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Acing that pupillage interview

updated on 30 April 2013

Hurray - you’ve managed to impress with your pupillage application. But yikes - now you’re looking down the barrel of an interview. Take a few deep breaths, and consider what you can do to help your chances. Here, experts from The University of Law offer advice on how best to prepare for pupillage interviews…

By this stage you will be aware of how intense competition for pupillage is, and so, having successfully completed the application stage (for more on which read "Applying yourself to pupillage"), to be called for interview is an achievement in itself. This article aims to provide some guidance on preparation for the interview, thus helping you make the most of this opportunity.

Selection criteria

Because 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, all chambers will look for similar qualities in their pupils, such as intellectual ability and advocacy skills.

The following is a distillation of the main selection criteria sought by chambers:

  • Intellect: This is 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. Academically, most chambers look for a 2.1 or better, unless you have other specific skills, experience or qualifications to offer.
  • Experience: Some mini-pupillages and/or work experience in a legal setting will usually be sought and you will be asked about what you gained from this experience.
  • Motivation: A high level of drive, determination and commitment towards the Bar, the chambers and the circuit (if outside London). Answers are more impressive when supported by experience of the Bar and the law. Some chambers 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.
  • Relationships: The ability to get on with solicitors, clients, colleagues and judges.
  • Temperament/personality: The ability to remain calm, objective and confident while working with complex and/or unfamiliar material, or under pressure. Chambers also look for evidence of personal values, integrity and confidence (but not arrogance).
  • 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".

In addition, outside London, chambers are likely to ask about your decision to live and work on the circuit and/or your reasons for applying to their particular chambers/location.

Chambers will be put off by factors such as:

  • Unclear choice of chambers: You may appear to have applied to the wrong chambers if your real interests lie elsewhere. How you explain your choice of mini-pupillages and what you did or did not like about them may help here.
  • Weak motivation: Evidence that you have applied to similar chambers may help, plus an awareness of the problems facing the Bar and the likely problems for an intending barrister.
  • Skills deficit: Good use of language and clarity of expression are essential and need to be demonstrated in person as well as through written applications.

General preparation

The interview procedures adopted by chambers can be very varied. However, below are a number of general pointers that may help give an insight into some of the more frequent practices adopted:

  • Pupillage interviews, especially at first round, are often short (sometimes only 15-20 minutes) and focused on specific skills such as advocacy. Our recent experiences suggest the first round interviews are likely to be just interviews, and exercises or assessments are more common in the second round.
  • Practical exercises such as a presentation, drafting or a mock advocacy session are quite common, according to feedback we receive from students. There may also be limited notice or preparation time (eg, 15 minutes before the interview).
  • Some sets will only hold one interview for pupillage candidates, but most will hold two. Several members of chambers may be present (especially when only one interview is conducted), so that a reliable consensus can be reached.

In terms of preparation, you are strongly advised to do the following:

  • Keep up to date on current affairs by reading newspapers and key periodicals such as the Times and the legal press (eg, The Lawyer, Legal Week, Legal Action, Counsel and Law Gazette).
  • Make yourself aware of recent changes in legislation and, in particular, the areas of law in which chambers specialise. You will need to refer to the specialist legal press here. Ask your librarian for a list of legal journals so you know what to read.
  • Read the Bar Code of Conduct, available from the Bar Standards Board website to get an overview of what it covers and then focus on some of the more contentious issues. For example, questions relating to ethical issues are quite common at interview.

Practical exercises

It is common for sets of chambers to give you a legal problem to present or a topic to discuss at interview. Be prepared to defend your position and argue your case; such exercises are meant to simulate what might happen in court or at a tribunal.

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.

According to student feedback, probably the most common exercise is some sort of advocacy test or presentation. Sometimes, this exercise is conducted unseen or, more often, with limited preparation (eg, 15-20 minutes before the start of the interview).

However, exercises do vary between chambers, so here are a few examples of the sort of thing you might be asked to do:

  • Discussion of a written answer to a legal problem, which you will have pre-prepared. This will usually be set prior to the interview - perhaps a day or two in advance. During the interview, you are asked between two and four specific questions relevant to the written answer, for which you may have been given time to prepare. Interviewers will look at your analytical skills, how you put together a reasoned argument and how you present yourself, rather than looking for legal perfection.
  • Presenting one side of an ethical or moral problem. For this type of assessment you may be given only 15-20 minutes' notice before the interview. Interviewers will be looking at your ability to be a persuasive advocate. Legal knowledge will not necessarily be required to answer the question.
  • Short presentation on a subject of your choice or a given topic. The presentation you give may be expected to last for between five and 10 minutes. You may be given advance warning of this (eg, 24 hours' notice) or you may not, being told only 15-20 minutes before the interview. During the interview, you may be asked follow-up questions. Again, the exercise does not require specific legal knowledge, but relies on your ability to think on your feet, to articulate an argument and to be persuasive.
  • Advocacy on behalf of a client (eg, appealing a sentence handed down in the Crown Court, presenting your pre-prepared plea in mitigation).

Some chambers hold pre-interview meetings where candidates and members of the interview panel can meet informally. The interview process will be explained and any exercises requiring preparation given out.

Chambers that operate two rounds of interviews are more likely to present you with a practical exercise at the second stage. There are also likely to be more members of chambers present at a second interview than a first as the selection decision gets closer. First interviews typically last for about 20 minutes, while second interviews may last 45 minutes or more.

Your questions

You are usually asked for your questions towards the end of the interview. Use this as another opportunity to show your enthusiasm and to find out more about the kind of work you might be involved in. You could ask about:

  • the cases you would see and the sort of contribution you might make to them;
  • attending court and involvement in client conferences;
  • if chambers cover a type of law in which you have a special interest, how likely it is that you would get involved with that work;
  • the seniority of people you will work with - will this be varied so that you see a wider variety of cases?; and
  • retention: what proportion of pupils are offered tenancy?

The above questions are only examples. You need to make your choice based on what you know about chambers, and what you do not know. Don't ask questions you should already know the answer to - for example information about retention is sometimes given in the Pupillages Handbook - but do ask questions you want an answer to.

This article was written by Kay Pearson, careers adviser, and Lawrence Horner, head of careers research and resources, both at The University of Law.