- The sections you will need are: contact details, education, legal work experience, non-legal work experience and referees. You can also add a brief interests or skills section if you have space.
- Under education you will need to include your grades for, GCSE or equivalent (not the subjects), A levels or equivalent (with subjects) and Undergraduate degree (subject and class). As long as you clearly state your final degree classification, it is perfectly acceptable to highlight particular papers where you did well without having to list all of them. If a chambers specifically asks for a full breakdown, however you MUST give it to them.
- GDL and BPTC (final results). As to specific papers, the same principles apply here as to the undergraduate degree.
- Don’t try to skip over poor grades by not including them or giving them less prominence. This will just look like you are trying to get one over on the reader and will not be appreciated. If you feel you need to explain any particularly poor grades you can do so in your cover letter but don’t be tempted just to downplay them.
- Keep the CV to a maximum of two pages of A4.
Like your CV, your cover letter should be concise: certainly no more than a page and preferably no more than two thirds of a page.
What your letter must do is explain why you are applying to that chambers. This requires that you a) show an understanding of the work that chambers does and b) draw on direct evidence from your CV to demonstrate that you have an interest in and aptitude for, that area of work.
Beyond that, you should try to draw the reader’s attention to a couple of points on your CV that you believe are particularly important or impressive.
Having a healthy, mutually supportive relationship with a select few friends who are also going through the OLPAS process is a vital component of keeping mind and soul together. A ‘select few’ is important because - particularly if you are applying whilst at Bar school - it is very easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others, resenting them for their successes or you being resented for yours.
Talk to people who know
Another truism of the OLPAS season is that it is unbelievably absorbing. When such absorption befalls a group of people that, by the nature of the profession they are attempting to enter, are often over-keen on the sound of their own voice the result can be a cacophony of opinion and speculation that can become overwhelming. The problem for the applicant, therefore, is who to listen to.
The best advice is, firstly, to listen to those who you can trust to have a useful insight into how to succeed in the process. In short, the following:
- Barristers on pupillage committees are probably most useful; followed by
- Barristers, particularly junior barristers who have been through the system relatively recently; and finally
- Current pupils and students with pupillage.
This is the approach we have taken in the advice pages of TPP and it is what we recommend you do in your everyday interactions.
Secondly it is important to bear in mind that different people will have very different experiences - based on their area of expertise, circuit, experience of their chambers and of others – and it is therefore important to situate their advice in the context of their particular experience.
Careers advisors, for example, may be able to offer relatively generic advice about writing a good CV and cover letter but are likely to be of minimal use when it comes to advising on tactics for applications or on what barristers are looking for, primarily because they have most often never been barristers, nor have they ever been through OLPAS.
Once you have found good people to talk to, make sure they give you brutally honest advice. Ask them to identify the weaknesses in your application as well as any aspects of your demeanour that may detract from your impact at interview. Understand that most people (even barristers) will be predisposed to saying things that make you happy. Positive feedback may be good for the ego but doesn’t help you improve your application so encourage your advisors to be critical, and then use this feedback to refine your approach.
Recognise the qualities of successful candidates
Successful candidates tend to:
- Be very dedicated and hard-working;
- Have their eyes open to the scale of the challenge;
- Be humble and fully cognisant of the weaknesses in their application;
- Be willing to challenge themselves to improve on the areas in which they perceive themselves to be weakest.
Try your best not to dwell on failures
This will be extremely difficult to do. It is human nature to replay in your head that stupid answer you gave to an interview question or that time you completely froze up on a mini. Equally, it is impossible not to be hurt by rejection letters. As much as you possibly can, however, you must learn to keep positive and focused on the next challenge. Absolutely everyone gets rejected for pupillages and mini-pupillages at some stage and almost every successful candidate would be able to tell you about a stupid thing they wish they hadn't said or done during the application process.
In this section we ask some current and future pupils to give their views on how to approach pupillage applications and how to survive the process. We will be adding more profiles as time goes on so please check back regularly for updates.
Already have pupillage? We’d love to pass on your experiences of the process.
If you would be happy to complete a pupil profile for the benefit of future applicants, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are particularly keen to hear from those that have secured pupillage in sets outside of London or in an area of law we haven’t already covered.