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A guide to online pupillage interviews

updated on 12 May 2020

The pupillage application process continues despite the covid-19 crisis and hundreds of aspiring barristers are preparing for online interviews this month. Here is some key advice on how to prepare for the final stage of pupillage selection.

Competition for pupillage is tough, as everyone who passes the application stage knows (see Applying yourself to pupillage for more), so being invited to an interview is an achievement in itself. Now you need to prepare.

Selection criteria

Because most barristers are self-employed, chambers act more as a collection of individuals than a corporate entity. As a result, chambers can be highly individualistic. However, there are certain qualities which chambers tend to look for in prospective pupils.

  • Intellect: the ability to grasp complex information and identify key issues quickly and effectively. It is also about being able to balance intellectual competence with common sense and pragmatism.
  • Motivation: a high level of drive, determination and commitment toward the Bar, the chambers and the circuit (if outside London). Answers are more impressive when supported by experience of the Bar and the law. Chambers also look for commitment to the sector in which they practise (eg, clear evidence of an interest in criminal law).
  • Advocacy and presentation skills: the ability to present clear, concise and logical arguments in a lucid and self-assured way. Your performance at interview plus any presentation or advocacy exercise will be used to assess this.
  • Interpersonal skills: the ability to get on with solicitors, lay clients, colleagues and judges.
  • Temperament/personality: the ability to remain calm, objective and confident while working under pressure with complex or unfamiliar material. Chambers also look for evidence of certain personal values such as integrity and self-assurance.
  • Impact: the way in which you express and handle yourself during interview. Aspects of this include how articulate, confident and perceptive you are. One set referred to this as "sparkle".

Chambers will be looking for evidence of these qualities throughout the interview both in what you say and in the way you say it. This applies equally whether you are interviewing face to face, or as this year, online.

What to expect

The interview procedures adopted by chambers can be very varied. However, in most cases the selection process will include a practical exercise and an interview (usually two).

  • Practical exercises based around legal problems are quite common, according to feedback we receive from students. There may also be limited notice or preparation time (eg, you may be sent the task 20 minutes to an hour before the interview itself).
  • Some sets will only hold one interview for pupillage candidates, but most will hold two. One round of interviews, often the first, may be short and focused on a specific skill such as advocacy. Be prepared, particularly during the second round, for a panel of four or five interviewers, perhaps even more. This can seem equally daunting whether you are facing the interview panel across a desk, or they are all peering out at you from your screen. But the same basic social rules apply in both circumstances – make ‘eye contact’ by looking into your webcam when answering questions and take note of everyone’s names so that you can speak to them individually throughout the different stages of the interview.

How to prepare for interview

To prepare for your interview, you are strongly advised to do the following:

  • Keep up to date with current affairs. Read a ‘quality’ news website regularly.                 
  • Keep up to date with the legal news and changes affecting the areas in which you intend to specialise. Read publications and websites such as The LawyerLegal WeekLegal Action and Counsel. Make use of emailed news updates, twitter and blogs from legal commentators.          
  • You need to be aware of recent changes in legislation affecting the areas of law in which chambers specialise. You should also be aware of the changes affecting the regulation of the profession so, in addition to the news websites, keep up to date with publications by the Bar Standards Board.                                 
  • Read the Bar Code of Conduct, in the BSB Handbook, available from the Bar Standards Board website to get an overview of what is expected of barristers in practice, and look at some of the more contentious issues. Questions relating to ethical issues are quite common at interview.                                              
  • Read and reread your application form. You will be expected to know it off by heart and you need to be prepared to answer questions about anything you have included. Chambers will expect you to be able to provide details and to develop points; they will be put off by vague and unclear answers.                       
  • Watch the video Pupillage Interviews Uncovered, in which real students are quizzed by two experienced pupil recruiters and their performances analysed.

Practical exercises

It is common for sets of chambers to give you a legal problem to present or a topic to discuss at interview.

While you are speaking you may be interrupted and challenged on one or more points in your argument. This is to see how you cope under pressure. Try to react positively and do not be afraid to stick to your point. These exercises are meant to simulate what might happen in court or at a tribunal. According to student feedback, the most common exercise is an advocacy test of some description, or a presentation. See the video Pupillage Interviews Uncovered II.

Your questions

At the end of the interview, you may be asked if you have any questions. Use this as another opportunity to show your enthusiasm and to find out about the kind of work you might be involved in. However, don’t ask questions you should know the answer to; chambers will often provide a great deal of information about pupillage on their website. Instead, try to ask engaging questions which elicit information that is not readily available but which is important to you.

This article was written by Lawrence Horner, head of employability services at The University of Law.