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Advice for pupillage applications

updated on 24 November 2022

Reading time: eight minutes

Every aspiring barrister knows about the holy grail that is pupillage. It’s a process unlike any other profession that requires persistence, patience and a lot of caffeine!

For all the new joiners, pupillage is the final steppingstone to becoming a barrister. It’s a 12-to-24-month training programme designed to put all the skills you learned from your law degree/Graduate Diploma in Law to the Bar Practice Course in action. Once you’re called to the Bar by your Inn of Court you then have five years to obtain pupillage. Although this sounds like a long time, the application process is highly competitive and you’ll be thankful for the time allowed once you begin.

I’ve recently won this battle and have started my pupillage at Browne Jacobson LLP after four years of applications. This article aims to shed light on the pupillage process and offer encouragement to those of you who are on the same path and hope to also begin pupillage soon!

Application process

Pupillage vacancies

The first step to obtaining pupillage is writing many, many applications. The Pupillage Gateway is a site managed by the Bar Council used by many chambers and firms to promote their vacancies. Once you’ve signed up you can star and/or favourite the organisations you’re interested in and may submit up to 20 applications.

While some organisations advertise on the Pupillage Gateway, they may hold their application on their own website or portal, which won’t count towards one of your 20 applications. I found the easiest way to keep track of all my applications was to make a list of all the chambers and firms I was applying to under the headings ‘gateway’ and ‘off-gateway’.

The Pupillage Gateway is accessible all year-round – this year, vacancies will start to be posted on 24 November. Once vacancies are published you’ll be able to view the application questions being asked by each organisation and begin preparing your answers in the boxes provided.

This year, the window for submitting applications is between 4 January 2023 and 8 February 2023. Remember that organisations advertising ‘off-gateway’ may have different deadlines, which can sometimes run into the summer months so keep your eye on the gateway for details of these. I’d suggest having email notifications on from Pupillage Gateway to ensure you’re alerted of any vacancies appearing in areas of your interest.

Chambers and in-house

Before you begin writing your applications my first tip would be to sit and ask yourself what area(s) of law you’re interested in. With hindsight, I can see that many of my first applications were unsuccessful because I gave no thought to the area of law and was just so eager to start pupillage. This is an area I know I’m not alone in and unless you know the area of law you want to work in, it can be difficult to find the right practice area for you.

To help you identify an area of interest, I suggest doing as many different mini-pupillages as you can in a variety of areas. Studying an area is completely different to practising it, so I’d recommend mixed-set chambers (ie, chambers that house barristers who specialise in multiple areas) as these will offer the opportunity to experience several areas.

If you’re already aware of the area(s) of law that interest you, the next step is choosing the Authorised Education and Training Organisations (AETOs) (ie, the organisations delivering the vocational component of Bar training) best for you. I highly recommend attending the Pupillage Fair which takes place in October. For those that missed it this year, some AETOs host open days where aspiring barristers can speak to practising barristers regarding their day-to-day work. These opportunities are advertised on the AETO’s websites, usually on their pupillage page.

When making your decision regarding which AETOs to apply to, remember there are also in-house opportunities. Prior to accepting my job as an assistant advocate at Browne Jacobson, I was unaware that some firms have in-house barristers and offer pupillage vacancies.

Little to no attention is drawn to in-house counsel, which is great for you as it means there’s a lot less competition! In 2021, 3,301 individuals applied for only 246 pupillage spots so the competition for traditional pupillages is fierce. Therefore, reducing your competition by considering these in-house options is a great move and you’ll gain invaluable experience working closely with instructing solicitors which you can use should you wish to move to self-employment in the future.

Application content

Now you know which area(s) of law you’re interested in and where you want to apply it’s time to begin writing your applications. Several AETOs use similar/identical questions but each AETO is different, so I suggest noting down on your list what area(s) each one specialises in to enable you to tailor your answers accordingly.

The only answer I assume would be the same or very similar for each application is why you want to be a barrister. I’ve discovered that with each round, despite facing repeated rejection, the answer to this question became much clearer.

Write several drafts and ask as many of your friends, family and mentors to review your answers. If you work full-time (which I did for my past two application rounds), I suggest taking at least one week off in January to perfect your answers as working and writing pupillage applications is an extremely difficult task.

Within your answers showcase yourself and your skill set because this is the first impression an AETO will form of you. Remember to mention everything you’ve accomplished so far including any time volunteering, waiting tables or in retail; each non-legal job will have provided you with essential skills you can apply to the Bar. If you (like me) worked throughout your education mention this in your applications, it demonstrates resilience, determination and the ability to overcome hurdles.

My next tip is to read the question, read it again and then ask someone else what they think the question is asking. It sounds simple, however sometimes as lawyers we can over-analyse things – simply answering the question is all the AETO wants you to do.

Interviews

I hope that all readers secure an interview. I know the wait is awful and nerve wracking, and each rejection (sometimes by silence) is heartbreaking. When you do get an interview, take a breath and try to get out any nervous energy before you head into the interview room. I look back at previous interviews and can now see that I’d not performed well simply because I was too nervous and couldn’t concentrate on their questions.

Each AETO will interview differently, for example some interviewers will have read your written application, while others won’t have but I’ve found they let you know at the start whether they have. 

I’d recommend getting a mentor if you don’t have one already and ask them to go through interview questions with you. Some AETOs host talks in the lead-up to pupillage giving interview tips, so be on the lookout!

Tips I wish I’d known sooner

Don’t go on the forums where everyone talks about pupillage all the time. You know the forum I’m talking about, don’t do it to yourself! This was the first year I didn’t use the forum and it did wonders. I’m not saying that by avoiding the forums you’ll be successful this year but mentally you’ll feel a lot better.

Secondly, allow the rejection to push you forwards. You shouldn’t be submitting the same answers each year. You should have something new to add each time and with hindsight look back at your previous years’ application and see where you can approve.

Third, take a break! I know it’s the last thing you thought I’d be recommending, but it’s so important to take a break. I stayed in education my whole life with five years in higher education before progressing onto a full-time job, and it’s exhausting! Once I accepted my pupillage offer, I immediately announced I was taking a month off. You have your whole life to work, so go out, have fun and see the world – pupillage isn’t going anywhere!

Finally, network, network, network! If (like me) you don’t have any lawyers in your family, you’ll have to start building your network from scratch. When you go to talks, including qualifying sessions, stay in touch with people. Even if you’re just checking in with individuals every couple of months it’s worth doing as you never know what doors they could open for you in the future.

I hope this short article has shed some light on the pupillage process and I wish the reader all the best in getting the holy grail this time around!

Sherelle Appleby (she/her) is a pupil barrister at Browne Jacobson LLP. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.