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LCN Says

Looking after your mental health during pupillage application season

updated on 05 January 2021

On 28 November 2019 The Pupillage Gateway opened for applicants to browse pupillage vacancies on 27 November 2020. From this time prospective applicants were also given access to a practice application form, enabling them to get an idea of the sort of questions that will be asked by chambers accepting applications via the gateway. The gateway allows applications to be submitted from 11:00am on 4 January 2021 and closes at 11:00am on 8 February 2021. Applications are sifted from 12 February to 6 May and formal offers will be confirmed via the gateway on 7 May at 9:00am. 

Overall, around six months of your life will be taken up by gateway applications, interviews, rejections and offers. It is going to be a tough experience and those who are applying for the first time (and even those going at it for another year) could benefit from advice on how to protect and manage their mental health during this difficult period of their career.

Start your applications early

A trainee at a Magic Circle firm told me how important it is to send in your applications early. Not only does this put a better impression of you in the minds of the people you are applying to (because it shows that you are prompt), but it also helps to protect your mental health. Once submitted, you can finally put the applications out of your mind and rest knowing that they have been submitted and all you have to do is wait. 

While for the most part gateway applications will be read and received at the same time, this is nonetheless sage advice for prospective pupil barristers. The gateway offers you many opportunities to save, resume and review your applications before sending. While it is important to work on your applications until they are absolutely perfect, leaving them until the last minute could be extremely damaging for your stress levels and your ability to cope with the rest of the things that you've got going on in life. 

For many people pupillage applications come at the same time as the BPTC or the GDL, two extremely difficult courses that are considerably mentally demanding. This mental demand can also be keenly felt if you are working a full-time job while applying for pupillage. It can be hard to dedicate mental time to applications when you already dedicating yourself to a 9-5 and any other commitments that fall around it. 

By aiming to get your applications in well before the deadline and starting your preparation for these applications well before the gateway opens, you can reduce the mental stress that you are under when it comes to the business of submitting your applications. It is also worth noting that on previous occasions, the Pupillage Gateway has been known to crash and cause errors to be registered on applications that are submitted just before the deadline. Heed that warning and ensure that your applications are safely submitted well before 8 February.

Stay grounded in reality

Prospective pupils are expected to have a strong grasp of current affairs and legal news, especially those stories which pertain to chambers’ primary practice areas. It can be tempting as a prospective pupil to spend most of your time reading chambers’ descriptions of their practice areas and carefully crafting responses that show just how passionate you are about those areas yourself. However, if you are called to interview and when asked about current affairs you're completely stumped, then you have under-allocated time to staying on top of what is going on in the legal, economic and political world. 

Do your best to avoid falling into an utter panic about what you know by regularly staying up to date. Most reputable newspapers provide a daily digest that you receive in your inbox every morning. The Brief and Inner Temple’s Daily Digest of legal news are essential daily reading. Focus on building your knowledge over time. Develop informed, critical opinions on the topics of the day over a sustained period of time as you work on your applications and wait for responses. Make this a habit that you continue beyond application season. By taking this approach you can seriously reduce your stress levels in the face of questions seeking your perspective on current affairs. This is not only useful for the sake of interviews; many chambers ask applicants to craft responses to topical questions. Brexit, youth violence and consumer credit have all been topics that appeared in 2020 pupillage applications. 

Staying grounded in reality goes beyond staying abreast of the latest news. It also involves remembering that there is life (and hope) outside the Bar. Keeping this in your mind during the application process can make the whole exercise appear much less a matter of life and death as well as controlling any damaging thoughts you may have about being unsuccessful. 

Applying for pupillage requires you to immerse yourself in a world that most of your friends and family do not understand and are not connected to in any way. Unless you are lucky enough to have barristers within your close circle, friends and family are unlikely to understand what you are going through and be able to talk to you about it.

However, it's precisely for that reason that these people are excellent to spend time around as you go through the process of writing, submitting and waiting on your applications. People who exist outside of the Bar bubble can give you a reality check when you need one and uplift you when the pressure or rejections threaten to negatively affect your self-esteem. 

Remember that you are not the first (or last) to apply 

It can be easy to over-personalise the pupillage process. After all, we are offering ourselves up to chambers hoping that they deem us worthy of an interview, pupillage and tenancy. The danger with over-personalising the process is that you can take each rejection or piece of feedback as a personal attack. Thoughts such as “they don’t want me” and “I am not good enough for them” can wreak havoc on the mind of the prospective pupil. 

Take the pressure off yourself by regularly reminding yourself that you are not the first or last to apply, get stressed, get rejected, feel exhausted, mess up an interview or feel sad about whether you’ll get a pupillage. Take the time to talk to your peers (see my post on getting by on the BPTC with a little help from your friends) and share stories and feelings about the process. Consult your mentors who have successfully been through the process about what they felt. 

The Bar as an institution does not have a personal vendetta against you and neither does any particular chambers. Certainly there are big challenges for applicants from particular minority backgrounds and these affect how some chambers view and receive these applicants. Nonetheless, the pupillage process is quite impersonal in that applicants from all walks of life can find themselves swiftly rejected or be successful and go all the way. You are a special and smart person and this does not change because you weren’t successful with a particular chambers. 

Be uncompromising about self-care

‘Self-care’ is a widely used term and generally refers to actions or activities that are solely directed towards taking care of yourself. This can be going to the gym, eating well, sleeping for a good amount of hours or staying in touch with family and friends. No matter what your version of self-care is, be uncompromising about making time to take care of yourself. Do not cause yourself serious mental or physical harm on account of applying for pupillage. This is one small step in your career. After pupillage comes the highs and lows of tenancy. Self-sacrifice is necessary in this career but this does not need to amount to self-harm. You need to reach tenancy in one piece. Learn to prioritise taking care of yourself now and set yourself in good stead for the future. 

Good luck! 

As always, I wish you the best of luck with your journey to gain pupillage. It is a tough process but taking proactive steps to protect and manage your mental health will do you a world of good. 

Blessing Mukosha Park is a future barrister and digital entrepreneur.