Some Thoughts on Applying for Pupillage

Every year, barristers take to their blogs, social media, YouTube and even TikTok to share their advice on the do’s and don’ts of the pupillage application process. There will be contradictions within the plethora of posts but there are some common themes. In this article, Benjamin Knight shares his observations about pupillage applications from covering letters to interviews in the hope that the whole process can be made more effective for all. 

Benjamin Knight - Pupillage Guidance

As applicants for pupillage all over England and Wales await 10am on 5th May – the moment that chambers will be notifying successful and unsuccessful candidates – it seemed like a good idea to pass on some accumulated experience and wisdom from years of reviewing CVs, covering letters, and sitting on interview panels. I am doing this now because it will be a handy list of things to consider if you are not successful tomorrow morning. It may be that some of what follows is news to you. You may think that nobody would ever make the mistakes to which I refer. I can assure you that all of the things in this list are real-life scenarios. 

What follows are some simple pointers that should help anybody applying for pupillage with Central Chambers (and probably most other chambers). 

Pupillages are scarce and applicants are legion so it is in our interest to help you to show us your best version of what you have achieved and who you are. It is obviously in your best interests to understand what happens on the “other side” of the pupillage gateway and interview table. 

Following what is suggested below does not guarantee a pupillage anywhere, obviously. It does allow you to think in a more focussed way about every stage of your applications. Our barristers have given feedback and assistance to many would-be pupils over the years and every one of them did significantly better with their subsequent applications – almost all obtained pupillages in chambers in England and Wales in the following year. 

Take a deep breath. Read on.  Consider whether any of these pitfalls might be the reason why you are not yet the proud owner of a pupillage agreement: 
  1. Research each chambers thoroughly before applying, so you can tailor your application to the specific areas of law they practise in. Repeating quotes from the chambers’ website is not impressive when a third of all covering letters contain the same quote. Demonstrating an interest in the specific cases or work done is always better – especially if you can explain why it interests you.
  2. Always use a bespoke covering letter that explains why you are applying to that particular chambers and what makes you a good fit for them. Remember that a chambers puts in time, effort and money into its pupils. Consider why you not only want pupillage but how you see your career at those chambers. 
  3. If you have undertaken 15 mini-pupillages and not even sought one at the chambers to which you are applying, you may wish to mention why that is. Equally, if you have so many pupillages on your CV, what does that say? Are you keen or are you simply occupying as many of those valuable weeks as you can? Why? Does that say something unintentional about you as a candidate?
  4. Double-check the name of the chambers in each application to avoid embarrassing errors. Yes, we do see it. Dear Anytown Chambers… A rough estimate is that 2-6% of applicants address their application to the wrong chambers. Applications will still be assessed but it renders it almost impossible that the applicant will succeed – especially if the letter goes on to say that the applicant prides themselves in attention to detail.
  5. Nothing is a bigger giveaway that the applicant has a standard letter and changes one or two lines than those couple of lines being in a different font (or even colour) than the other text. 
  6. Avoid including photographs as they are generally not required and can be seen as unprofessional. We know that templates exist and they may be suitable for some types of application but photographs of the applicant are inconsistent with the measures chambers should all take to avoid bias etc. 
  7. Proofread your application thoroughly, including running a spell-check and grammar-checker to avoid errors that might undermine your credibility. It is a quick process and failing to use such proof-reading tools suggests an indifference to your application. 
  8. Keep your CV brief and to the point, focusing on your relevant experience, academic achievements, and extracurricular activities. Again, consider the likely order in which the reader needs the information. Grades often come first and failing to be specific will likely result in a lower score than if you put your grade.. Predicted grades are fine so long as that is indicated. That is certainly better than not including any information about how you are doing on your course. Similarly, putting the individual scores for modules but not including the overall grade is not helpful.
  9. Don’t oversell yourself, but don’t undersell yourself either. Strike a balance between confidence and humility in your application. Superlatives are often a good sign that you have not achieved the right balance but, if you have claimed to be the epitome of a particular virtue, there ought to be something of substance in your application to back it up.
  10. Make sure you understand the timeline for the application process, including deadlines, interview dates, and other key dates. Just as important is putting your application in the format requested. Whilst Mac users are pretty common these days, they are a tiny proportion of those who will read your application. Using Pages or some other proprietary document format will render your application unreadable to most would-be assessors. Using PDFs is considered the professional standard in the 21st Century because they are designed to be readable by anybody and the “P” stands for “Portable” because they are designed not to lose formatting/layout no matter who is opening them. 
  11. In an interview, you will need to be prepared to answer questions about your experience, skills, and motivation for pursuing a career in law. Remember that when you are including or excluding content from your CV. Remember too that it is common for applicants to have worked in county court advocacy services, Streetlaw/innocence projects etc. They are great for experience but they are only valuable if you can explain what you learned or achieved. Your competition is strong. 
  12. Be honest and transparent about your grades and academic achievements, but also highlight any other skills or experiences that demonstrate your potential. Contrary to popular belief, grades are not everything. You may be far from the cookie-cutter pupillage applicant. Spell out why that makes you suited to the Bar (which has a capital “B”, by the way). 
  13. It is not so well-known that many chambers will allow assessors to argue the case for an applicant who maybe did not score highly on something like QLD but who has something within their application that makes them want to explore the application further.
  14. Take the time to read and answer each question on the application form, and avoid generic or boilerplate responses. The questions are usually a very strong clue to the marking criteria used to decide whether you will be invited to interview. Read the question and answer that question.
  15. Focus on your transferable skills, such as research and communication skills, rather than just your legal knowledge. This is especially true if your degree was an LLB because chambers will assume that you have a fairly good legal knowledge for the stage you have reached. It is the other skills that will make you more interesting as a candidate so sell them. Use examples to illustrate your experience and skills, rather than simply making statements.
  16. Emphasise any work experience or internships you have had in the legal field, as this can demonstrate your commitment to pursuing a legal career but remember that you are seeking a career at the Bar and in specific fields. What did you do with your time that shows commitment to advocacy, to the Bar, and to the areas covered in the pupillage for which you are applying?
  17. A word of “Personal Statements”. They have become a fixture of CVs over the past 30 or so years but they should either be punchy and really say something about you or you should leave that to your covering letter and use the CV to deal with the supporting evidence for your assertions in the letter.
  18. Avoid using clichés. An example: you may not be aware that the term “aspiring barrister” appears in a high percentage of applications. Even the fairest assessor may feel their eyes roll slightly after reading it 30 times in one day. Consider whether what you are writing is actually so obvious that it is bloating your otherwise succinct application. 
  19. Don’t be afraid to showcase your personality and interests outside of law, as this can make you a more well-rounded candidate. Even if you are unsuccessful in one round of applications, you will stand out in the minds of the assessors or interview panel if they remember that you were “the one who…” This is especially important at the interview stage because the panel will be looking for a subject on which to engage with you. If you have an interest about which you can speak with knowledge and experience but also with passion, you are likely to be showing yourself in your strongest light as a speaker whilst making the interview panel’s job significantly easier. 
  20. Be respectful and professional in your communication with chambers’ staff, including the receptionist and administrative staff. The interviewers will likely be having lunch with the front-of-house staff. Many chambers who interview at weekends will ask their recent pupils to act as receptionist. They will certainly mention when interviewees are rude, dismissive or objectionable. They are just as likely to say who they found to be smiley, pleasant and professional. They will certainly remember your demeanour if you are their successor in pupillage and they are your closest contemporaries in chambers. 
  21. Be punctual for any interviews or assessments, and show up well-prepared.
  22. Be open to feedback and constructive criticism, and take it as an opportunity to learn and improve. Experience has shown chambers that those applicants who reapply and who have clearly taken such advice onboard will score much higher. That will often impress an interview panel because they will be considering how easy you will be to teach and mentor as a pupil.
  23. We certainly do not expect applicants to follow up with a thank-you note or email after any interviews or assessments (though some chambers still do, anecdotally). You should be aware that your conduct as an applicant progressing from CV to after the final interview may be noticed online. An example: posting on student forums/Twitter about having lodged an application a fortnight ago and not having received a detailed critique of your application to Anytown Chambers may seem rude and even sophomoric to those who are spending vast amounts of time in working through a thorough and time-consuming process. Chambers all know and care about you anxiously awaiting information but, just as you took time to prepare your application, chambers members will be doing the same but for between 40 and 80 times the number of applications. 
  24. Don’t be discouraged by rejections, as the competition for pupillage is fierce and the selection process is subjective. 
  25. Seek feedback on your application from trusted mentors or advisors, and use it to improve your future applications. A blanket request for feedback from all chambers to which you applied will not help you or those providing the feedback. First, go back and look at the application you submitted. Was there one of the obvious pitfalls mentioned above? If so, that may be the one reason you missed out. If not, did you undertake a mini-pupillage with those chambers? If not, that would be a better opportunity to receive proper feedback and maybe a little assistance with your letter and CV. Just asking for written feedback may feel like you are engaging but it is unlikely to result in the best quality outcome for you or for the barrister who is asked to reply to you.
  26. Highlight any language skills or experience working in multicultural environments, as this can be an advantage in a diverse profession like law. Please note: if you claim fluency in a language, keep in mind that one of your interview panel may engage you in that language at some stage. Don’t blag it. 
  27. Finally, remember that the selection process is long and gruelling, but it is also an opportunity to demonstrate your potential and make valuable connections. So stay positive, focused, and persistent, and keep your eyes on the prize. 

Despite this long list of pointers, Central Chambers has been very pleased to hear feedback from applicants over the years. We value that because it is easy to forget how much of a marathon pupillage applications can be and we like to know that we are getting it right. We have been delighted to be told – on many occasions – that we were the most personable interview panel in a given year. We are not trying to trick you or make you uncomfortable because, many years ago, that was more commonplace in pupillage interviews and none of us who experienced it want to pay that forward. It wasn’t appropriate then and it isn’t appropriate now. 

Despite the list of pointers above (and the lists that most chambers have provided at one point or another), those who give up their evenings and weekends to read your applications, to design exercises, and to interview you want to meet you! It is hard work and it leaves those involved exhausted but exhilarated. That is because a good number of you are the future of a profession to which we are all thoroughly committed. It would be very strange if meeting those who will be your mentees, friends, and business partners wasn’t exciting. We know that it’s difficult to consider when you are waiting for your interview and you are wondering if your hands are sweaty but the interview panel wants nothing more than to be blown away by how good you are and to feel excited about sharing chambers with you. If you find a little of that spirit and weave it into your application process, it may well give you the sparkle you hope to show.

To all of those for whom this is Pupillage Offers Eve, take a deep breath, get something to eat, watch some telly or read a book, and get some rest. Tomorrow will be a big day for you – one way or another.

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