(This post was written in 2016. It was amended in January 2019 to include a link to the current gateway timetable)
Why do you want to be a Barrister? A question that I stared at on an application form back in 2001. Well, I like the sound of my own voice, the idea that someone would pay me to talk seemed rather appealing and I enjoyed persuading others to accept my view. That didn’t however, make for the best answer on a pupillage application form. Though after much drafting and re-drafting, the message was still there somewhere. Drafting pupillage application forms is hard work.
The Pupillage Gateway opens in early January and closes in early February (see https://www.pupillagegateway.com/applicant-home/timetable/)
opens today (Monday 4th April) at 11am and closes on 4th May. With the majority of chambers offering pupillage via the gateway and some operating outside of the gateway system but to the same timetable, I thought I’d post my top tips for completing pupillage application forms.
What follow are my views on pupillage application forms. I know that’s self-evident but I make the point for this reason: if you seek advice from people on your form, keep in mind that useful as it may be, unless it falls into the general points that I set out immediately below, it is just the view of one person. Pupillage application forms are read by many members of the Bar, each with their own views, likes and dislikes. There will come a point at which you will have to make a bold decision to include or exclude material. Some readers will like or dislike what you have chosen to do and you can’t please all of the people, all of the time. Seek advice and do so early, remembering in particular that if you are asking someone who might be asked to look at lots of draft forms, the earlier you send it to them, the more feedback you are likely to receive.
Proof read your form for spelling and grammar.
At the end of the day, when all said and done, to be honest, the reality is, that clichés are best avoided, because it is what it is.
‘Sense check’ your form to ensure that what you’ve written makes sense.
‘Reality check’ your form to make sure you aren’t overselling or underselling your knowledge and experience.
If several sets of chambers ask the same question (eg: why do you want pupillage in our chambers) then writing a generic paragraph then using find and replace to only change the name of chambers is unlikely to be the route to success.
- Create a long list using multiple sources
Start by creating an initial long list of chambers using not just the gateway search engine, but other sources (such as Chambers and Partners, the Legal 500, attending the Pupillage Fair) and what you’ve learnt on mini-pupillages. Keep this list as broad as possible.
- Do chambers do the work that I want to do?
Look at the websites of the chambers that you are interested in and look carefully at the work that they do. Then look at the 5-10 most recent tenants and their work profiles. Chambers might specialise in two areas, but the split might be that junior tenants are heavily involved in one area rather than another. If you obtain pupillage and tenancy there, is that what you want to do? Are you willing to spend 5 years building up a profile in one area to get to another?
- Do chambers take on people who fit my profile?
I’m not talking about or suggesting a bias here, but an honest appraisal of your chances of getting pupillage. All chambers are looking for intelligent, able, affable and hard-working pupils. The exact ‘blend’ however, depends from set to set. Take a look at the last 5 tenants. Do they all have a Masters degree? Have they all got prior experience at an NGO or charity? If so, then do you have what they are looking for? If not, your chance of obtaining pupillage at that set is probably quite poor. With the applicant to pupillage ratio as it is, chambers can afford to be picky. Don’t waste an application at a set that is highly unlikely to take you.
- Do chambers publish their selection criteria?
Many chambers publish their selection criteria on their website. Read it carefully. It will give you an insight into what they look for in a pupil and can help craft your application form to highlight those matters that they give greater weight to.
- Make chambers want to meet you in person
Reading pupillage application forms is a long, thankless and arduous process. Chambers will likely be able to skim off those who fall far short of their criteria and those who far exceed what they are looking for, rejecting and inviting to interview respectively. What about the large pile in the middle? How do they differentiate between lots of good students with the requisite experience, academic credentials and interests? Make your form interesting to read. Make chambers want to meet you and find out more about your voluntary work or dissertation.
- It must be a piece of persuasive advocacy with evidence to support what you say
Bald statements of fact are unlikely to persuade. If you are an accomplished public speaker then show chambers the evidence to support your proposition. If you have an interest in planning law (each to their own) then is it just you telling chambers that or can you point to work experience, a Masters or both to demonstrate that interest?
- Don’t hog the middle lane
Your application needs to be crafted towards the areas of practice that you want to obtain pupillage in. Those areas can’t be disparate. They need to meet the recognised areas that chambers practice in. Want to be a Criminal and Intellectual Property Barrister? I think you’ll struggle to find anywhere that does a sufficient quantity of both and/or chambers that think you aren’t hedging your bets by scatter gunning your application around the Bar.
Once you’ve found your areas of practice, make sure your application screams the right noise. If you want to be at the Criminal Bar then everything needs to point at your proven ability as an advocate and the potential that you have to improve in pupillage onwards. Want to be at the Commercial/Chancery Bar? Then show them that you have the top class mind that they seek.
- Read your answers to someone and see what impact they make
Are they interested in your answer? Does it beg questions that you ought to answer? Does it sound naïve, trite or dull? Take this useful feedback and re-draft your answer. This is particularly important for the ‘big 5′ questions:
- Why do you wish to become a Barrister?
- What areas of practice are you interested in and why?
- Give reasons for your choice of chambers.
- Why do you believe you will make a good barrister?
- Please identify any experiences / skills gained that you believe may help you in your career.
These are tough to answer within the word limit imposed. You must ensure that your answer is persuasive, littered with evidence to support what you say and interesting.
A common failing in my view is to just state what you saw on a mini-pupillage. It doesn’t tell the reader much save that sometimes Barristers are in court and sometimes they are in chambers. A mini-pupillage is a chance to learn so treat it as such. In your application form set out what you learnt from each experience and how that has informed and improved your application for pupillage.
- Work experience outside the world of law
Chambers doesn’t need to hear about every job that you have had since the age of 16. Instead, they are likely to be interested in your work (paid or voluntary) that shows the skills required of a member of the Bar.
- Accept that you will need to re-draft your form several times
The first version is unlikely to be the one you want to submit. Work on one question at a time and re-draft it until you are happy with what it says.
- Be concise.
Someone has to read it. Make it a short pleasure and not a long chore.
Best of luck with your applications. My next blog post will be on pupillage interviews.
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.