It’s that time of year again and a few friends have asked me for advice on how to nail, ace or merely survive their pupillage interviews. Here are my top 5 quick ‘n’ dirty tips.
Bear in mind that every chambers (and every interview panel) has its nuances, but some general observations are possible.
1. Give yourself a pat on the back
You’ve got an interview. Many others don’t.
So well done you.
You’ve survived a brutal sift of paper applications and shown to a bunch of strangers that you have the potential to practise as a barrister. You should feel great about that. So reward yourself on what has probably been a long, hard and expensive slog.
For those without any interviews (or without desirable ones, or who have already had interviews and been rejected), it’s worth reflecting on what you can learn from the rejections and how you can sharpen your applications or interview to do better next time. Make some notes as you go along or you’ll probably forget by this time next year.
2. Stay cool, cucumber
Come the day, you’re going to be extremely nervous, crimped by your own heavy expectations and the expectations of others around you. The panel will know that.
Breathe. Smile. Do whatever it is that you do to compose yourself beforehand. Yoga, pilates, listening to gangster rap, whatever it is – do it.
Try to stay cool. The ability to stay calm when your case collapses or your client’s evidence swerves into the nearest ditch is key for all barristers.
I find I can get myself into that zone by pretending that none of it really matters. This helps me to feel that I can handle the pressure and be myself in the moment. But you will have your own way of getting and staying there.
3. Swot up (a bit)
If you haven’t read a law-related article or book recently, er… now might be a good time to do so.
There’s no shortage of hot legal topics at the moment, from the Breferendum to repeal of the Human Rights Act to the Panama Papers disclosures. There may be perennial favourites like assisted suicide or the UK’s unwritten constitution.
You could be asked about anything so it’s notoriously difficult to prepare. Try to consider topics from slightly less obvious angles (for example, what do you think of the legal implications of remaining in the EU?) or by starting from the basic principles that may apply across different legal debates.
But don’t overdo it. Pupillage interviews are NOT about assessing your knowledge of the law. So prepare thoroughly but don’t approach the interview like your chance to give a law lecture. The people on the panel may have sat through and given plenty of those.
I used to find it confusing. Why do lawyers say that they aren’t particularly interested in assessing a candidates’ knowledge of the law when you’ve spent all these years studying it? Surely that can’t be right?
But it is. You can be a legal genius but alienate your clients, lose business and fail as a barrister. The vast majority of legal cases turn on facts, not sophisticated legal points. Soft skills are in huge demand in this profession. As is endurance and mettle when things get tough.
So wear your learning lightly. Don’t swish it around like some silly 17th century gown.
Also, don’t neglect ethics. Testing your response to an ethical dilemma is often a really interesting way of assessing a whole range of personal and professional skills. And ethical issues can arise at any point when you start practising.
4. Answer the question
Barristers are professional bullshit detectors.
It’s best not to give evasive answers in their company.
Difficult questions there will be. But you knew that, so listen to them very carefully and answer them.
Say no more than is necessary.
Don’t use big words.
Just get to the point.
5. Think of the panel
Put yourself in their shoes.
They’re giving up painfully valuable time, probably on a weekend, to interview you (and a number of others). It’s a time-consuming and tiring process for all concerned.
Try to break (or at least thaw) the ice and put them at ease. Be open to spontaneity and standing out from the crowd. Try to enjoy the process. Comment on the human side of things, if relevant. Be polite and helpful to those you meet.
All the accumulated wisdom of interview techniques apply.
Jokes are high-risk. But by all means laugh, if you feel up to it and the time is right. Because you’re all human. (Just wait until the interview is over if you need a cry).
Last, but far from least, barristers are self-employed individuals working within a business. The aims of that business, however cuddly and liberal it may seem from the outside, include earning income from professional work.
Most chambers need “doers” ready to hustle and fight cases, not persons with lots of unfulfilled needs and wants.
Orient your answers to demonstrating the business case for taking you on as a pupil. Perhaps you have relevant professional experience, contacts or skills that could be valuable to a barrister or to chambers. If so, put that across in a realistic manner.
Ultimately, most panels will be looking for pupils that they can work with effectively and who are likely to enhance chambers and help them to thrive as a business. Against those criteria, present your merits and address your shortcomings.
* Pupillage is barrister-speak for 1 year of professional training we have to complete. It’s usually split into two parts: the first is non-practising and consists of shadowing other barristers and practising paperwork. The second part is when you can do your own work under supervision. So-called ‘pupils’ can be paid anything from a pitiful £12,000 for the year to over £70,000, reflecting the range of inequality in the legal sector.