Let me cast your mind back to the summer of 2000. Kylie Minogue was spinning around, Ronan Keating reminded us that life is a rollercoaster – though I’m not a huge fan of either and a young Ishan Kolhatkar walked to Middle Temple to be interviewed for a GDL scholarship.
During that interview I was asked what area of law I was interested in. ‘Intellectual Property’ was my answer at the time. I genuinely thought that it was a good way to combine my undergraduate degree, love of tech and being at the bar. A later mini-pupillage at an IP set with a leading practitioner in which I fell asleep would confirm that it was not.
The following year I was back for a BVC (as it then was) scholarship interview and by then had realised I wanted to be a criminal advocate. One of the panel, a criminal silk from Manchester, interviewed me on both occasions. Second time round when the question was asked and I gave my answer noting it was different to the year before, he said “I knew you’d change your mind”.
In the years since I have conducted mock interviews with my BPTC students before their Inns scholarship interviews. I’ve listened to their experiences post interview and so here are collection of thoughts on what you might want to consider pre-interview. Note, one section is reproduced from my pupillage interview post because they are applicable to any type of interview in the context of bar.
Before your interview
- Read your form. Commonly, interviewers will start with a question based on what you wrote on your form. It’s not a great look if you can’t remember what you said. Hopefully you haven’t exaggerated because if you claim a great passion for 15th century French poetry then you can be sure someone on the panel is a fan too. But you’re reading this which means you are a sensible person and won’t have done that. Back to the form then. Read it again. Remind yourself who you are.
- Read the scholarship criteria. Each Inn publishes the criteria by which their interview panels will decide if you are worth awarding a scholarship. Unsurprisingly, intellect, motivation, potential and qualities aligned to the bar pervade each set of criteria. This is what the panel will be looking for in both the content of your answers and the way they come across.
- If your Inn has provided a list of potential questions or topics, set aside an afternoon to read them and do a little research either because they contain topics relevant to the bar, current affairs or you. I’m often the worst person to ask about myself. I tend to forget things I’ve done in the past. If you have a friend who knows you well they can be a great source of reminding you of the great things you’ve accomplished.
- Regardless of whether you are provided with a list or not, it makes sense to research (i) current issues affecting the bar generally (ii) current issues in the practice area you are interested in (iii) current affairs generally. These are three easy and generic areas on which questions can be based.
- Plan your route in advance and find somewhere you can perch with a coffee beforehand. I’m not sure there’s anyone left who doesn’t know that I turned up very late to a pupillage interview because I went to a lock in the night before and forgot that not all of the gates to the Inns are open at the weekends. Don’t be like me. Sound advice generally.
- The Inns are imposing buildings and surroundings. Hopefully you’ve visited before and that will put you at ease. Thankfully the people conducting your interview want to be there and are interested in the next generation of the bar. They volunteer their time to conduct scholarship interviews and want you to succeed.
- Breathe. Slowly. In and out. You’ve done this before. It is after all just talking to people which we do every day.
- The interview is likely to be quite short and the time will fly by. They’ve got quite a few people to see and to some extent are making a snap judgement about whether you meet their criteria. Be guided by their questions as to how long an answer they are looking for. Don’t be put off if they cut you short and certainly don’t read anything into it. More often than not it’s because they have heard enough to make a judgement and have other questions they want to ask.
- It’s different to a pupillage interview. They aren’t assessing your fit for their chambers but whether you are a prospect for the wider bar. As custodians of large sums of money they want to make sure they are distributing it and the good name of a scholarship to those most worthy of both.
- You are likely to be asked why a Barrister not a Solicitor and why the particular area of law you have an interest in. The panel will be mindful of the stage you are at. Be it pre bar course or even pre law if it’s a GDL interview, the panel will be looking for knowledge appropriate to your stage of training. A basic appreciation of what practitioners do, day to day, in your chosen area will demonstrate a level of insight that will comfort them. Do you know what the court/chambers split looks like? Are you aware of the issues junior practitioners face? What does differentiate the bar and solicitors in that area?
- Evidence. Unsurprisingly, lawyers like evidence. I recently posted on twitter that one should avoid the phrase ‘I relish the prospect of self-employment’ because someone is bound to ask which of (i) two tax bills a year (ii) VAT returns (iii) lack of holiday pay, (iv) arranging your own pension (v) the clerks having a degree of control, you ‘relish’ most. That is not to say people aren’t capable of dealing any of those or that there aren’t advantages to being self-employed. The difference between a bald assertion and an answer that has evidence to support it, is huge. Perhaps you can demonstrate previous self-employment or that your skills are evidence of being the well self-administered and disciplined person that all members of the bar, are.
General interview advice
This is the bit I have reproduced from my pupillage interview post
- Consider that the interviewers are as interested in hearing how you answer, as they are the content of your answer. Do you think and speak like a lawyer. By that, I don’t mean you have to sound like Rumpole of the Bailey / Kavanagh QC / Martha Costello (delete according to age) but that your answers have a clear line of thought, are structured and have an end point. Let’s examine each in turn.
- Line of thought: If the question asks you to take a position on something, then do so. Take a moment to process what’s being asked and decide what your line is going to be. A careful, reasoned and positioned answer is different to obstinately refusing to acknowledge anything other than your view. The former can be persuasive and measured. It sounds like a submission in court. The latter can sound like a rant.
- Structure: It’s far easier to understand and follow an answer that is structured and well signposted. The extent to which you say out loud “I have three reasons to support my point” is of course, a matter of personal style but it can help the receiver understand what they are about to hear. Importantly, if you do set out your structure at the start of your answer, stick to it.
- An end point: We get so used to being cut off by someone else in the fast-paced world that we live in, that the art of finishing a point is being eroded. Does your answer have an end point, conclusion or summary, or are you hoping that you’ll be cut off before you reach the end? An answer that trails off into mumbling silence is not impressive. At the start of your answer, as you consider you line of thought and structure, just take a very brief moment to consider where you are going. Where’s the end point?
- Be honest. If you have no idea what the question is about, or you haven’t read the case that the question is based on, say so. The panel is comprised of seasoned practitioners. They will know if you are trying to bluff and bluster your way out. Neither bluff nor saying “I haven’t read that case” are going to score you top marks but at least the latter has the mark of honesty about it.
- Speak to your audience. You may be told to direct your answers to a single person throughout or just to the person who asked the question. If so, follow the instruction. If not, try and address the entire panel.
- Speak slowly. Most people speak much too quickly by default, doubly so when nervous. If it helps, consider that someone in the room doesn’t speak English as their first language. Imagine that they have an interpreter sitting next to them translating every word as you speak it. That should slow you down.
- Speak confidently. You will be asked questions, they are likely to contradict your line of argument and probe your knowledge. Concede where necessary (see line of argument above) but be confident in what you are saying. Of course, it very much helps if you have the requisite knowledge (see ‘Before your interview’ above).
- At the end of the interview you are likely to be asked if you have any questions. The panel have lots of interviews to get through so my advice is not ask a question for the sake of it. The structure of their pupillage, number of pupil supervisors and type of work is all likely to be on their website. You should have read this in advance, but if not, read it afterwards. If you really do have a question that hasn’t been answered elsewhere then use this opportunity to do so.
Like any interview or exam, once it’s finished you can no longer affect the outcome so don’t let affect you. Walk away, don’t dwell and treat yourself to something nice be it coffee or something stronger. Write down the questions you were asked if you want to keep a note for yourself or perhaps to help others in the future.
While an Inns scholarship can be a great advantage in getting pupillage, remember that there are plenty of people who have done magnificently well without one and that I got two. I suspect the panel were dizzy after listening to too much Kylie.
Photo credit: Me! With old iPhone XR that was stolen in a robbery and turned up in Algiers. All data deleted.
Ishan Kolhatkar is Director of Group Education Technologies at BPP Professional Education reporting to the Group CEO. He retains the title of Principal Lecturer in Law.
He was called to the Bar in 2002 and was tenant at 2 Hare Court where he prosecuted and defended serious crime, much of it IT related. He also appeared before the Tax Tribunal instructed by HMRC in missing trader frauds.
In 2011 he left the Bar (via a short spell at the NMC) to join the BPTC teaching team at BPP. After 5 happy years of teaching and leading several modules, including being the founding editor of the BPP Criminal Litigation manual, he moved to Education Services (Learning and Teaching).
In 2017 he became Deputy Dean of the wider Education Services function which spans L&T, Careers, Library, Widening Participation and Pro Bono. He has a particular interest in learning technology and is involved in strategic initiatives across the BPP group in this area. He remains a Principal Lecturer and teaches Advocacy and Criminal Litigation on the BPTC on the part-time weekend course. He is both an External Examiner and Standard Setter for the Bar Standards Board. Ishan was appointed to the Department for Education T-Panel (Law) in 2018. He is regularly asked to speak at conferences on legal education and technology. In relation to the latter, he is building a speciality in e-assessment.
During the autumn of 2019 he edited the Billable Hour Cookbook which is available to order here: billablehour.org/cookbook
Away from the law and teaching, he enjoys cooking and posting pictures of his food on twitter. Probably in equal measures.